Last week cartel gunmen ambushed a police convoy in central Mexico, killing thirteen law enforcement officers. The attack was the deadliest of its kind in Mexico since October 2019. Rising violence highlights the ongoing threat of criminal and drug trafficking groups, who have contributed to insecurity in Mexico since the 1980s. Although Mexico’s transnational criminal organizations (TCO) experienced an initial disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, they quickly adapted and benefitted from the resulting chaos. In the absence of a strong state response, these TCOs have employed innovative methods of production and trafficking while exploiting security gaps to deepen their societal influence.
Mexico’s Transnational Criminal Organizations
Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO) have exploited a poverty, instability, and corruption in Mexico to gain political and criminal power. TCOs commit crimes such as murder, corruption, money laundering, kidnapping, extortion, and the trafficking and smuggling of drugs, weapons, and humans. Drug trafficking-related violence has been marked by murders of opposition journalists and officials, beheadings, public hangings, and staggering homicide rates. Approximately 150,000 people have been killed since 2006 and thousands internally displaced. Territorial expansion into the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras), and across the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border has escalated violent competition between groups over illicit markets and trafficking routes.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration’s 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment, Mexican TCOs are the largest drug trafficking threat to the United States. Mexican TCOs dominate the U.S. drug market and maintain strong affiliations with American criminal groups and gangs to distribute their illicit products. Since former Mexican President Felipe Calderon launched a war on drug cartels in 2006, the U.S. Government has provided Mexico with billions of dollars in counternarcotics and security assistance.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, three main periods of transition have affected Mexico’s transnational criminal organizations: disruption, adaptation, and exploitation.
Mexican TCO operations were initially disrupted by government measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. Border closures and travel restrictions delayed trafficking networks and the supply of chemicals used to produce synthetic drugs, and lockdown orders made meetings virtually impossible for supplies, dealers, and customers. In addition, illicit financial networks used by Mexican TCOs were disrupted by the pandemic — specifically bulk currency transport, illicit money broker processing, as well as Chinese and trade-based money laundering operations. Many cartels were forced to cut salaries or furlough low-level employees such as truck drivers, warehouse workers, and security guards.
Mexican TCOs have proven their resilience to systematic shocks, from the Mexican government’s cartel crackdown in 2006 to a variety of national and international crises. The COVID-19 pandemic did not significantly impact the long-term trafficking and production capacity of Mexican TCOs, which quickly adopted alternative routes and methods for business operations. Cartels have made use of drones and sea routes along with reactivating old dormant underground tunnels to smuggle drugs across borders. In light of lockdown restrictions and social distancing measures, drug transactions and money laundering activities have increasingly transitioned to cryptocurrency.
In many ways, systematic shocks provide opportunities for criminal and drug-trafficking groups to undermine state authority and legitimacy. Law enforcement agencies’ budgets have been strained as the Mexican government focuses its resources on public health measures to control the spread of COVID-19. The resulting security gaps have given TCOs increased mobility and caused fighting among rival groups to rise. The pandemic-driven financial crisis shrank the Mexican economy by 8.5% in 2020 and caused unemployment rates to soar. Poor populations without social safety nets were hit especially hard. In an effort to boost societal support, cartels began distributing aid to struggling communities. These social welfare provisions highlight the increasing legitimacy of criminal and drug-trafficking groups amidst diminishing State capacity.
Criminal and drug trafficking groups are using the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine the legitimacy of the Mexican government. The shared U.S.-Mexico border and significant contribution of Mexican cartels to the U.S. drug trade makes TCOs a national security threat. As the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates criminal violence and instability throughout Mexico, the U.S. must support a key regional ally while protecting its borders. Maintaining U.S. counternarcotics and security assistance is crucial to enhancing the capacity of Mexican law enforcement agencies stretched thin by the pandemic. In addition, U.S and Mexican border security forces must enhance communication and cooperation to successfully implement the Biden administration’s asylum policy and ensure criminal and drug trafficking groups don’t take advantage of eased-up border restrictions.