Federal law enforcement agencies report that they are seizing increasingly larger amounts of illicit cash from drug cartels since the start of the COVID-19 crisis in the US.
The coronavirus outbreak damaged the nation’s economy due to statewide lockdowns and international trade disruptions, triggering unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression. When the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life came to a virtual standstill, cops had an easier time spotting the cartels’ suspicious activities. And even as states relax quarantine restrictions and reopen businesses, common money laundering hubs such as nightclubs and bars remain closed.
“Their activities are a lot more apparent than they were three months ago,” special agent Bill Bodner of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Los Angeles field office told NBC News. “When there’s less hay in the haystack, it’s easier to find the needle. It’s caused the drug cartels and money launderers to take more risks, and that’s where we can capitalize.”
According to NBC News, the DEA’s drug cash seizures between March and May in the LA area more than doubled compared to seizures from the same time last year: from $4.5 million in 2019 to $10 million in 2020.
Business closures and stay-at-home orders aren’t the only things complicating the US drug trade. Dramatic shifts in drug consumption behaviors, likely due to the paralysis of metropolitan party scenes and round-the-clock home isolations, are also responsible.
The DEA claims that cocaine prices have spiked 20 percent in some areas, and the price of crystal meth doubled in LA amid the COVID-19 crisis. Heroin and fentanyl supplies are drying up nationwide, too, as these synthetic opioids and their chemical precursors are usually smuggled into the US from Asia via Mexico.
As cartels struggle on the West Coast, the East Coast is facing similar dilemmas, particularly in New York, which has remained under lockdown since March. Special agent Ray Donovan (yes, that’s his real name) with the DEA’s New York City field office said cash seizures in the Big Apple this year increased 180 percent over last year.
“More money is being stockpiled here” as a result of state-ordered business shutdowns, which includes storefronts, small shops, and restaurants,” Donovan said. “So, when we come across them, instead of seizing $100,000, we seize $1 million or several million dollars.”
Scientists recently reported that they may have developed a potential COVID-19 vaccine, but even if it’s effective, it won’t be widely available for at least another year. A Canadian study also suspects that drugs made from cannabis extracts may be able to prevent novel coronavirus infection, but more research is needed before the cannabis-based drugs can be considered for clinical trials.
So, it’s looking like the international crime syndicates are in this coronavirus quagmire for the long haul — along with the rest of us.