Last year ended with a record number of homicides in Mexico, and ACLED records comparable levels of violence through the first half of 2020. Despite the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, violence has not decreased. Organized criminal groups were quick to turn the crisis and virus-related confinement measures to their advantage.
In July 2020, ACLED recorded more violence against civilians involving gangs, though a slightly lower number of civilian fatalities, compared to July of last year. Though lockdown measures resulted in a net decrease of petty crime by 40% and a 20% drop in kidnappings and theft compared to 2019, drug dealing rose by 12% (Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System, 20 July 2020).
Several conclusions can be drawn from these figures and their implications for the gang landscape in Mexico. Weakened cartels and smaller splinter groups rely on diversified sources of revenue such as kidnapping, extortion, fuel theft, and human trafficking, all of which were significantly impacted by coronavirus confinement policies. So far in 2020, ACLED records a sharp drop in kidnappings perpetrated by criminal groups.
Meanwhile, larger cartels that are able to withstand the crisis have kept business as usual: drug seizures, armed clashes, and violence against civilians involving criminal groups have not been affected by coronavirus restrictions, remaining at similar overall levels compared to 2019. At the same time, some criminal groups used the weakening of their rivals as an opportunity to further expand their territory.
The Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), one of the most powerful cartels currently operating in Mexico, increased its activities in states bordering its stronghold, such as in Tamaulipas state, where they had a limited presence last year. Turf wars between cartels over the control of drug trafficking routes intensified. In Michoacan, though it is now only August, clashes between the CJNG and its rival Los Viagras exceed that of 2019 already. Similarly, clashes between the Gulf Cartel and the North-East Cartel over control of the Mexico-US border in Tamaulipas have reached unprecedented levels compared to 2019.
In the midst of violent clashes and retaliatory attacks, organized criminal groups have been waging a battle over popular support and have used the pandemic to reinforce their popularity through the distribution of branded aid. In some areas, cartels enforced curfews to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, threatening anyone daring to defy the measure (CIDE, 27 April 2020).
In the context of heightened gang violence, fear that cartels may overpower Mexican state forces persists. In July, following the release of a video displaying a procession of CJNG members a few days before his visit, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador renewed his vow to tackle organized crime by fighting poverty and preventing further cartel recruitment (OCCRP, 21 July 2020).
Due to the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, and with gangs positioning themselves as humanitarian benefactors, this commitment may prove difficult to fulfil. The Mexican economy has already lost over one million jobs since March (Reuters, 12 June 2020), and the president remains opposed to the bailout of private companies, auguring even greater job loss.
This promises a long recovery for the labor market, providing the unemployed an additional incentive to join the narco business. In addition, organized criminal groups enjoy higher levels of liquidity; their cash flow allows them to position themselves as lenders. In turn, this could create a new extortion model, giving cartels another source of income during the pandemic (The Conversation, 15 May 2020).
The government’s security strategy has so far failed to bear fruit. By some accounts, coronavirus lockdown measures could increase the visibility of cartel activities and play in favor of the Mexican state.
The capture of the leader of the Santa Rosa de Lima cartel on 2 August was a significant victory for Mexican law enforcement (DW, 2 August 2020). However, the number of drug seizures and clashes between criminal groups and law enforcement remain similar to levels recorded prior to the pandemic.
Furthermore, half a year after the deployment of the newly created National Guard, the Mexican government still struggles to contain the growth of gang activities.
In 2020, the participation of the National Guard in battling narco trafficking groups only accounted for 10% of clashes. The National Guard has at times shifted from its primary security function and instead contributed to the Mexican government’s efforts to curb illegal immigration or to guard coronavirus supplies and facilities during the pandemic (Aristegui Noticias, 11 April 2020). In a similar vein, the government allowed the shifting of municipal funds usually allocated to fight gangs to the health crisis (Infobae, 25 April 2020), further weakening the ability of local authorities to deter organized crime.
Civilians continue to be both caught in the crossfire and used as a medium for macabre messages sent between criminal groups. In the state of Guanajuato, 26 people were killed in an attack launched by the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel targeting a narco rehabilitation center sponsored by a rival group (New York Times, 2 July 2020).
Journalists and political figures continue to be specifically targeted, underscoring the cartel stranglehold on Mexican institutions weakened by rampant corruption. This trend is likely to worsen as the pandemic continues in cases where attacks can be monetized, as demonstrated by the recent kidnapping of a mayor in the state of Tamaulipas by the Gulf Cartel.
The Gulf Cartel is aiming to diversify its activity by engaging in targeted kidnappings to increase its liquidity amid the pandemic (El Blog del Narco, 30 July 2020). More worrying, criminal groups have begun forcefully recruiting children to participate in clashes in the Tierra Caliente, a hotspot for gang violence (El Blog del Narco, 1 August 2020).
Increased levels of violence are expected as the country resumes economic activity. As it struggles to address the pandemic, Mexico’s government is facing evolving challenges in the fight against organized crime.
Smaller groups that were hit harshly by coronavirus lockdown measures will further splinter and redouble violence to recover from their economic losses.
Larger groups will continue to strengthen their former and newly acquired territories, presaging intensified clashes with both state forces and rival gangs. Civilians will certainly be the main targets of new cartel strategies to rebuild revenue, while deepening poverty could create a steady stream of fresh recruits.
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ACLED / Balkantimes.press