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Mafia Manipulation: An Analysis of Organized Crime during COVID-19

John S. Tarr

University of New Haven 

Organized crime is a global, structured, and highly centralized enterprise that engages in criminal activities for the purpose of monetary gain and increasing social status through coercion and, often violent, means (Sung, 2004). Otherwise referred to as the mafia or mob, these groups have become popularized and romanticized through modern media, which has all but desensitized population perceptions surrounding the actual illicit operations in which these groups participate (Sung, 2004, pp. 113-114). The term “predatory” is appropriate to describe how organized crime groups (OCGs) infiltrate local economies for the purpose of boosting their profits and ultimately spreading fear throughout communities. The escalation in public fear allows OCGs the opportunity offer security, which further escalates organizational influence (Sung, 2004; Devine et al., 2020).

In failed or weakened states, OCGs prey upon the local populace due to the lack of government influence, by providing monetary relief to businesses or by assisting the government in a quasi-law enforcement role (Aziani et al, 2020; 2021). Nevertheless, the goal of OCGs is to gain control, with no regard for how their actions may affect the community at large. The economic opportunities that arise create breeding grounds for these groups, due to their ability to extort, shakedown, and intimidate communities that are already financially crippled. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has allowed OCGs to strengthen their power and abilities worldwide (Gomez, 2020; Aziani et al., 2021).Weakened governments and communities that are burdened by financial and structural instability due to the pandemic are prime targets for economic infiltration.

The rapid adjustments made by OCGs in times of crisis undermine the legitimacy of the government. With this knowledge, it is imperative that governments establish relationships within the community and territories to suppress OCG infiltration. This paper will seek to provide insight into the resurgence of OCGs worldwide in lieu of the COVID-19 pandemic by providing a literature review of mafia tendencies in failed or weakened states. Additionally, through an analysis of crime data in these regions, this paper will examine levels of crime and the impact that mafia security provisions have on the overall levels of economic-driven and violent crimes. The topic at hand is exceptionally important to government’s response to organized crime. OCGs are a deeply rooted network that is too versatile to battle from a crime control standpoint. The focus of policy needs to shift away from the criminal groups and towards the population they are affecting to build social cohesion and trust.


Literature Review

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented more possibilities and opportunities for OCGs to thrive and profit from inadequacies at the governmental level. The pandemic has also revealed that the population reacts according to two emotional aspects: a feeling of protection and a feeling of being cared-for (Gomez, 2020). The lack of governmental support and response has allowed OCGs the opportunity to become the protective piece that the population needs in these times of uncertainty. These concerns generally are displayed in times of unique shock- such as terrorist attacks or economic recessions. Additionally, these rare times tend to reveal the true connections between society and governmental bodies (Devine et al., 2020).

The following research also provides insight into the operational prowess of OCGs. The evaluations of the territories effected by OCGs and their manipulative actions provide evidence of governmental structures and their inability to provide adequate services during times of crisis. OCGs benefit tremendously from insufficient law enforcement, failing governments, and poverty-stricken communities (Aziani et al., 2021). During COVID-19, the defiance of government mandates by OCGs led these groups to develop law enforcement strategies, in order to combat volume crime and protect their economic-driven motives (Aziani et al., 2020).

The protection motivation theory develop by Ronald Rogers (1975) holds that groups will protect themselves based on threat and coping evaluations (Burress et al., 2020). In other words, the perceived threat of COVID-19 theoretically led OCGs to develop coping mechanisms in order to protect their business and profits. The reduction in volume crimes on businesses (i.e., shop theft and robbery) was due to the “protection fees” paid by business owners, which provides evidence into the ability of OCGs to control volume crimes. As previously mentioned, the general goal is to increase social consensus and instill the code of honor value of silence (omerta) (Aziani et al., 2020).

In addition, Cohen & Felson (1979) developed routine activities theory, which explains that criminal events occur due to the convergence of three things: 1) a suitable target, 2) a motivated offender, and 3) the lack of a capable guardian. Cohen and Felson held the belief that increases in crime were not a result of disadvantage or strain, but rather, an increase in opportunities (Hodgkinson & Andresen, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has left both business and individuals financially unstable, which gives OCGs the opportunity to fill that void. The lack of guardianship by the government is allowing the populace to become suitable targets for the motivated OCGs to thrive and benefit financially.

According to FBI statistics, organized crime generates $30 billion per year through illicit activities such as money laundering, fraud, and extortion (FBI, 2021). OCG’s ability to generate such a substantial amount of profit stems from their capacity to devise effective counter-strategies when confronted with new challenges. More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a wave of challenges, due to the enactment of “stay-at-home” orders and social distancing. As previously mentioned, OCGs were able to adapt and ultimately adopt a governance-type role due to the additional strains experienced by local governments with the pandemic (Aziani et al., 2021).


Contemporary Research

Through a review of international media sources and published articles between January 2020 and August 2020, Aziani et al. (2021) were able to identify 29 specific instances spanning five continents (North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia) of OCGs exploitations during the first eight months of the COVID-19 pandemic. The most frequent governance strategy employed by OCGs was economic relief in the form of sustenance, sanitary products, and cash handouts. For example, large-scale organizations, such as the Yakuza in Japan and the families of the infamous La Cosa Nostra in Italy, distributed food, as well as masks and hand sanitizer throughout their respective communities (pp. 10-11).

The economic relief provides only a minute glimpse into the full range of OCGs operations during the pandemic. The evidence provided by the specific sources indicates that the pandemic provided many opportunities for these groups to infiltrate the economy (Aziani et al, 2021). In March 2020, Interpol coordinated a global operation that targeted the online sale of illicit medicine and medical equipment sold by criminal groups responding to the increase in demand for these products (Interpol, 2020). In addition, the rampant corruption that resulted in the misappropriation of funds intended for important medical needs was laundered through extensive networks bound for members within the criminal enterprises. These results provide numerous examples of the vast resources that are prone to manipulation. Due to substantial declines in particular sectors, such as tourism, housing, and transportation, OCGs successfully pivoted to other booming sectors of the economy including, waste management, funeral services, and health care (p. 13).

The governance-type role OCGs have employed extended into quasi-law enforcement operations over the territories in which they preside. Historically, the enforcement efforts by these groups are meant to fill the voids of state and federal governments. Studies of various groups yield extensive insight into territorial control in order to combat “volume” crimes (Aziani et al., 2020). For example, during the first months of the pandemic, Mexican government officials were continuously producing updated narratives on the effects of the pandemic only to counter their previous claims and assume new narratives. The fragility of the Mexican government, along with a rampant history of corruption, spreads doubt among the citizenry about how the government plans to cope with the pandemic. This opens a massive window of opportunity for drug cartels to assume the role of the government, by enforcing strict curfews along with the implementation of roadblocks to combat the spreading of the virus (Sandberg & Fondevila, 2020).

In terms of crime control and acting as a means of crime enforcement, OCGs offer protection to local businesses and citizenry through a means of extortion. Aziani et al. (2020) conducted a study in 106 provinces throughout Italy to determine the extent of enforcement provided by these groups along with the volume crimes impacted by said enforcement measures. The volume crimes in the study were divided into three categories: 1) economic-driven crimes targeting business (i.e. shop lifting), 2) economic-driven crimes targeting persons and families (i.e. residential burglary), and 3) expressive violent volume crimes (i.e. assault and battery).

The central hypothesis holds that OCGs have a significant impact on volume crimes because they are able to shape the criminal context of within their established roots. Based on data and results, the prevalence of lower level economic crimes on businesses and persons is significantly lower in mafia-occupied territories. This would indicate that the security offered by these groups via a “protection fee” supports the aforementioned hypothesis. Although the data represented could indicate that OCGs are acting in the best interest of the people, a broader explanation would uncover the overall goal of ensuring full cooperation from citizens. In addition to the protection fees, OCGs are requiring “silence and support” from the community in return for their protection (Aziani et al., 2020). A solid backing from communities would increase difficulty for the legitimate law enforcement entities to infiltrate their operations.

As previously mentioned, the “stay-at-home” orders enacted by government officials were carried out by OCGs on their own accord. However, those same orders did not apply to those groups. For instance, Mexico City followed suit with orders similar to the global mandates in lieu of the pandemic. In spite of those orders, drug cartels continued to operate, but the question remained, to what extent? Balmori de la Miyar et al. (2021) analyzed administrative data from the Mexico City’s Attorney General’s office in order to establish the effects the pandemic mandates had on conventional crimes (domestic violence, burglary, robbery, vehicle theft, and assault & battery) compared to offenses related to organized crime (homicides, kidnapping, and extortion).

The results indicated that in the case of conventional crimes, the “stay-at-home” mandates did have an impact on criminal behavior. A few factors may have influenced a reduction in these crimes such as, a fear of the contagion, lower opportunities to commit crimes, and the increased presence of police (i.e. the National Guard). Domestic violence increased slightly in the first months of the pandemic, and Balmori de la Miyar et al. (2021) indicate that this was in part due to the criminal being housed with the victims, therefore, being more circumstantial in nature. For organized crime, results indicated no effects on kidnapping and homicides, with week-to-week effects on extortion.

According to the authors, drug cartels, such as the Jalisco New Generation cartel, carried out large-scale assassinations including Mexico City’s police chief and a judge along with his wife. This provides evidence of continued OCG influence over Mexico regardless of COVID-19 mandates. The “business-as-usual” mindset also led to an increase in youth recruitment due to high unemployment and poverty rates (Balmori et al., 2021). Historically, drug cartels have successfully operated in Mexico due to the weak governments and law enforcement (Lindo & Padilla-Romo, 2015). Due to Mexico’s government infrastructure being weakened further by the pandemic, cartels flourished and gained additional control over the territory.

Based on this weakness, Balmori et al. (2021) discovered additional evidence that supported Aziani and colleague’s (2020) findings on OCG’s influence on their respective communities through COVID-19 assistance. Similar to the Yakuza in Japan and Sicilian Mafia in Italy, drug cartels continued to infiltrate the community and gain support through food and cash handouts. There is little evidence to suggest whether these efforts are successful in gaining support from the local populace, but it does provide evidence of the strategies employed to manipulate and act on people’s vulnerabilities.


Discussion and Implications

Economic recovery should be the forefront of policy. Recovery efforts could come in the form of stimulus checks or grants, but the lack of health-related policies have created a series of economic and social consequences (Balmori de la Miyar et al., 2021; Aziani et al. 2021). Weakened governments are unable to compete with the lucrative OCGs. With that being said, policy should be aimed towards public health. Local and federal governments have the ability to distribute sanitary supplies, masks, and deliver essential needs such as food and water. These simple gestures are necessary to develop trust amongst the governed. Greater trust in government leads to more compliance (Devine et al., 2020). In times of uncertainty, citizens need reassurance. OCGs provide temporary reassurance and only seek to profit for themselves. Weak and vulnerable populations are susceptible to manipulation, which increases the need for government assistance.

Future research in this particular field should seek to understand the lack of governmental preparation in times of crisis and related consequences. OCGs are able to respond immediately and develop proactive measures to ensure their operations continue effectively. On the other hand, government policies are more reactive. This “shoot-from-the-hip” style legislation diminishes public trust in governments and provides many opportunities for criminal groups to become the providers and gain control. Instead of focusing efforts on thwarting organized crime activities in vulnerable states during times of crisis, policies should focus on rebuilding state legitimacy and authority.

In tandem with economic recovery, states can begin proactively preparing for any future events with investments in public health care and infrastructure. Policies that prioritize social assistance are effective measures to ensure the safety and well-being of citizens that is being targeted swiftly by OCGs during times of crisis. For example, Latin American governments implemented income assistance programs to sustain family livelihoods during COVID-19 (Busso et al., 2020). Additional countries such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic followed suit with similar assistance programs; however, the limitations resided in the funds set aside for emergency relief (p. 14).

Even though OCGs possess the necessary funds to provide cash handouts and relief packages throughout various countries, it is the job of local governments to plan accordingly in lieu of future disasters or global phenomenon. Understanding the dynamics of a failing or weak state is necessary to begin efforts towards recovery just as any effort to regain control of a country begins with adjustments at the economic level. Restructuring of public health care and diversion of funds or taxpayer dollars towards an “emergency fund” is necessary to ensure any country is prepared to provide safety and well-being for their citizens. OCGs adjust accordingly to protect their business interests; therefore, states and countries alike need to adjust policies to maintain control, rebuild the economy, and provide for their citizens.



Aziani, A., Bertoni, G. A., Jofre, M., Riccardi, M. (2021, September). COVID-19 and Organized Crime: Strategies employed by criminal groups to increase their profits and power in the first months of the pandemic. Trends in Organized Crime, pp. 1-22. DOI: 10.1007/s12117-021-09434-x 

Aziani, A., Favarin, S., Campedelli, G. (2020). A security paradox. The influence of governance-type organized crime over the surrounding criminal environment. British Journal of Criminology, 60(4), pp. 970-993. DOI: 10.1093/bjc/azz087 

Balmori de la Miyar, J. R., Hoehn-Velasco, L., Silverio-Murillo, A. (2021). Druglords don’t stay home: COVID-19 pandemic and crime patterns in Mexico City. Journal of Criminal Justice, Vol. 72, pp. 1-14.

Burress, G. W., Jaynes, C. M., Moule, R. K., Fairchild, R. E. (2021). Modeling individual defiance of COVID-19 pandemic mitigation strategies: Insights from the expanded model of deterrence and protection motivation theory. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 48(9), pp. 1317-1338. DOI: 10.1177/00938548211010315.

Busso, M., Camacho, J., Messina, J., Montenegro, G. (2020, November). Social protection and informality in Latin America during the COVID-19 pandemic. Inter-American Development Bank, pp. 1-29. Retrieved from

Devine, D., Gaskell, J., Jennings, W., Stroker, G. (2020, August 11). Trust and the coronavirus pandemic: What are the consequences of and for trust? An early review of the literature. Political Studies Review. Retrieved from

Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2021). Transnational organized crime. FBI. Retrieved from

Gomez, C. T. (2020). Organized crime governance in times of pandemic: The impact of COVID-19 on gangs and drug cartels in Columbia and Mexico. Bulletin of Latin American Research, 39(1), pp. 12-15. Birmingham City University.

Hodgkinson, T., Andresen, M. (2020, August). Show me a man or a woman alone and I’ll show you a saint: Changes in the frequency of criminal incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Criminal Justice, 69. Retrieved from Show me a man or a woman alone and I'll show you a saint: Changes in the frequency of criminal incidents during the COVID-19 pandemic - ScienceDirect

Interpol. (2020, May). COVID-19: The global threat of fake medicines. Interpol. Retrieved from

Lindo, J. M., Padilla-Romo, M. (2015). Kingpin approaches to fighting crime and community violence: Evidence from Mexico's drug war. National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved from

Sandberg, S., Fondevila, G. (2020). Corona crimes: How pandemic narratives change criminal landscapes. Theoretical Criminology, pp. 1-21. DOI: 10.1177/1362480620981367.

Sung, H. (2004). State failure, economic failure, and predatory organized crime: A comparative analysis. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 41(2), pp. 111-129. Sage Publications. DOI: 10.1177/0022427803257253.


Photo by Ben Garratt on Unsplash


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