Lockdowns have stopped people moving. And fugitives are running out of places to hide


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Qiu Binhua, from Shenmu City, Shaanxi Province, was believed to have sold the body for a ritual, making 5,000 yuan ($760) profit, according to police.

Qiu had fled to Hulestai Sumu, in the western part of Inner Mongolia, where officers had begun trying to contain the coronavirus by scanning QR codes of passers-by and setting up checkpoints.

“Qiu, who had been in a panic for a long time, was under pressure and finally turned himself into the Hulestai Police on February 11,” police said in an announcement after his arrest.

Without an ID card, he had no means of escape, they said.

Less movement, more surveillance

Fugitives are encountering new challenges when it comes to hiding out during a global pandemic, with movement restricted in many countries. Some have been forced to hand themselves in, while others have been caught as they traveled.

But as law enforcement ramps up its efforts to locate wanted criminals, the most astute have tried to capitalize on changes to daily life to continue their game of cat and mouse.

When people desert normally busy areas such as 42nd Street in New York City, pictured here on May 12, it presents new challenges for fugitives trying to hide out.

During the UK’s spring lockdown, the country’s National Crime Agency (NCA) arrested nearly 300 fugitives “which is substantially more than we’d usually see,” Arthur Whitehead, operations manager of the NCA’s International Crime Bureau, told CNN. The work was part of “concerted efforts” under Operation Suricate, launched during lockdown to locate fugitives and help make arrests.

The arrests included Arshid Ali Khan, wanted in the Netherlands for allegedly sexually abusing a child and on the run for six years. NCA investigators conducted financial checks that traced Khan to the English city of Leicester, where local police arrested him in April.

“Lockdown was unique for us because it produced an opportunity for limited travel for those serious organized criminals that look to evade us on a regular basis and gave us an opportunity to exploit intelligence, and we were able to act quickly,” Whitehead said.

David John Walley, left, and Arshid Ali Khan are among the fugitives detained in the UK as law enforcement ramped up efforts during the pandemic.

“By its nature, having the lockdown period meant that people did change their behavior so people became more reliant on technology, became more reliant on where they were.”

He said one arrest took place thanks to the fact that the target was not wearing a mask, which made them stand out in that particular location.

“It wasn’t one tactic that we focused on, it was a broad range of looking at cases on an individual basis seeing where we can understand what behavior of that person might be, where they might go,” he added.

In late May, David John Walley, an alleged drugs trafficker who had been wanted since 2013, was arrested by Greater Manchester Police as he celebrated his 45th birthday at a property in the area. Mark Fitzgibbon, a drug trafficker from Merseyside and one of Britain’s most wanted, was arrested at Liverpool airport in July after flying in from Portugal after 16 years on the run.

Identifying weaknesses

Brazilian authorities tracking gang lord Gonzalo Sanchez spent three months monitoring his inner circle on the southern border of Rio de Janeiro state earlier this year, according to an Interpol statement.

The pandemic meant street footfall was down, making it harder for police to hide their presence, and restrictions on gatherings meant that Sanchez would not be attending religious events.

But thanks to their increased monitoring, law enforcement eventually found the opportunity they needed in the form of a family reunion. In May, the task force received intelligence indicating that a group of people close to Sanchez were traveling up the coast to the Taquari hinterland, an exposed area with few houses beside a large mountainous nature reserve. Police approached cautiously and spoke to locals who directed them to a house where Sanchez was found with family and friends and arrested.

Brazilian police arrest fugitive Gonzalo Sanchez, center, in May as part of an operation involving Interpol's Fugitive Investigative Support unit. Interpol has blurred Sanchez's face in accordance with its general policy.

Stefano Saioni, who runs Interpol’s EL PAcCTO (Europe Latin America Technical Assistance Programme against Transnational Organized Crime) support project, told CNN the case worked thanks to “great cooperation” between Brazil and Argentina.

He said increased information sharing and use of technology such as border management monitoring system had enabled his team to arrest 10 fugitives and positively locate four since the beginning of the pandemic. The team has arrested 60 fugitives since October 2017.

“It is possible based on certain pattern analysis to try and anticipate what somebody might do, based on what we know about their vulnerabilities,” said Julie Clegg, a private investigator and founder of Human-i Intelligence Services in Canada, told CNN.

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“With any fugitive you have to first and foremost figure out, what are their emotional weaknesses, what’s the vulnerability… often it’s news of parents getting sick, or a child.”

Clegg said the pandemic tended to make people “go to ground a little bit more” and stick closely to their network, which can assist law enforcement.

“Fugitives do tend to move around and then they’ll hunker down in a certain place that they feel safe for a period of time, and then they’ll move on,” she said.

For fugitives who have arrived in a new place and are limited by Covid regulations, she added, “potentially the risk of being captured is way higher.”

Clegg said she had seen “quite an increase in the number of fugitives handling themselves in” in parts of Asia, particularly if they were trapped in areas where the spread of coronavirus was particularly high or medical care of a low standard.

In Europe, too, she said that different lockdown levels “force people to move to a neighboring city or a neighboring town or outside of their comfort zone maybe just long enough for them to be picked up.”

Change in tactics

While some aspects of lockdown make it harder to hide, others provide opportunity for creative fugitives to exploit — such as police distraction, widespread mask-wearing and increased use of digital environments.

Clegg said “smart fugitives” would avoid planes during lockdown “unless they’re trying to get back to a family member,” and cargo ships remained an available covert method of transport.

She said that her workload had grown and shifted away from CCTV and facial recognition software towards detailed profiling of fugitives, as many turn to encrypted communications services such as Telegram and Signal, cryptocurrency and the dark web.

“You can wear a face covering now and you’re not going to get picked up by any facial recognition cameras; CCTV is going to have a really difficult time tracing you,” she said, noting that “criminals are very agile.”

“We’ve really had to change a lot of the ways that we work, we’ve had to learn the new platforms,” she said, adding that her team were focused on digging deep into fugitives’ networks to predict behavior using machine learning, artificial intelligence and geo-location tools.

The pandemic has presented unique challenges for global law enforcement, which is grappling with high murder rates, spikes in domestic violence and abuse, and new financial scams. The FBI has warned of the need for increased vigilance around hackers, scammers and children spending more time at home online.
Australian fugitive found hiding in ship's air-conditioning vent with cash and a knife

Peter Bleksley, a founding member of Scotland Yard’s undercover unit and author of Manhunt, told CNN that burglaries and street robberies had been replaced by cybercrime, frauds and scams, “because people were at home, spending a lot more time on their laptops.”

He said that shrewder fugitives were much harder to locate online because “they know that every keystroke leaves a trace, every contact leaves a trace.”

Police worldwide are now dealing with extra Covid-related work, staff shortages and new safety protocols, which can create gaps for fugitives to benefit from.

Jeremy Douglas, regional representative for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said criminals were moving towards the region’s less carefully policed countries during the pandemic.

“It looks like organized crime groups, in part as a result of Covid, have accelerated their movement towards vulnerable jurisdictions that have not been able to maintain law and order as effectively as others,” he said.

He pointed to huge variability between countries such as Singapore, where the government tightly controls the entire territory, and nations including Laos, Myanmar or Cambodia.

Douglas said the UNODC noticed early this year that law enforcement in the region was being reassigned to public safety and lockdown measures, and might be distracted.

“We started observing that this could be a significant problem — distraction is an opportunity for criminals,” Douglas told CNN.

He said that crossing certain borders became easier for criminals during the pandemic. The UNODC quickly saw that border police were “overwhelmed” by the volume of crossings, as economic slowdown and job losses caused migrants to return to their home countries.

“Governments on both sides of borders suddenly became concerned that they couldn’t do health screening checks which raised concerns about usual checks on smuggling and trafficking,” he said. Many borders in the Mekong region — which encompasses Myanmar, parts of southern China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia — remain “porous,” Douglas added.

The UNODC representative said that while some fugitives in the area may have been arrested because of border shutdowns or a lack of flights, “major organized crime groups were not impacted in the same way — they have influence.”

“Lower-level fugitives and criminals have not been able to capitalize on Covid, but the big boys, yes. They’ve been able to take advantage of it.”

John “Buck” Smith, a former US Marshal turned consultant and trainer to law enforcement, told CNN that while Covid had forced investigators to prioritize, they were adapting.

“The main resources are being put towards more violent offenders,” he said. “White collar crimes are at the bottom of the pile.

“We are tasked with going after these fugitives and Covid-19, although it has limited some of our resources in going after them and we have had to prioritize more, I can tell you that Marshal Services are still looking for fugitives, still making arrests.”

CNN’s Hannah Zhang contributed to this report.

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