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

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.

Empty streets during coronavirus restrictions make spies' jobs harder, says MI5 chief

“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,”…

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