From Managua to Cape Town – dealing drugs in the time of COVID-19

By Dennis Rodgers and Steffen Jensen

11 May 2020

To what extent have gang interventions in the context of COVID-19 been altruistic or self-interested?

From individual local initiatives all over the world to the one million people volunteering to support the National Health Service in the UK, there have been many uplifting stories about people coming together and helping each other as COVID-19 continues to spread across the world. Some of these initiatives have however been surprising. This for example includes the case of drug-trafficking gangs in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who have helped impose lockdown curfews in the city’s poor favelas. Their justification for this has been that “we’re imposing a curfew because nobody is taking this [pandemic] seriously”, something that some have welcomed in the face of the Bolsonaro government’s disastrous response to COVID-19.

Gangs often constitute the primary form of order in favelas and other such poor urban areas, either because the state’s reach is weak or non-existent, or because it has ‘outsourced’ its authority. They often provide local communities with services such as protection, financial loans or distributing forms of (rough) justice. Responding to COVID-19 is arguably simply an extension of such forms of ‘gang governance’. But to what extent have gang interventions in the context of COVID-19 been truly altruistic?

This is a question that we are currently exploring in the context of our comparative study of gang dynamics for the GANGS project, with the material for this article relating to our ongoing research in Managua, Nicaragua, and Cape Town, South Africa. Our fieldwork was disrupted by the COVID-19 crisis, but we are in constant contact via Whatsapp with people in the poor neighbourhoods where we carry out our investigations. We therefore asked a range of inhabitants, including gang members and drug dealers, how COVID-19 has affected them and their activities. Our initial findings suggest that the pandemic has created both constraints and new opportunities for gangs and drug dealing.

Nicaragua between fear and ignorance of the pandemic

Nicaragua is notoriously one of the few countries in the world to have ignored the realities of COVID-19. The country has neither closed its borders nor imposed any form of lockdown or promoted any policy of social distancing.

Talking with people in barrio Luis Fanor Hernández*, a poor neighbourhood in Managua, the capital city of Nicaragua, it is clear that despite the lack of formal lockdown, individuals are more reluctant to go out. Many businesses have shut down, particularly in local markets. As Doña Yolanda, a long-time inhabitant of the neighbourhood whom Dennis has known for over 20 years, explained: ‘People are scared of the virus, so they don’t go out. The streets are deserted and shops are closed.’

This has had a dramatic and negative impact on economic livelihoods. Many people in Nicaragua – the second-poorest country in the Western hemisphere – live hand-to-mouth. This includes many street-level drug dealers, including Antonio, who told us: ‘This country is fucked. People don’t have any money, so they don’t come to buy [drugs] anymore.’ He sent us a photo of his unsold stash of drugs, complaining that: ‘I can normally sell all this in one day, but I haven’t sold anything at all, business has just collapsed.’

When the drug market crashes

Antonio’s unsold drug stash.
Author provided photo

We asked Antonio what he was doing to mitigate his lack of sales. He told us that he was resorting to two different strategies. The first was to call his upper- and middle-class clients and offer them a ‘delivery’ service. As he put it: ‘That way, instead of meeting me at the market or in the barrio, they call me and I go to their houses, put the drugs through the gate, stand back two metres, they come and pick them up and leave the money, which I then pick up after they’ve gone back two metres.’

He has however had to sell his crack, cocaine and marijuana at a 20–30% discount compared to before the COVID-19 crisis, and only has a handful of such upper- and middle-class clients, as he previously mostly sold to local gang members and youth in barrio Luis Fanor Hernández.

The other strategy that Antonio has resorted to during the current crisis is calling in debts. It is not unusual for drug dealers to allow clients to build up a low level of debt as a strategy to ensure their retail loyalty. When debts reach a level that the dealers judge to be unsustainable, they combine refusing to sell more drugs with physical violence in order to obtain a partial repayment.

Such violence generally remains relatively low-level, only involving beating up the client. Were a drug dealer to pull out a knife or a gun over debt, they would develop a bad reputation and likely lose clientele. COVID-19 has changed this, however, as Antonio explained: ‘Now it’s actually easier to call in debts. Because of the coronavirus, I can’t beat people up, because it involves touching them, so now I have an excuse to just pull out a gun while standing at two metres and asking for my money. It’s much more efficient, people are really scared of guns, and so they pay up straight away.’

In South Africa, gangs force people to stay in the streets

The situation in South Africa is very different. The government has responded swiftly to the pandemic, imposing a country-wide lockdown, and there have been numerous stories reporting how the crisis has led to unprecedented truces between rival gangs, particularly in Cape Town, to facilitate anti-pandemic measures. At the same time, in the informal settlement of Overcome Heights, gangs have sought to force people to stay in the streets, to ensure that local inhabitants, who constitute the largest proportion of local drug dealers’ clientele, will still seek to buy their drugs (mainly crystal meth, known locally as “tik”).

Indeed, according to Norma, one of Steffen’s key informants, drug dealing has actually been flourishing in Overcome Heights as a result of the pandemic. This is because rival gangs in the area have seized on the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason for consolidating what was initially a rather shaky peace accord that they had recently reached after a couple of years of extreme violence. Drug dealing is consequently now able to take place in a more secure – and therefore predictable – environment than previously.

A park in a Cape Town township which has been turned into a memorial for deceased gang members. Each ribbon symbolises one killed gang member. 
Author provided photo.

This context of relative peace has also enabled the local gangs to develop new businesses that take advantage of the COVID-19 crisis. For example, the lockdown has led to local shebeens (drinking dens) and shops in the townships closing down, and the gangs have stepped in, selling alcohol and cigarettes at their still-open drug dens. They do so at premium prices, however.

According to Norma, alcohol is now sold at double its price prior to the pandemic, while individual cigarettes now cost 5 rand (€0.25) each compared to an average price of around 35 rand per packet of 20 previously. Paradoxically, the price of drugs has remained what it was before the crisis.

Gangs, drugs, and COVID-19 – volunteering or profiteering?

Seen from the vantage points of Managua and Cape Town, the reactions of gangs and drug dealers to COVID-19 arguably emerge less as altruistic forms of community support, and more as instrumental means for surviving or seizing conjunctural opportunities to expand their resource base, both collectively and individually.

This is likely also the case in other places, including Brazil, where gangs’ grip over favelas is rarely secure, due to the threat of other gangs, as well as other armed groups such as paramilitary militias and the Brazilian state. Ensuring that lockdown is respected enables a besieged gang to consolidate, insofar as a pandemic such as COVID-19 offers opportunities to upset balances of power, encroach on other groups’ territories, or take over drug markets. As such, what these kinds of actions might be pointing to is in fact the limits of social solidarity in times of crisis, offering a dystopian template for future developments if the situation were to worsen.

*All names of people and places mentioned in this article are pseudonyms.

Dennis Rodgers is Research Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, Switzerland.

Steffen Jensen is Professor of Global Cultural Studies at Aalborg University, Denmark.

This is post is a translation of an article originally published in French by The Conversation France. It is based on research funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No. 787935).

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