Mexico Cartels Hand Out Food Amid Coronavirus Pandemic

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Recent cases of criminal groups distributing supplies in Mexico suggest that the coronavirus pandemic has presented an opportunity to cultivate popular support and consolidate territorial control in areas where people are in desperate need of aid. 

At the beginning of April, members of the Gulf Cartel reportedly handed out boxes of food to residents in poor neighborhoods in Matamoros and Ciudad Victoria of Tamaulipas state.

Other cartels have made similar gestures. The Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel de Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG) distributed boxes of pantry items around the state of San Luis Potosí, La Opinión reported. The boxes were labeled with a sign that read: “On behalf of your friends from the CJNG, COVID-19 contingency support.” The Zetas did the same in Coatzacoalcos, Veracruz.

In the city of Guadalajara, the eldest daughter of former Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Alejandrina Gisselle, handed out provisions to elderly residents. The boxes were stamped with her father’s name and image. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Coronavirus and Organized Crime

The Nueva Familia Michoacana’s supplies were stamped with a more oblique reference, using decals of a fish and a strawberry to allude to the aliases of cartel leaders Jhony Hurtado Olascoaga, alias “El Mojarro,” and his brother, José, whose nickname is “La Fresa.” The images were found on items distributed April 19 in regions in the states of México and Guerrero.

Even smaller crime groups also took part. In the Tierra Caliente region, Los Viagras published videos of their members handing out food on April 7. Other rival bands in the region also organized food banks, according to the Guardian.

InSight Crime Analysis

Crime groups in Mexico have a long history of providing aid in marginal neighborhoods to gain social acceptance and support by showing they will provide what the government cannot.

The Sinaloa Cartel, for example, acts as a “parallel state” in some of the regions where they exercise control, investing in the construction of schools, hospitals and houses. Such assistance provides the group relatively stable control over its territories. 

Even the Gulf Cartel and Zetas, known for their extreme violence, have used these types of activities to burnish their images with locals. During its heyday in 2006, for example, the Gulf Cartel organized parties for children in communities of Tamaulipas, and in 2011, the Zetas did the same in Coahuila.

Actions taken by the CJNG can be interpreted similarly. While the group does not have the same long history as the others, it has earned a reputation for violence during its recent expansion. Recently, the CJNG has participated in seemingly altruistic activities, such as handing out lunches in Jalisco in December 2019 and giving toys to children in Veracruz this January

The coronavirus pandemic, which has left people in desperate need of food, has provided an opportunity not only for major criminal groups to consolidate their power and support, but also relatively small groups to establish territorial control. 

SEE ALSO: What Does Coronavirus Mean for Criminal Governance in Latin America?

Los Viagras, for example, have clashed with the CJNG and other criminal groups in Tierra Caliente in recent years. The criminal group, which grew out of the Familia Michoacana and the Knights Templar, inherited social outreach from its predecessors in the region of Michoacán, Falko Ernst, a senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group, told InSight Crime.   

“To a certain extent, [the groups are] selling the notion to the population that they are the ones that provide security,” Ernst said. 

In the ongoing pandemic, groups see an opportunity to further entrench themselves in certain communities. The support of the local population also serves as political capital.

“You have more leverage with the local government to perpetuate impunity for the criminal organization, and in this way perpetuate the [group’s] survival,” Ernst said. 

It’s too soon to determine whether food handouts will help groups consolidate territorial control. What is known, however, is that given the difficulties generated by the pandemic, providing needed aid now may serve them well later.

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