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Changes in criminal conduct during coronavirus lockdowns

Peter Lee

The authorities in Malaysia say that the corona-virus triggered lockdown in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, has led to a 67% reduction in crime. That, of course, might not be all that it seems - crime and reported crime not being the same and if people can't get to a police station, they can't make reports. Also, Malaysians have an odd habit: they make "police reports" at the drop of a hat, for all kinds of reasons, often political or for matters that in other countries would be regarded as civil matters not as police matters. When they do, they often issue a press release tp say they are going to do it and - incredibly, Malaysian media turns up to photograph them entering, or leaving, the police station. If people can't go out, they can't do that, either, so that may (we put it no higher than that) distorts the crime figures anyway.

But that aside, organised crime gangs, which are a business, are finding that their commercial activities are curtailed along with their movements. They...

Organised crime in Kuala Lumpur revolves, mainly, around protection rackets, loan-sharking, drugs and prostitution.

It's easy to think about protection rackets as being all about demands for money in return for not setting fire to a shop, etc. and that does happen but the most prevalent protection racket in Kuala Lumpur is car parking: criminal enterprises recruit people - often homeless, drink or drug addicts are stood in the street to wave drivers into parking spots where they will "look after" the car. They do this even though there are paid-for parking metres. The demands are subtle - the poor people think it's their job: most are too far gone to realise that they are committing an offence. Not all are dirty drunks: in one KL thoroughfare recently, a well dressed young woman was standing in the street waving drivers in - even if they didn't want to park.

At night, the same gangs, with a different street crew, charge for parking in free public spaces, threatening drivers that their cars may be damaged if they don't pay. They block-off free spaces and insist that they have a right to charge if someone parks there, with two or three people shouting loudly at drivers who have every right to park in free public bays outside the local authority hours. They run "jockey" services which park cars illegally and, miraculously, no local authority or police enforcement takes place.

As the city has entered lockdown, that source of revenue has been denied the gangs: entertainment districts are deserted as restaurants, bars and clubs are closed. Shopping and office districts are all but silent as only a handful of shops are allowed to open and then only for restricted hours.

Movements of persons is permitted only for a very limited range of purposes: going out to buy cigarettes isn't one of them but every day there are arrests of people out, after all shops are closed, saying that they are just popping out for cigarettes. The police report that a significant proportion of them are drug addicts.

Drugs are a hidden menace in Kuala Lumpur: although reports suggest that the majority of arrests are of local Malays or those involved in what tabloids like to call "drink and drugs fuelled sex parties," there is anecdotal evidence of the ready availability of hard drugs - middle aged, scruffy westerners on an agitated hunt for tin foil and a cigarette lighter but not cigarettes of food are not uncommon, but now they stand out more as there are less people to hide amongst. Like all big cities, drugs are an insidious fact of life for many - khat is popular amongst migrant workers, especially those from Pakistan; for Bangladeshis, it's more likely to be marijuana.

Like all big cities, Kuala Lumpur has prostitutes. The morality of prostitution is not important - what is important is that the girls and women who are involved fall into two camps: freelancers and those who are part of organised crime. Here, we are more concerned with the latter. It's trendy to consider them as "trafficked" but that's far from the case for many. There is a "circuit" in which the women voluntarily take part for the simple reason that, even after paying all the expenses, they will earn far more than they would at home. So girls travel, as tourists, for two weeks in a series of cities. There's a "tour company" that specialises in bringing in women from the "stans" to satisfy the tastes of those who frequent one particular nightclub. They arrive independently, live in apartments and are free to come and go as they please.

For these and the companies providing their support services, such as travel, visas, places to live, they have a particular problem - they are stuck, in a bizarre game of pass-the-parcel, in countries where they would not choose to be, because borders all around the regions are closed to all but their own nationals - and sometimes even them. The speed with which this happened allowed those that are going to single countries and returning home were able to sort out return tickets and leave. Those on the circuit are all out of position, costing the gangs for accommodation. Many of these girls operate out of bars - but they are all closed. Others operate by service where one or more girls are picked up at an inexpensive city centre hotel and driven to the customer, either pre-selected or for a parade. But the lockdown restrictions have spoiled that scheme. The only permitted purposes to go out are to go shopping for food, to visit a pharmacy, hospital or clinic. If someone wants to drive to a supermarket, for example, only the head of the household, or his representative, is permitted to go. One car, one person. It has been reported that a young man accompanying his mother to hospital was in a Grab car which was stopped at a roadblock. For his own protection, he was told he could not go to a hospital and told to call another Grab and to go home. In another reported case, a family of six went on a family shopping outing. Each member was given the maximum penalty of MYR1,000 (about GBP200) each. The delivery service for girls is next to impossible.

A tip from a reader pointed us towards dating sites: we were told that there had been a sudden rush of pretty young women, nicely dressed, good photographs, that had appeared all of a sudden. There was a pattern - the profiles were very short, the English was poor, the names were in Chinese and English. It was the pattern and the number of examples that were suspicious. The tip was correct: there was a raft of the profiles he had described. The photos were a similar style, all exactly the right level of demure and desirable. Two weeks later, they had all disappeared. But there were dozens of freelancers, many African but some apparently from Russia or nearby. Some were blatant. Our contact said that such adverts were not unknown but they were not common on that particular site.

A courier was asked to collect a package from one part of town and deliver it to another. He was surprised: the package was a pizza. En route, his suspicions grew and he looked into the box and found a package of drugs. He diverted to a police station. The story is incomplete. Guessing, which is all we have, we think that the sender arranged for collection from a place that wasn't his home or business and for delivery to a similar, imprecise, location. One might imagine that these facts would, of themselves, be a cause for suspicion but no: in these extraordinary times, all across Kuala Lumpur, deliveries, including food deliveries, are made to a building's lobby or, even, the street outside. This is because management companies are not allowing delivery persons inside buildings: until they restricted this, many buildings had one, even two, hundred deliveries to apartments each week. That's four hundred movements in lifts which are closed environment.

The pattern of crime has changed.

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