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April 04, 2018

What are 'sand mafias?'

They're not helmed by Tony Soprano, but they're more dangerous than you might think

Criminology Economics
sand Xinhua/Sipa USA

An Egyptian worker carries sand at the construction site of the "new Suez Canal" project in Ismailia port city, northeast of Cairo, Egypt, on Aug. 10, 2014.

Lots of insider-sounding lingo gets thrown around in media, but perhaps one of the most confounding, for anyone following international headlines, is the reference to "sand mafias."

So, what's the deal: Is there a Soprano-style family for sand, or is the term hyperbole? And how does sand fit into the equation, anyway? 

Curious, we reached out to Aunshul Rege, a professor of criminal justice at Temple University who's studied sand mafias and, beyond that, the complicated subject of organized crime. 

What is a sand mafia?

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So, sand is actually--it has a lot of uses in everyday products, like water filtration, or you'll see it, in some form, in technology. It's used in brick and glass and used in golf courses, and of course, as far as this topic is concerned, it's used in construction because sand is a key ingredient for concrete and you need concrete for construction. In countries like India, the construction industry there is really large. The third-largest construction sector behind the U.S. and China. And it's expected, in the next 20 years, it's going to be--the construction will be worth about $256 billion U.S. dollars. The question becomes, "Is there enough sand to meet that need for high-rises?" And the answer is no, right? Typically, the legally available sand, we're limited by that. 

There are construction companies with permits to excavate sand, but they are subjected to specific quotas, they need to pay royalties or tariffs on what they mine, and so the supply, the legally available supply, is far less than what is needed. As in any time you're going to have a shortage of supply and high demand, those are ripe conditions for organized crime. We've seen that and there's nothing new here with that supply-and-demand aspect of the equation.

If legally available sand is not enough, we need to get it a different way. That brings up illegal sand mining that happens. The group engaged in excavating sand is basically the sand mafia.


The 'IAQ' Fast Facts

•"Sand mafias" aren't really mafias in the family-run sense of the word, but rather describe networks that may be connected in the world of organized crime.

•Sand is an increasingly valuable natural resource in India because of the high demand for concrete, as construction booms.

•It's thought that the black market trade of sand exists because of regulatory caps put on the amount of sand a corporation can legally excavate. 

•There's a larger fear that unregulated, adulterated sand could lead to poor construction quality and, possibly, building collapses among new Indian high-rises.

•No, sand can't just be mined from the desert.


Is this a new phenomenon?

I didn't hear about it until three years ago. I heard about it on the news and said, "Well, construction has been going on for a long time." The booming construction has really set it off. And also, what happened was it got a lot of attention in the media ... when there as an officer who challenged the sand mafia in her area, and she was immediately suspended. And there was a great public outcry and they wanted her reinstated, and so she did get reinstated, but that's something that triggered dialogue in India.

What makes this a mafia? Most probably imagine Tony Soprano.

That's a great question. The typical person who hears "mafia"--and it's not [what you'd think]. You see certain traces of the organized crime, but organized crime is not always top-down hierarchical family-run groups. But you could have--in transnational operations like drug trafficking or sex trafficking--a network-based structure. The sand mafia is not one mafia, it is a bunch of mafias. Small, defragmented groups that operate in different parts of the country. And they're not all connected. In fact, they compete against each other in trying to get their hands on the product. The name, it was the media that came up with the phrase, but it's not your typical "mafia" representation that grabs the mind. It varies. Because it can be small groups of people, local fishermen, who want to do this, all the way up to corporations that already have permits and engage in legal sand mining, but because they have the equipment they can go over those quotas and deal in illicit sand mining.

Did these black market criminals exist before sand was recognized as a much-demanded resource?

The answer is they have been here for awhile, but it's increased recently. But they were involved in other types of activities requiring similar resources. Mining minerals, gems, all those kinds of things that require the diving underwater, things along those lines. They had those skills, resources, so they can engage in sand mining easily. And just because you're doing illicit sand mining doesn't mean you're exclusive to that. You maximize what you do with the same set of resources.

Any U.S. equivalent? 

No, not that I know of. The closest I can think of is fracking-related operations, and there's a lot of--here, it would be corporate crime, along those lines. Corporations engaged in fracking that violates the protection of the environment and air. What pollutants you're releasing in the air, noise, dust, that kind of thing.

But there is an equivalent in Italy, called the eco-mafia. "Earth movers." In that case, the mafia is actually the mafia – engaged in a very much well-known crime family in Italy. And what they do is take it a step further: Not only do they excavate sand for construction, they're in the business of radioactive waste dumping. When they dig holes for excavating sand, they use the holes for their other business of dumping waste.

How do you sell sand? What kind of measurement do you use?

First, the price of legally obtained sand is twice the price of illegally obtained sand, if we're looking at cost. If you look at an average-sized truck in India, with a capacity of 1,500 lbs., then it would be about 6,000 rupees a truck which comes out to about $96 a truck, which is--if you were to take one pound of sand it'd be about 2 cents. But these numbers are coming through media assessments. There's just no data about this.

And this surely can't be a sustainable practice? Mining sand?

How sustainable is it? Let's just say that over a three- to four-year period, people engaging in riverbed mining--by that I mean you go all the way down to the riverbed floor and scoop up the sand. Sand, once available at 50 feet a couple years ago, maybe five, is now available at 150 feet. So it's depleting. No doubt about it. And you can't just use any sand – it needs to be quality. You can't go to a desert and use that sand. So there are only certain areas that are really good. And as of now--it could go maybe another five years and then we don't know what the ramifications will be. There have already been landslides because of changes in river courses. 

But because it's happened over time, nobody can attribute it to that activity. And the problem with answering that is there's just no data being collected on that. And because it's illicitly obtained sand there are also no quality checks on that sand. They add other things, adulterate, to make it last longer. They want [the supply to be] larger so they'll mix with other things. This is very scary because you're building high-rises with adulterated sand that is no longer strong, and this could cause building collapses as well.

How are these mafias not caught? You can't be discreet about it. It's no small operation.

Here's why they don't get caught: 1) Because they're working very closely with local politicians, they have a blessing. There are corrupt law enforcement officers. There's corruption. No. 2 is if they do get caught when someone does challenge the sand mafia, if you're lucky you'll be transferred or suspended--if you're lucky. Unlucky options are using intimidation or violence. They might use brutal practices like setting off a fire. 

Sometimes they use very violent tactics. Some people have been crushed to death with the very equipment used to excavate the sand. Some activists have been brutally assaulted. If you do challenge it, good luck, basically.

What can we learn or take away from this knowledge of sand mafias? 

If I were to send a message out there, people don't think of sand as something that can be--when we think about natural resources the closest we come to is timber, maybe wildlife. But we don't talk about sand. And again, India is not the only country where this happens. That's the first thing. 

The second thing is to understand what the long-term ramifications of this are for environmental harm. If you keep mining [riverbeds] for a long period of time you're going to change the geography of an area. What are we doing to the species that live there? How do we even begin to assess what the environmental harms of something like this are? And the third thing is, for a group that doesn't engage in something as risky as child or sex trafficking, something where if you are caught, the punitive aspects are quite large, you're going to get the toughest of all sentences. That's not the case over here because of crime. It's thought of as a victimless crime because it's sand. So, even though the danger is minimal for the people engaging in this, or minimal at best, the amount of violence used by the group is almost parallel to those [other groups in organized crime activities].

It's not a victimless crime just because it's sand.