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Observatory of Illicit Economies in Eastern and Southern Africa


Tracking crime and covid-19

The coronavirus pandemic will have a profound effect on the global economy, and illicit economies will be no exception. Already from other regions which are currently worse-hit by the virus, stories are emerging of criminal groups either exploiting the fear of the epidemic to defraud people, or providing black-market access to medical supplies which are now in high demand.

Examples of this predatory behavior are beginning to emerge from East and Southern Africa. South Africa’s Reserve Bank has released a warning against scammers claiming to be representatives of the bank ‘collecting’ banknotes they claim as ‘contaminated’ with the virus.1 In Nairobi, police have raided a shop which was allegedly selling fake coronavirus testing kits.2

Traders based in China and Laos have been observed offering rhino horn products as a ‘cure’ for the virus, reigniting fears that demand for traditional medicines containing rhino horn drives poaching of East and Southern African wildlife. China has enacted a ban on the consumption and import of wildlife into the country in light of the information that the virus may have transferred to humans via imported wildlife, though time will tell whether restrictions will curb consumption of species such as pangolin.

As legal commerce and travel slows, so too do trafficking and smuggling routes which covertly use legitimate transport routes and infrastructure. The knock-on effects for some of the most vulnerable groups: people who use drugs, or migrants looking to use the services of people smugglers, may be catastrophic.

We would expect that in the event of coronavirus-related travel restrictions, heroin prices will increase and purity will decrease as it becomes more difficult to smuggle drugs into the region. This may drive more users in the region to turn to injection as a more economically efficient way of use, raising the risk of overdose and transfer of blood-borne diseases.

Illicit heroin use environments are often hidden, crowded and confined spaces, ideal for coronavirus transmission, and communities of people using drug may struggle with effectively self-isolating or social distancing.

Criminal justice systems will also bear the strain of increased workload in enforcing isolation measures and a workforce reduced by sickness and self-isolation. As South Africa’s authorities restrict visits to prison inmates to shield facilities from infections, and the country’s court systems are operating on reduced capacity, the virus is already beginning to take a toll.

We will continue to monitor the repercussions of coronavirus on criminal justice systems in the region, on trafficking routes and organized-crime groups, and vulnerable communities who rely on criminal markets during this time of flux.

For more on our #COVIDCrimeWatch initiative, visit www.globalinitiative.net

Summary highlights

  1. Murder of Cape Town gang leader Rashied Staggie brings an uneasy peace as assassination theories abound.

    When gang leader Rashied Staggie – founder of the Hard Livings, one of Cape Town’s most notorious gangs – was gunned down outside his home in December 2019, some predicted gang warfare would ensue. While theories abound about why Staggie was assassinated, it seems that his death has in fact brought order to Cape Town’s gang landscape. His attempts to live what some saw as a double life as both a criminal figure and a religious convert had caused friction with other gang leaders.

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  2. The normalization of political killings in KwaZulu-Natal poses a threat to South Africa’s democracy ahead of the 2021 local government elections.

    Since South Africa’s 2011 local government elections, the country has seen a sharp rise in election-related violence and political assassinations.3 While most of the killings have been of governing African National Congress office holders and have occurred in KwaZulu-Natal province, parts of the rural Eastern Cape have also been affected. Community leaders and activists have also become targets. In the past 10 years, at least 345 people have lost their lives in politically linked hits across the province. Although motives for these murders can be multifaceted, representing one’s community – either as an elected party member or as a grassroots activist – is an increasingly high-risk endeavour. Potential candidates are now thinking twice about standing for political office. This does not bode well for South Africa’s democracy.

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  3. Groundbreaking new study of East and Southern African heroin markets out in April.

    In April, the Global initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime will release a unique study of heroin pricing, distribution and market dynamics in East and Southern Africa. The first of its kind, the study is intended to address significant knowledge gaps that hinder policy responses to the alarming growth in heroin trade in the region. The research has revealed a significant diffusion of heroin supply and use across the region and a proliferation of supply channels. Heroin has been ubiquitous across large swathes of Tanzania, Mozambique and South Africa for many years, but use is now proliferating in neighbouring Zambia, Lesotho and eSwatini and is emerging in rural areas across Zimbabwe.

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  4. Heroin, cocaine and marijuana markets in Uganda are changing.

    The volume of heroin transiting Uganda has risen sharply in the past few years, entering overland from coastal states such as Kenya and leaving predominantly through Entebbe airport. Fieldwork conducted by the Global Initiative in December 2019 identified new heroin outflows from Uganda, including a nascent route to India, which correlates with recent reporting from Mozambique. Uganda also has a growing domestic heroin market and serves as a transit route for cocaine and as a producer of medical marijuana.

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  5. The deaths of 64 migrants in a truck container in Mozambique is a ghastly reminder of smuggling risks.

    Mozambican immigration inspectors on the country’s border with Malawi made a grim discovery on 24 March, of the bodies of 64 Ethiopian migrants in an airtight lorry container, alongside 14 survivors. This ghastly tragedy is a reminder of the daily risks faced by migrants using the services of human smugglers, both along the southern route from the Horn of Africa to Southern Africa, and beyond. A string of similar incidents worldwide in recent years demonstrates how travelling in this way can be a potentially fatal risk for migrants.

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  1. Tweet from the SA reserve bank: https://twitter.com/SAReserveBank/status/1239600991579897858

  2. Al Jazeera, Kenya raids shop selling ‘fake’ coronavirus testing kits, 17 March 2020, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/03/kenya-raids-shop-selling-fake-coronavirus-testing-kits-200317064809572.html

  3. Assassination Witness, The Rule of the Gun: Hits and Assassinations in South Africa, January 2000–December 2017, University of Cape Town and Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, March 2018, www.assassinationwitness.org.za