Criminal Governance in the Time of COVID-19

By Nicholas Barnes and Juan Albarracín

6 July, 2020

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, multiple news outlets, think tanks, public intellectuals, and academics have reported and reflected on its impact on criminal governance. Even before these unusual times, criminal governance was a topic of growing importance in the research agendas of many social sciences and regularly grabbed the attention of media outlets. Yet, despite the numerous academic articles and journalistic works on the topic, it is often not clear what exactly the term ‘criminal governance’ means. Are all the activities that are being reported as criminal governance indeed constituent of the same overarching phenomenon? What are the various dynamics and dimensions of criminal governance? Building on a framework recently proposed by Benjamin Lessing,[i] we distinguish between three interrelated forms of criminal governance: 1) of communities; 2) of illicit markets; and 3) of criminal organizations themselves. Such a multi-dimensional approach enables us to examine the impact of COVID-19 on different governance arrangements while also exploring the specific dynamics, connections, and tensions between them.

The most popular (and often unstated) understandings of criminal governance focus on how organized criminal groups (OCGs)[ii] relate to populations within the territories in which they operate. This type of governance shares much in common with how states and other violent organizations exert sovereignty within specific, delimited territories. While criminal governance as governance over communities can vary along numerous dimensions, in general, it can be viewed as encompassing two complementary sets of activities: 1) the imposition of a certain form of social order through the creation and enforcement of (informal) rules, such as punishing collaboration with the police and other rival groups, the prohibition of certain behaviors (including, ironically, illegal activities like prostitution, theft, and even drug use), and  the restriction of movement into and out of these areas; and 2) the provision of goods and services like dispute resolution,[iii] access to other social and political actors, and forms of social assistance and welfare.[iv]

These governance activities have been the most reported by media outlets and scholars in the current crisis. For instance, criminal groups in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas have enforced quarantines (or at least so advertised) and prevented outsiders from entering their territories to slow the spread of the virus. In Mexico, several drug trafficking groups have reportedly offered groceries to desperate residents in areas under their control. Several Italian mafia groups have also organized the distribution of groceries as well as medicine, diapers, and other necessities to impoverished families. Meanwhile, in Japan, Yakuza groups have allegedly provided food, protective equipment, and medical supplies and even offered to disinfect the Diamond Princess cruise ship.

Why do OCGs engage in this form of governance during the current crisis? Some scholars have argued that criminal groups automatically expand their influence and control when states are unable or unwilling to respond. However, governance of this form is nothing new. In fact, many of these same organizations have been imposing similar forms of order and offering such limited assistance to impoverished communities for decades. Others argue that such benevolent activities are driven by longer-term interests. Federico Varese, for instance, argues that “Gifts are favors that will have to be repaid, not acts of charity or the provision of a right. Those who benefit from mafia welfare will then have to agree to host a fugitive or a meeting at their home, hide a gun or a package of drugs.” Alternatively, Angélica Durán-Martinez suggests that many criminal groups may feel a sense of responsibility to the communities in which they are embedded, while Eduardo Moncada and Gabriel Franco argue that “the deep familial and social ties between criminal groups and the communities in which they operate may be driving criminal groups to provide some order by enforcing quarantines and providing goods and services.” Whatever the underlying motivation, the support of local populations is essential for any OCG’s survival as well as their ability to maximize profits from their illicit activities.

This brings us to the second form of criminal governance, which refers to the regulation of illicit markets.[v] Governance of this type implies the creation of predictability (or order) in a market that, by definition, is not or cannot be regulated by the state. OCGs do so by establishing and enforcing rules that shape the behavior of the various actors involved in these markets: who gets to produce/sell, where and at what prices, and how disputes are “settled” between actors within this market. Criminal governance understood as the regulation of markets often includes agreements between different criminal groups about the division of territories, routes, or market segments in which they operate, as well as provisions regarding common security or about sharing the costs of corrupting state officials and/or the use of violence.  

The regulation of illicit markets has gained significant attention during the COVID-19 crisis. Many scholars and analysts are concerned that shifts and changes in illicit markets will break existing governance arrangements and could produce instability and violence. The thinking goes: quarantines and restrictions in movement can break supply and distribution chains and impact demand for illicit goods and services, leading to increasing prices and thereby impacting the financial and organizational capacities of criminal groups. Such changes alter the balance of power between groups and have already resulted in territorial disputes and conflicts over market segments. Some criminal groups have resorted to calling in old debts and have become more coercive toward their clients. However, in other places, the pandemic has stabilized illicit markets. In South Africa, for instance, drug dealing and illicit tobacco and alcohol markets have flourished due to strict quarantine enforcement by the state. Meanwhile, other commentators have suggested that the pandemic could force OCGs to expand or shift their illicit activities away from drugs to money laundering, loan sharking and exploitation, cyber crime, wildlife trafficking, prostitution, the illegal sale of alcohol and cigarettes, and even the smuggling of medicine and personal protective equipment. Criminal groups may also resort to old school techniques such as bank robberies, car jackings, and kidnapping. Because this type of governance involves so many actors and moving parts, it is difficult to foresee how the pandemic will affect this second form of criminal governance. All such forecasts are preliminary.

The third and final form of criminal governance pertains to the mechanisms and rules through which a criminal group organizes itself and controls the behavior of its members.[vi] This type of governance no longer refers to community members or various participants in criminal markets but is instead concerned with how tasks and roles are assigned, disputes resolved, and decisions made within the group. This form of governance, in some sense, is inherent to the formation of the organization itself. Any criminal group will have some leadership structure, develop mechanisms for incorporating new members, and seek to control or shape their behavior. Without internal governance, maintaining a cohesive organization is impossible, thereby negating the ability to “govern” communities or markets in the ways listed above. Criminal governance can exist without organizations, but, in that case, it looks more like a set of diffuse norms or traditions that are enforced by individuals through social sanctioning (e.g. “the convict code” and “the code of the street”), thus lacking the capacity to project these rules and order to whole territories or markets.

Although it has been relatively overlooked by both scholars and journalists, the pandemic has just as serious implications for the internal governance of OCGs. For instance, many OCG leaders are senior citizens and are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Some of them may become sick and possibly die, which could lead to problems with the chain of command, cause leadership struggles, and/or give rise to breakaway factions. To avoid such “leadership decapitation”, some groups have quarantined their leaders and even stopped in-person meetings, resorting to online and virtual communication. Rank-and-file are also threatened by the coronavirus, especially for organizations which lack access to medical care or those located in areas where social distancing is difficult (if not impossible) like slums, public housing, and informal settlements. Many OCGs are also embedded within prisons, which are often overcrowded and, thus, particularly susceptible to rapid transmission.


The current public health crisis offers an opportunity to study the endogenous nature of all three governance processes. For instance, initial reports from Rio de Janeiro pointed out that some drug gangs and milícias (police-connected mafia-style groups) were imposing and enforcing quarantines in communities under their control as a way to avert the catastrophic impact of the epidemic. However, after a couple of weeks, new reports revealed that some of the city’s milícias had reversed their decision and mandated that businesses in areas under their control should reopen and operate. Unlike drug gangs, which have reportedly maintained their curfews, milícias rely heavily on the extortion of businesses and populations for revenue. This divergent behavior in time and, possibly, between groups is the result of the tension between dimensions of governance. Another pertinent example comes from Guatemala and the decision by Barrio 18’s leadership to put extortion payments on hold during the crisis to maintain their support among local communities. This move, however, has caused many rank-and-file members to lose revenue, thus deepening existing conflicts within the organization and accelerating the fragmentation of the group. In this way, we can see instances of conflict between different governance dimensions and the inherent trade-offs in favoring one form over another. Understanding the imperatives of each dimension (and their contradictions) enables us to better explain the behavior of criminal groups.

The coronavirus pandemic is not the first time OCGs have been impacted by catastrophic, world-changing events. Commentators have drawn parallels to other historical examples like the successful evolution and adaptation of the Sicilian Mafia, Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta, and Neapolitan Camorra in the post-World War II era or Shanghai’s Green Gang during Japanese occupation. The expansion and proliferation of organized crime amid the current pandemic and the impending economic dislocation is not, however, inevitable. We cannot predict how any criminal group will respond given the complex nature of their relations with local politics, economies, and society. Overall, understanding how and why they govern communities, markets, and themselves should help us reflect on the shortcomings of state governance and perhaps allow us to craft better, more targeted policies to address many of the latter’s worst outcomes. Whatever the lasting effects of COVID-19, organized criminal groups will continue to be an alternative source of governance for tens of millions across the globe.

Nicholas Barnes will be a Lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) from Autumn 2020. He was previously a Visiting Assistant Professor of Political Science at Grinnell College and a Postdoctoral Fellow at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. His research interests include criminal and political violence, criminal governance, public security policy, urban inequality and informality, and social movements in Latin America. You can follow him on Twitter @Nick_Barnes81.

Juan Albarracín is Director of the Political Science Program and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Universidad Icesi (Cali, Colombia). He conducts research on criminal and political violence, criminal governance and local orders (especially in Brazil and Colombia), police and police violence, transitional justice, as well as parties and elections. You can follow him on Twitter @JuanAlbarracinD


[i] Lessing, Benjamin. Forthcoming. “Conceptualizing Criminal Governance.” Perspectives on Politics.

[ii] OCG is an umbrella term that refers to any and all non-state armed groups which are criminalized by the state. These include prison and street gangs, drug trafficking organizations, cartels, mafias, and smuggling networks among others.

[iii] For examples, see Denyer Willis, G. (2015). The Killing Consensus. Berkeley: University of California Press; Feltran, G. de S. (2010). Crime e Castigo Na Cidade: Os Repertórios da Justiça e a Questão do Homicídio nas Periferias de São Paulo. Caderno CRH 23 (58): 59–73; and Arias, E. D., & Rodrigues, C. D. (2006). The myth of personal security: Criminal gangs, dispute resolution, and identity in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Latin American Politics and Society, 48(4), 53–81.

[iv] For an example, see Dowdney, L. (2003). Children of the Drug Trade. Rio de Janeiro: 7 Letras.

[v] A significant literature, based mostly in economics, has focused on this form of criminal governance. See Schelling, T. C. (1971). What Is the Business of Organized Crime? The American Scholar, 40(4), 643–652; Gambetta, D. (1993). The Sicilian Mafia: The Business of Private Protection. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Skaperdas, S. (2001). The political economy of organized crime: providing protection when the state does not. Economics of Governance, 2(3), 173–202; and Skarbek, D. (2014). The Social Order of the Underworld: How Prison Gangs Govern the American Penal System. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[vi] See Lessing, B. and G. Denyer Willis. (2018). Legitimacy in Criminal Governance: Managing a Drug Empire from Behind Bars. APSR, 113 (2): 584-606; Varese, F. (2017) Mafia Life: Love, Death and Money at the Heart of Organised Crime. London: Profile Books; and Skarbek (2014).


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