Heroin Trade Becoming “Uber-ised” in Mozambique

Groups trafficking heroin through Mozambique are turning to the gig economy and smartphone apps to coordinate their activity, allowing them to save money and reduce the risk of being caught.

Illegal heroin is estimated to be Mozambique's second biggest export; between 10 and 40 tonnes of the drug are illegally trafficked through the east African country of Mozambique every year, with an estimated total value of between $200m and $800m. Shipments of the drug often enter the country via boat from Pakistan, and leave the country by land with an eventual destination of Europe via South Africa. This illicit trade has long been domestically tolerated, and even protected, by corrupt Mozambican politicians – but the rise of the smartphone-based gig economy is allowing criminal groups to streamline the trafficking process without political involvement.

The findings are part of a working paper written by Dr Joseph Hanlon of the London School of Economics - The Uberization of Mozambique's heroin trade (PDF) – published in July 2018.

Hanlon writes that people in Mozambique are being recruited and paid to undertake ad-hoc drug trafficking jobs via encrypted apps. Unlike joining organised criminal groups, this approach allows people to remotely accept offers from network controllers - similar to how drivers can choose their own journeys and hours for taxi app Uber.

Reasons for this phenomenon include the increasingly strong mobile phone coverage in the country in recent years, easy access to smartphones with encrypted messaging services (such as WhatsApp or Telegram), and high youth unemployment. People who work ordinary jobs can supplement their income without having to join organised criminal groups.

There are many benefits for the groups who commission the tasks; remotely hiring individuals for specific activities, rather than coordinating a collaborative team, can save money and reduce risk.

Using this approach, trafficking groups rely less on corrupting senior officials, and can instead assure their heroin’s transportation with low-level bribery.

“Within Mozambique, the generalised corruption in police and the state apparatus made ordinary bribes to police and others faster and easier than high level political protection,” Hanlon writes.

Additionally, this approach allows for the involvement of people who primarily work in legal professions – meaning those transporting the drugs are less likely to be noticed by investigators. For example, Hanlon says, “a driver of a boat … may just receive a WhatsApp message telling them to go to a particular point to collect a heroin parcel - just like calling an Uber taxi”.

This “Uberisation” also reduces the potential for informants to reveal a trafficking group’s activity to the government, as individuals assigned to a task may have little to no idea of who they are working for.

“International criminal networks have adopted social media and the gig economy, in part because it allows network members to be isolated from each other and be coordinated without knowing many other network members,” Hanlon states.

As apps fuelling the gig economy rise in popularity around the world, it is certainly possibly that the remote recruitment of people for ad-hoc drug trade activities could grow in prevalence too.