The current pandemic has put the entire world under a continuous strain, and it has affected the lives of many. Curfews, lockdowns, quarantines and travel restrictions have set limitations on both movement and economic activity. Whilst Governments around the world impose tighter enforcement measures to control the pandemic, they could however be driving criminal activity further underground. With drug smuggling and human trafficking, criminals are adjusting to the “new normal”, moving more of their abusive activities to digital platforms.
Let me be clear, identification of victims of trafficking is difficult even under normal circumstances. The pandemic will continue to influence the lack of people migration for a while and, given that human trafficking is often influenced by political and economic factors, it may prevent some of the vulnerable communities in those regions to migrate in a legal manner.
The pandemic does not make it any easier to detect such movements, and even though it might look on the surface that the trafficking has been prevented due to the countries closing borders and locking themselves off, in reality that has not been the case.
INTERPOL’s Secretary General Jurgen Stock said: ‘The COVID-19 pandemic has not blunted the determination of organized crime groups to prey on the vulnerable and make a profit from these crimes, which all too often cost victims their lives’.1 Indeed, organized criminals continue to prey on their victims and human traffickers are managing to convince the most unfortunate in our society to use their services. With the pandemic, this comes at a higher cost, both financially and personally, and it increases difficulties in finalizing their journey.
Europe and North America, which have both been negatively impacted by the pandemic outbreak, remain the most frequent destinations for irregular migration and migrant smuggling, due to their respective wealth, status and job opportunities. Information by INTERPOL strongly suggests that migrants have not been discouraged from reaching their destinations throughout the global pandemic. Their numbers indicate that detections of migrants illegally crossing all external borders into Europe fell by 85% from March to April this year.2 However, what we also know is that the smugglers are looking for alternatives. They are not using the most traditional air routes, but they are using smaller boats to attempt to cross dangerous waters, and putting migrants into trucks, freight vehicles and cargo trains to cross borders.
Similarly, the closure of various businesses serving as fronts for drug smuggling are leading to new ways of money movements from ill-gotten gains. Drug Cartels have had to go back to old-fashioned ways of moving cash across borders by asking people loaded with cash to hop on a plane, as well as packing it in the back of a vehicle, driving across borders and hoping for the best.
The drug lords are adapting to the situation we find ourselves in. Limitations of transportation of drugs from Latin America to the US have driven them to explore other routes: Europe was flooded with cocaine earlier in April. The packages of huge loads of cocaine through fewer container ships and commercial airplanes in circulation indicated that the drug smugglers are indeed ready to take higher risks for greater return. Seizures of shipments of cocaine were higher than usual, leading law enforcement officers to believe that the traffickers were flooding the continent ahead of full lockdown measures being implemented.3
Maritime trafficking remains business as usual, and unaffected by the pandemic. The traffickers are taking advantage of Europe’s import of food products from South America. As an example, a five-tonne cocaine cargo was seized in Antwerp, concealed in a refrigerator container carrying squid from LATAM.4
In Financial Crime prevention, our industry is concerned with is the detection and prevention of money movements from human trafficking and drug smuggling, and reporting it to the regulating authorities by obliged entities. This detection is not easy, but we should not live in an illusion that the pandemic has slowed down illicit trades – it has not.
Moreover, the worries are that criminals leading these trades will become even more powerful in the longer term. We could end up in a situation where vulnerable citizens will not have access to regular bank loans and will be victims of illicit loan schemes. The Financial Crime prevention industry must be on top of such money movements, perhaps even more so now than ever before.
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