In over a decade’s worth of interviews with members of criminal groups in Mexico, none would admit to me any weakness or fear beyond the occasional lamentation that things are tough – or, as they would say, que está cabrón. Projecting an unblemished image of strength and determination appears to be one of Mexican organized crime’s golden rules, meant to discourage any possibility that enemies might catch the scent of weakness and act upon it. But when the COVID-19-pandemic began to hit the country in March, this façade started to show some cracks.
Speaking over the phone in April, a white-collar broker providing services to an extensive list of clients, including the Jalisco Cartel, told me that “everyone [was] extremely worried.” Three reasons motivated this unusually frank statement. The Colombian government had paralyzed all international commercial flights, severing an important route for smuggling cocaine northwards. Stockpiles of precursor chemicals feeding one of Mexican organized crime’s golden geese – methamphetamine and fentanyl production and export to the United States – were running dangerously low. Only trickles were coming through from the principal source, China, where production had ground to a halt due to the pandemic. And on top of it all, the drop in global oil prices had dragged down domestic gasoline prices to a degree that was making another, hitherto highly lucrative criminal venue – oil siphoning or huachicoleo – unprofitable.
Criminal actors’ angst spurred hope among observers that the pandemic might be a blessing in disguise. Specifically, some thought the momentary lapse in strength could end up delivering a major blow to organized crime, and a boost for the state to win back lost ground.
But these hopes swiftly turned out to be inflated. More than almost any other part of society or the economy, criminal activity picked up and continued as before. The ability to adapt was a critical asset. For the broker mentioned above and his clients, the trick was to reroute cocaine shipments via Peru. Soon after, Chinese chemical production shot back up, as the country managed to contain the spread of the virus. Rising oil prices also helped ensure a swift slide back to normality in the oil siphoning market, which is crucial to the bottom line for an array of Mexican criminal groups.
Well before the pandemic struck, Mexico’s criminal groups had developed a general resilience to market shocks by diversifying away from a dependence on just drugs. The name of the game is increasingly holding territory in order to secure multiple sources of illicit revenue, chiefly extracted through extortion. If one source runs dry, there will be others to turn to – at least as long as there is legal economic activity that lacks protection. Groups based in the state of Michoacán- and Guerrero, for instance, have been making a killing from, and killing each other over, who gets to sell “protection” to lime farmers and gold miners.
While business was suffering a slump too ephemeral and shallow to make criminal organizations wither, levels of lethal conflict experienced no alterations at all. Throughout the pandemic, they have remained on a high plateau, generating homicide figures at or close to historical record levels seen over the past four years. A lieutenant for an armed group involved in the battle over Michoacán explained in a Crisis Group interview that the virus might be a threat, but that it pales in comparison to letting your guard down even for a second when you are caught up in a perpetual state of warfare. Doing so, he said, would invite attacks by enemy groups, and put at stake the survival of his organization, himself and his family.
Criminal leaders are also unlikely to have the health of their predominantly young troops at their mind when many routinely waste them as cannon fodder as it is. According to the lieutenant as well as some of those fighting against him, the perception in criminal ranks that the state’s limited capacity for attention, and reaction, was being consumed by the pandemic provoked even greater aggressiveness in territorial feuds. For the Jalisco Cartel, this also meant campaigning to translate gains in turf into political influence for purposes of the 2021 elections. It is the largest in Mexico’s history, with more offices up for grabs on all levels of government than ever before.
COVID-19, in short, has anything but remolded organized crime, or related lethal conflict, in Mexico. It has only underscored that if concerted action is not taken urgently, the structural bases of today’s violent conflicts could get even worse. With Mexico facing its worst economic crisis on record, the pandemic’s socio-economic fallout could increase the number of people in need, and thus expand the vulnerable populations criminal groups can draw on for recruits and support. That criminal groups are looking to exploit inequality, poverty and a lack of licit alternatives became clear early on in the pandemic when a number of them produced images of hand-outs to locals that they aggressively marketed on social media.
Avoiding an exacerbation of current conflicts will depend on a radical overhaul of the security paradigm along the lines of what President López Obrador promised in his campaign, but has yet to deliver on. Approaches overly reliant on force, and increasingly on the armed forces, have not worked and never will, especially when they are based on a uniform heavy-handed solution to what is now a mosaic of regionalized conflicts involving different resources, criminal groups, and dynamic interactions and arrangements between these and state actors. As it stands, Mexico is faced with such immense and chronic security challenges that short-term progress is unlikely, and a quick fix impossible.
Against this backdrop, a better approach with a realistic chance of proving effective would be to focus on a select number of regions producing the bulk of lethal conflict, such as Guanajuato, Guerrero, and Michoacán. Tailored regional intervention plans that focus on specific local dynamics stand the best chance of making a dent in lethal conflict, and could lay the bases for permanently reducing violence. Well-engineered public programs to provide licit economic alternatives are needed, and could be boosted by getting the private sector on board by highlighting that investing in a more stable future is in its interest. Drying up the flow of youngsters into the ranks of armed groups requires concerted investment geared at preventing recruitment and demobilizing operatives. Communities strained and, in some cases, torn apart by years of tit-for-tat violence will need a locally viable version of transitional justice, including mechanisms for truth-telling and reparations as well as potentially reduced sentences for offenders who cooperate. The use of force by police and military will still need to play a role, but it should be aimed at protecting civilian populations from criminal aggression, and at shielding the sort of programs that aim to weaken the hold of criminal groups.
All of this, however, hinges on the existence of capable state institutions working for the public good, and thus on radical transparency and accountability measures aimed at breaking circuits of corruption and collusion. Political will to move in this direction at the highest levels remains scarce, meaning that local and state-level officials should take the opportunity to experiment, introduce pilot schemes and draft blueprints for local action.
Local efforts in this direction already exist. But they tend to be short-lived, underfunded, and hemmed in on all sides by adversity. It is here that international partners should step up, whether by providing material and technical support or diplomatic backing to these efforts. Given the rising humanitarian toll resulting from Mexico’s conflicts – according to the country’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography, 1.7 million Mexicans abandoned their homes due to insecurity last year alone – it would be in the interests of its neighbor to the north to recognize that current ways of dealing with insecurity do not work. These methods, which for decades the United States promoted and funded, can no longer be justified and need to be overhauled. Mexico should seek the help of its friends and allies in taking on this challenge, and the incoming Biden administration should step to the front of the line in answering the call.
Falko Ernst is senior Mexico analyst at The International Crisis Group. Read his report in full.