Pat Musitano was a brash, loud mob boss, but his funeral was so low key it went almost entirely unnoticed after he was murdered by a gunman in a Burlington parking lot this summer in the midst of the global pandemic.
When his associate, Joseph Catroppa, was shot dead outside a hotel in Cancun, Mexico, in September, his funeral service in Woodbridge was also a private, quiet affair, marked publicly by only an online announcement.
Such discreet online mourning is part of the new realities of life — and death — for local and international organized criminals during the COVID-19 crisis.
Meanwhile, experts say the smartest organized criminals are now rebounding and even expanding after their initial pandemic scare.
“Crime tends to be a first-mover, sussing out new opportunities whenever a crisis like COVID-19 arises,” Misha Glenny, a fellow at the Berggruen Institute think tank, writes on his blog. “They are very entrepreneurial.”
“The bad news is the surge of online activity during lockdown has multiplied the opportunities for the ever-growing cyber criminal fraternity,” he continues.
For some, the new opportunities lie in a new division of police resources, weakened enemies, legitimate business failures and sloppy online security.
For Mississauga mobster Vincenzo (Jimmy) De Maria, 66, the global pandemic meant he could present a viable argument to immigration authorities that he is too frail to be deported to Italy. De Maria, who was convicted of a 1981 second-degree murder over a drug debt, has had his deportation hearing indefinitely postponed after he argued he wasn’t well enough for pandemic travel.
Experts agree the COVID-19 crisis has hit different facets of underworld life at varying degrees of intensity. Here’s how:
Immediately after the pandemic hit last March, illegal drugs became the toilet paper of the underworld — meaning cocaine, heroin and other narcotics were the target of panic buying and hoarding.
Then things calmed down.
Luis Horacio Najera, a GTA academic who covered the cocaine trade as a reporter in Ciudad de Juarez, Mexico, said the pandemic hasn’t hit all drug cartels equally.
Some are struggling to survive while others have sniffed out chances to finally overtake their rivals and diversify their interests.
“There could be some visionaries among the cartels that could try to take advantage of the pandemic and its effects to push for new markets,” Najera said in an online interview.
“Investing money on legitimate business as medical supplies may be a good opportunity to clean some cash,” Najera said.
As the pandemic pressed on, local criminals realized that addicts and more casual users weren’t going anywhere and that fentanyl, marijuana and methamphetamine can be produced locally while cocaine could still be smuggled into the country. They just had to do a little better job improving their supply chains and delivery, just like legions of legitimate businesses.
Internationally, drones, submersibles and tunnels became increasingly popular for smuggling during the pandemic.
Canadians were sometimes on the producing end in the illegal drug business in the pandemic underworld.
Investigators with the York Regional Police announced that a three-month operation this summer by its Organized Crime Bureau — Guns, Gangs and Drug Enforcement Unit netted approximately $150 million dollars worth of illegal cannabis.
The pot haul was made after officers executed 15 search warrants throughout York Region, including Markham, King, Stouffville and East Gwillimbury, resulting in 37 arrests and 67 charges.
Much of that pot was destined for the American market, police said.
There has been plenty of wagering on high-level chess, but it’s not because gamblers are worked up by the Netflix hit “The Queen’s Gambit,” a professor who studies sports gambling said.
“If you’re addicted to sports gambling, you’ll bet on anything,” Declan Hill, an associate professor at the Henry C. Lee College of Criminal Justice and Forensic Science, University of New Haven, Conn., said in an interview.
“Match-fixing and gambling is exploding during this time,” Hill said.
After shutdowns and schedule shrinking hit many major sports leagues, gamblers showed they were eager to drop bets on virtually anything, including chess, Hill said.
The closure of government-run casinos also created an opening for lavish, spa-like illegal betting palaces to thrive.
One of those new venues in Markham — a gated, guarded 20,000-square-foot Markham mansion on Decourcy Court near Warden Avenue and Major MacKenzie Drive, according to York Regional Police, who shut it down last month.
Its invitation-only policy meant criminals could mingle and conduct business without the interference of undercover police agents.
Pope Francis announced in July he was praying for “people who during this time of the pandemic, trade at the expense of the needy and profit from the needs of others, like the Mafia, usurers and others.”
“May the Lord touch their hearts and convert them,” the Pope said.
The Pontiff’s comments came as small businesses throughout the world are suffering from the pandemic.
Many criminals who had invested heavily in businesses like restaurants and property-rental saw their customers stay home and their tenants suddenly become unable to pay their rents.
After an initial scare, opportunities presented themselves for organized criminals with deep pockets and plenty of liquid cash to become “hidden partners” in previously legitimate businesses.
Things are particularly promising for organized criminals with plenty of liquid cash and connections to lawyers, accountants and financial advisers, professor Anna Sergi of the University of Essex said in an email interview.
“Even without the business advice, some (organized crime groups) can approach certain businesses directly, but this tends to happen where places are smaller and communities tighter,” Sergi said.
“Businesses that are smaller (like cash businesses, restaurants, industry-specific businesses affected by the pandemic, such as hospitality and the like) are more at risk, but bigger industries might also be needing influx of cash to get back on their feet,” Sergi said, pointing to construction businesses whose work decreases because real estate might be in distress.
Italian anti-Mafia magistrate Nicola Gratteri told the Global Initiative against Organized Crime in October that the pandemic creates an opportunity for organized crime because “the usurers from the ’Ndrangheta initially come in with offers of low interest rates, because their end goal is to take over the business, via usury, and use it to launder their illicit proceeds.”
Gratteri grimly added that the ‘Ndrangheta lenders aren’t as worried about collateral as legitimate financial institutions because: “Their collateral is the borrower’s life.”
Criminals quickly cashed in on fact that cyberspace was suddenly central to work, education, health and entertainment after the COVID-19 outbreak.
“Due to the pandemic, many Canadians are spending more time at home,” Lisanne Roy Beauchamp of the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre said in an email. “As a result, fraudsters have upped their attempts to contact potential victims by phone and online.”
By the end of March, there were already reports of bogus medicines and hand gels on the market. There have recently been reports of a flood of fake COVID-19 negative test results, allowing tourists to travel without receiving proper medical clearances. Some of those falsified results were downloadable for storage on mobile phones.
Hacking is also up exponentially. Experts urge people to keep their operating systems up to date, install anti-virus and anti-malware programs, avoid using the same password twice, use password generators and refrain from keeping sensitive data on the internet.
The public is also urged to avoid clicking links or opening attachments if anything seems unusual.
Working from home means leaving secure office networks to sharing home servers with children and teenagers, who weren’t always so security conscious.
“The lesson from all this is crystal clear,” Glenny says. “If you’ve never taken computer security seriously, make time during the lockdown to get up to speed and quickly.”
The pandemic has made it even tougher to fight human trafficking globally and in Canada, experts say.
Sexual exploitation — including “webcam sex trafficking” — has shot up during the pandemic, feeding off poverty, isolation and desperation, Valiant Richey of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said in an email.
“COVID has exacerbated trends we were already seeing before the pandemic, and made them even more urgent,” said Richey, the OSCE Special Representative for Combating and Trafficking in Human Beings.
“It is harder to cross borders now, as many are in fact closed or carefully monitored, but trafficking and exploitation do not need to cross a border to take place,” said Richey, whose organization fights human trafficking in 57 nations, from Vancouver to Vladivostok.
Canada isn’t immune to this global phenomenon, Richey said, as most human trafficking is domestic.
“Canada, like many countries in the OSCE region, has domestic human trafficking,” Richey said.
Lockdown measures and movement restrictions have also contributed to a surge in online child exploitation through webcams, Richey said.
Richey said the number of reports of online child sexual exploitation have tripled globally since the pandemic began.
“We are talking about hundreds of millions of pictures and videos exchanged on common social media platforms,” Richey said. “Much more robust efforts need to be taken to prevent this criminal conduct which can have cause long-term trauma to victims.”