A helping hand? Amid pandemic, gangs cast themselves as protectors.

Why We Wrote This

The dynamic between government and gangs has always been complex. But where officials don’t lead, organized crime often steps in. With states critically tested during the pandemic, that relationship is in the spotlight.

Fernando Carranza/Reuters
An employee of the clothing brand El Chapo 701, owned by Alejandrina Gisselle Guzmán, daughter of the convicted drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, hands out a box of basic supplies during the COVID-19 pandemic, in Guadalajara, Mexico, April 16, 2020.

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As the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread in Latin America, leaders in its two largest countries, Brazil and Mexico, stood out for their blasé approach. The virus was just “a little cold,” Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro scoffed.

Meanwhile, organized crime took advantage of government leadership vacuums, setting curfews and handing out supplies. Gangs are known for persecuting the communities where they operate, but they also cast themselves as protectors. Amid the pandemic, such activities allow gangs to play up their role as pseudo-caretakers, positioning them to tighten their control, experts say. Even where gangs’ restrictions were short-lived, COVID-19 has highlighted underlying dynamics among governments, organized crime, and citizens. 

Gangs’ quick response “allows them to maintain control of the region and ingratiates the population,” says Juan Cedillo, a journalist who covers organized crime in Mexico. “They don’t do it out of the kindness of their hearts. It ... creates a circle of safety where they can conduct their illegal business without people reporting them.”

From medical access to economic safety nets, the effects of the pandemic have put inequality on display, says Ivan Briscoe, a Latin America expert at the International Crisis Group. And that inequality “fundamentally explains the ability to recruit and operate criminal groups.”

“We’re not on vacation, we’re in quarantine,” an announcement blasted from a car-mounted megaphone, bidding residents of a crowded Rio favela to remain indoors after 7:30 p.m. Thousands of miles north in the Mexican state of Guerrero, a banner told people to stay home: “If we find you outside, we’ll pick you up.”

Similar messages have been broadcast over the past two months in vulnerable communities across Latin America, from Colombia to El Salvador, Venezuela to Honduras. But these aren’t government PSAs. Leaders in Mexico and Brazil, in particular, have been late to react to the pandemic, and have denied its seriousness.

Local gangs and organized crime are taking advantage of government leadership vacuums, sometimes playing up their roles as pseudo-caretakers of forgotten citizens in marginalized neighborhoods. From setting curfews and enforcing them to handing out boxes of food and face masks, the criminal underworld – long thriving here – is positioning itself to come out of this pandemic with increased control over territory, and more deeply entrenched loyalty from locals, experts say.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Criminal groups are known for persecuting the communities where they operate, extorting businesses and exerting violence on civilians. But they also frequently cast themselves as protectors. As government lockdowns stomp out informal employment, erase incomes, and slow remittances, state attention is increasingly focused on the pandemic – creating openings for criminals to step in and try to win over more hearts and minds.

Not all groups are looking for the same results. Even in places like Brazil, where gangs quickly rolled back initial preventive measures in many Rio favelas, COVID-19 is highlighting the underlying dynamics among governments, organized crime, and citizens across the region.

“In some territories where crime is a powerful actor, these [criminal] groups have taken advantage of the moment to press themselves on local communities as the real guardians and providers,” says Ivan Briscoe, the International Crisis Group’s program director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “It can provide a veneer of responsible public service. And it’s a real factor of control.” 

Mexico: Gangs press their advantage

Latin American gangs have diversified and fragmented since the 1980s and ’90s. They increasingly rely on businesses beyond drugs, like extortion, kidnapping, and human trafficking, which arguably hit local businesses and communities hardest. But they still need social support – key in incentivizing locals to turn a blind eye to illegal activities.

In Mexico, winning that support might mean large-scale parties with big-ticket gifts. Or, in the wake of natural disasters, handing out cooking supplies. In April, the Gulf cartel in northern Mexico not only distributed boxes of basic goods stamped with its name, but also seemed to run a public relations campaign. Videos and photos were disseminated online and to local media, showing towers of boxes filled with aid. Cartels around the country orchestrated similar productions, a shift from past handouts that were typically carried out more quietly. The daughter of convicted drug trafficker “El Chapo” Guzmán appeared in videos on Facebook pulling together “El Chapo” care packages, reportedly delivered in multiple Mexican states, including one controlled by a major rival cartel.

“They often move faster than the government” when delivering aid, says Juan Cedillo, author of “The Hidden Narco Wars,” who covers organized crime in Mexico for a national newsmagazine. COVID-19 has been no different. The rush to acknowledge the difficult situation “allows them to maintain control of the region and ingratiates the population,” Mr. Cedillo says. “They don’t do it out of the kindness of their hearts. It ... creates a circle of safety where they can conduct their illegal business without people reporting them.”

For decades, the Mexican government has fought unsuccessfully to quash organized crime. Instead, groups have expanded their territories, and confrontations have led to an increasingly lethal landscape. 2019 was Mexico’s deadliest year, with some 34,500 people killed. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came into office promising to address the root causes of organized crime, like poverty and lack of opportunity. But he’s been criticized for leaning on a militarized approach similar to his predecessors’. 

Now with coronavirus in the mix, Mexico is diverting money earmarked for police training to the purchase of medical supplies, and the newly formed National Guard was moved to hospitals to protect medical professionals, opening up more opportunities for criminal groups to operate unchecked.

“Most people would prefer to have the government supporting them,” says Mr. Cedillo. What’s at risk when it pulls back during COVID-19 is that small businesses are more likely to turn to criminals for financial lifelines. “They will end up in the hands of the crime bosses, who will consolidate their power and come out on top,” Mr. Cedillo says. “Without a doubt organized crime is taking advantage of this moment.”

In many countries homicide and robbery rates are on the decline amid lockdowns. But most analysts agree organized crime will emerge more powerful, even if border closures and curfews have weakened their business models. This is a moment when nations struggling to overcome organized crime should be doubling down, according to Alejandro Hope, a security specialist in Mexico. But for the most part, “they are not even trying,” he wrote in an April 20 opinion piece for the Financial Times.

Brazil: Business as usual

The first coronavirus case in Rio’s City of God favela was registered in late March. Soon after, residents got clear messages from drug lords via WhatsApp audio messages, banners on the street, and a truck blasting a recording: Stay inside after dark – or face consequences.

Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has stood out globally for his blasé approach to the pandemic, which he’s referred to as “a little cold.” Brazil has more than 250,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and more than 16,000 deaths – one of the highest tallies in the world.

But despite the initial efforts – and scare tactics – in City of God, the gang-imposed measures didn’t last. They continued for “a week or two, maximum. After that ... people went back out on the street,” says Mayara, a resident who, like others in this story, asked to be identified only by her first name for security.

The owner of a barbershop continued trimming hair and shaping beards without a mask, a resident says. A sweets vendor carried on selling sticky cakes on a busy street corner. Bars and stores remained open, with dozens of people weaving through the favela’s narrow streets.

“Enforcing a lockdown doesn’t make any governing authority popular,” formal or otherwise, says Benjamin Lessing, a professor and researcher who studies criminal governance in Rio’s favelas. He says the crisis has brought into “sharp relief the places where gang governance is strong and state governance is weak.”

In some favelas, criminal groups quickly returned to business as usual – with a discount. In Rocinha, one of Latin America’s largest favelas, motorcycle taxis, widely used to scale the steep streets, now pay roughly $10 in extortion payments per week instead of the usual $17.

“Everything is as normal,” says José, a Rocinha resident. “They’re charging for a cut of the gas; they are charging the mototaxis; they’re charging the vans. ... And I see nothing here that has been done by the traffickers against coronavirus.”

In Brazil, many favelas already have a deeply entrenched criminal presence, which may mean gangs don’t need to solidify their hold through acts of leadership or goodwill, says Gabriel Feltran, author of a book about Primeiro Comando da Capital, Brazil’s largest criminal organization. In other parts of the region, turf battles are frequently the norm, leading to more creative efforts to win civilians over. Even in favelas that are under strong gang control, there’s traditionally some state presence. Gangs rarely get involved in health care – why start now?

Meanwhile, the gap is being plugged by residents and activists, Mr. Feltran says.

In Santa Marta, a favela that sits in the shadow of the Christ the Redeemer statue, a community organization is supporting needy families with food and monthly allowances. In Rocinha, residents donated hundreds of masks to a government-run health clinic, reversing expected leadership roles by providing help to the state.

The pandemic is doing one thing universally, says Mr. Briscoe: exposing inequality. Whether it’s access to medical attention or economic safety nets, the inequity put on display right now “fundamentally explains the ability to recruit and operate criminal groups,” even before COVID-19.

There’s a realization that “no country can ever claim to fully control the virus until the poorest, most vulnerable populations are also protected,” he says.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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