Coronavirus: Latin American crime gangs adapt to pandemic

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Woman hands out food parcels on behalf of the clothing company owned by El Chapo Guzman's daughterImage source, Reuters
Image caption,
Some gangs are reportedly handing out food parcels branded with the faces of their leaders

Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador made an unusual demand on Monday.

He told criminal gangs to stop donating food packages during the coronavirus crisis and instead focus on ending the violence which had left more than 100 people dead the previous day.

Mexican cartels are not the only ones who are continuing to operate - organised crime across Latin America, from Colombian gangs to Brazilian urban "militias", have continued to display their might throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, as BBC Monitoring's Latin America specialist Luis Fajardo reports.

On the afternoon of 7 April, as Colombia experienced its 14th consecutive day under a nationwide quarantine decreed to stem the spread of coronavirus, a large funeral procession made its way through the working-class suburb of Bello in the city of Medellín.

Hundreds joined the funeral cortège, held in blatant violation of social isolation rules, to honour Edgar Pérez Hernández.

The man who was also known as "El Oso" (The Bear) was the alleged head of Medellín's powerful Niquía-Camacol criminal gang. He had died the day before of a heart attack while in jail.

"Members of the crowd applauded, and fired their guns into the air," a local newspaper described the scene.

Business as usual?

Analysts have pointed out that, just like any other business in this unprecedented global health crisis, Latin American crime syndicates face an existential threat owing to the massive disruption to their international supply chains.

Mexican columnnist Héctor de Mauleón has pointed out some of the difficulties faced by the drug cartels. He says that not only have sales of illegal drugs fallen in the United States - the main market for Mexican cartels - but some of the precursor chemicals needed to make the drugs have also stopped arriving from China.

At the same time, with the US-Mexico border closed to everything but non-essential travel, drug smuggling has become more difficult.

"This cocktail heralds a jump in numbers of violent incidents between rival groups: the 'narcos' will be fighting over the scarce criminal opportunities available," Mr de Mauleón writes.

Figures gathered by Mexican daily Milenio seem to back Mr de Mauleón's fears. According to Milenio, March saw the highest monthly total of organised crime-linked homicides in Mexico in 13 years.

In border cities historically beset by cartel violence, that trend is being felt, too.

Smuggling galore

Despite the disruption to their business, Latin American criminal organisations are still attempting to send large volumes of illicit drugs across borders.

So far this year, Colombian security forces have been involved in operations leading to the seizure of 112 tonnes of cocaine, according to Colombian daily El Tiempo.

On 31 March, the Colombian navy intercepted a narco-submarine off Colombia's Pacific coast carrying a tonne of cocaine towards the United States. It was the twelfth such vessel to be seized this year.

Brazilian authorities have recognised the power of gangs in many urban areas

Gangs try to win hearts and minds

Drug cartels have also responded to the current crisis by trying to win over the local population. They have set up informal welfare schemes in communities which face economic ruin from the pandemic and which have received little or no help from the authorities.

Among the Mexican syndicates reported to have handed out food parcels "courtesy" of their bosses are the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, the Gulf Cartel and "Los Viagras".

Image source, Reuters

The extent to which criminal organisations have replaced state functions in Brazil in poor neighbourhoods was brought home when then-health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta told local officials earlier this month to talk with drug lords and gang leaders about how to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Mr Mandetta said that the authorities had to be realistic about who was in power in poor neighbourhoods. "We have to understand that these are areas where the state is often absent and the ones in charge are drug traffickers," he said.

A period of 'enormous weakness'?

Some commentators have suggested that, despite their attempts at adaptation, the cartels have become vulnerable.

"It is possible that in the next few weeks or months, a period of enormous weakness for organised crime will be reached, right at the moment when, as a result of the emergency, the state will broaden its faculties," wrote Mexican security expert Alejandro Hope in the Mexican daily El Universal.

"As life in the country returns to normal, the old patterns of illegal trafficking and criminal activity will return," he added.

"But it may be possible to make the most of this state of exception to create state presence where it has never existed, to dismantle the main gangs of organised crime, to subvert their legitimacy, and modify the relationship between citizenship and the security and justice apparatus," Mr Hope argued.

Regardless of the long-term impact on the cartels, in the short term, their efforts to weather the Covid-19 crisis will likely bring continued violence and a persistent challenge to state authorities already struggling with the health emergency across Latin America.