Ten ways criminal groups will try to profit from Covid-19 vaccines in 2021
Thefts and extortion provide direct profits, but the bigger threats come from corruption and territorial control.
This week, Interpol warned that “criminal organizations are planning to infiltrate or disrupt supply chains” related to coronavirus vaccines. It’s true that criminal groups across Latin America will look for ways to profit on the vaccine rush in 2021 and beyond, but getting inside supply chains is only one way it will happen. Below is a partial list of the types of crime Latin America may experience related to vaccines next year.
Large scale theft of vaccines for sale and distribution. The logistics on moving and distributing vaccines will be hard enough for governments and private companies. Think through all the challenges for a criminal group to manage a stolen truck of vaccines that need to be stored at super-cold temperatures. I’m sure some criminal group somewhere will make the attempt to do a large scale theft, storage, and reselling of vaccines. It will be big news when it happens. But most groups will steer clear.
Small scale theft. Criminals don’t need to distribute thousands of vaccines to make a profit. Stealing five or ten and reselling them could be lucrative and is much easier to manage. I think large numbers of small scale thefts from warehouses and doctors offices are likely and will add up across the region to making thousands of vaccines available on the black market.
Fake vaccines. Totally fraudulent vaccines will be offered and some people may be desperate enough to accept. This becomes more dangerous if the fraudulent vaccines somehow make their way into the real supply chain.
Selling dilutions or expired vaccines. There are examples in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, of criminal groups taking medicines and diluting them so they are still active but less effective. There are also cases in which expired medicines are repackaged and used by criminal groups. That truck full of vaccines stolen in the first point? They still might get distributed on the black market even though they aren’t stored properly. As opposed to totally fake vaccines, these vaccines may have some effectiveness while also being dangerous to the recipients for a variety of reasons. Among other problems, stories of bad vaccines on the black market could make people more hesitant to receive the vaccines generally.
Online scams. People will search online for vaccines and this is a great opportunity for criminals to make money or steal personal information. Interpol also highlighted this risk and told law enforcement to be prepared.
Extorting people who want to receive vaccines. There are some neighborhoods where criminals could charge people for the opportunity to get vaccinated. If people require vaccinations for work, school or travel, they may be forced to pay. Governments can try to secure some areas to prevent this practice, but there will certainly be locations where criminals pay a kickback to corrupt local security forces so they can operate.
Extorting companies who are involved in the supply chain. Maybe criminal groups don’t hijack trucks and steal vaccines, but they may charge a “toll” to companies trying to move vaccines around the region. They can block highways and extort warehouses. Though illegal to pay, some local shipping companies may see this as the cost of doing business.
False paperwork. Some countries and some companies are going to require proof of vaccination in order to travel or work. Especially in cases where certain people are prioritized over others or in countries where people have to pay for vaccines, there will be a market for false paperwork. There may also be a market for legitimate vaccine paperwork given to someone else, something that would encourage people to receive the vaccine multiple times in order to obtain the paperwork that they can resell.
Corruption by political and business elites in obtaining and distributing vaccines. This is where the real money is. I’ve been writing recently about government elites building their own criminal networks to steal and launder money. Given the corruption around health care already seen during the pandemic, it is nearly certain Latin America will see some corruption and kickbacks related to vaccines.
Effectively vaccinating the population. What if the criminal groups work hard to get their territories vaccinated? What if, in some neighborhoods, they are even better at this than governments or the private sector because they can use the threat of force? It’s not unrealistic. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were criminal groups that were effectively enforcing quarantines and lockdowns on certain neighborhoods across the hemisphere. Criminal groups want the economy reopened quickly so they can return to making money at the levels they previously did. Effectively running vaccine drives and forcing neighborhoods to get vaccinated may not directly make money (it may even cost money), but it would be another way organized crime can demonstrate its parallel legitimacy and control territory in a way that gives them long term profit and influence.
Of all the options on the list, that last one would be the biggest threat to long term security and stability.
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