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Mexico's Cartels Distribute Coronavirus Aid to Win Support

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 5/15/2020 José de Córdoba
a little girl that is holding a suitcase © fernando carranza/Reuters

MEXICO CITY—Mexico’s drug cartels are in a war for the hearts and minds of poor Mexicans, providing them with food and supplies as they struggle to survive the economic meltdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Since the coronavirus struck Mexico, a plethora of videos and photographs uploaded to social media have shown what appear to be cartel operatives in about a dozen states handing out food packages marked with the logos of the different criminal groups to lines of Mexicans. In some cases the videos show the food being distributed by heavily armed men, driving in military-style trucks with cartel markings.

The videos couldn’t be independently verified, but the locations, dates and scenes of some of the videos were consistent with the purported relief efforts of one of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations, Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, according to an analysis by Storyful, a social media intelligence company. Storyful is owned by News Corp, parent of Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones. Mexican government officials also confirmed the aid efforts by the cartels.

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The beneficence of the cartels is the latest sign of their capacity to challenge and embarrass a Mexican government whose resources have been stretched thin by the crisis. 

With Mexico’s economy contracting amid the pandemic, the government is making small monthly cash payments to small businesses. But the president has vowed not to resort to debt to cushion what economists expect to be Mexico’s biggest economic contraction on record—as much as 10% for the year.

The narco philanthropy has alarmed analysts, state and federal officials. It has drawn an irritated rebuke from Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has made providing cash to Mexico’s poorest the cornerstone of his program to fight the country’s economic crisis.

“Lay off giving aid,” the Mexican president admonished the narco groups at a recent morning news conference. The silver-haired populist said Mexico’s drug traffickers weren’t helping the country with their charity. “We continue to have a problem with homicides, not even the situation of coronavirus has calmed them. They should not come now distributing aid,” he said.

Security analysts say Mexico’s powerful cartels and criminal gangs are using the pandemic to build up their popular base in areas they control or dispute, adding a layer of protection when law enforcement authorities target them. “It’s a challenge to the state,” says Renato Sales, a former top Mexican law-enforcement official.

Drug traffickers-turned-philanthropists are just the latest challenge posed by powerful organized crime groups to Mexico’s government and the rule of law. Already, cartels and criminal gangs extort businesses large and small throughout the country, creating an informal parallel tax system and discouraging local and foreign investment. In many areas of Mexico, they go to little trouble to hide their muscle, barreling along roads in armed convoys of SUVs marked with the initials of the cartel to which they belong.

Cartels control vast swaths of Mexico’s territory, and their gunmen enjoy almost total impunity. The murder rate has tripled to about 29 per 100,000 in little over a decade. The gunmen are rarely brought to trial.

More than 250,000 Mexicans have died and another 60,000 have gone missing in the country’s drug violence since 2006, the year the government ordered the military to confront the country’s cartels. Most have been victims of the internecine violence between the cartels for control of routes and territory.

During the pandemic, the organized crime groups have handed out food in recent weeks in 11 states, and they have used threats and violence to enforce their own quarantines in two states, according to Causa Comun, a Mexico City-based think tank.

In one video making the rounds in social media, men whose faces are hidden by a black balaclava give packages of food in Mexico’s second-largest city of Guadalajara to a long line of waiting people.

“This is from Mr. Mencho,” says one man, referring to Nemesio Oseguera, the head of the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación. The cartel’s booming exports of cocaine, fentanyl and methamphetamine to the U.S. have earned Mr. Oseguera a spot on the list of most wanted fugitives by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Another video appears to show a convoy of the cartel’s operatives handing out packages of food in the city of Tecalitlan in Jalisco state in western Mexico. The slickly produced video, in part shot by a drone, shows groups of happy, rural residents holding up their aid packages and thanking Mr. Oseguera in unison. The sound track is a traditional ballad memorializing the drug lord’s epic deeds and generosity.

“They want to come off as Robin Hoods,” says Irving Barrios, the attorney general of the border state of Tamaulipas, across the Rio Grande from Texas, where similar incidents have taken place during the pandemic.

Distributing despensas, as the food aid is known in Mexico, is a time-honored practice by politicians of all stripes.

Some local officials are racing to counteract the narcos’ propaganda efforts. Zapopan Mayor Pablo Lemus said he showed up two days after Jalisco cartel gunmen briefly distributed a few food packages in his town, a suburb of Guadalajara, to give out his own aid, which he says was much more extensive than the token effort by the narcos. The mayor, who has been giving out aid packages for weeks, said the narcos’ aid effort was staged to make people believe the narcos are stronger than the government.

Mr. Lemus has urged other local mayors to counteract the narcos’ philanthropy. “If other municipal governments don’t have programs of this type, a vacuum will be left that criminals will fill,” he says.

In the border state of Chihuahua, heavily armed gunmen in pickups bearing the image of Osama bin Laden distributed packages of food and other supplies in four cities and towns. The gunmen belong to a cell of the Sinaloa cartel known as Gente Nueva, whose local leader goes by the nickname of “El bin Laden.” The group later sent videos and photos of their distribution efforts to local media, says Carlos Huerta, the spokesman for the state attorney general.

Thumbing their nose at Mexican authorities, Gente Nueva hung a banner bearing the image of the late bearded terrorist from a bridge in Parral, taunting the colonel in charge of the local army detachment.

“Mr. Colonel Rocke Ruiz, if it bothers you so much that the Gente Nueva are helping the people, why don’t you give them aid packages, instead of taking them away?” one sign reads.

An aide to the colonel said the officer wouldn’t comment. Mexico’s defense ministry didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Huerta says there are arrest warrants out for “bin Laden,” whose real name is Antonio Leonel Camacho, and five other local drug lords. The Gente Nueva cell has grown wealthy after trafficking drugs and stolen gasoline and diesel for years, making it a well-armed, formidable force, Mr. Huerta said.

In another sign of the cartels’ control of territory, some organizations are enforcing curfews they have declared in towns amid the pandemic and threatening those who violate them with violence. One video uploaded to social media appears to show operatives of the Sinaloa cartel using a paddle marked “Covid 19” to whack the naked buttocks of a man caught violating a cartel-imposed quarantine.

Later, the men in the video say that in enforcing the curfew, they are following the orders of the sons of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, who have largely controlled the Sinaloa cartel since their father was extradited to the U.S. and sentenced in 2019 to life in prison.

In Guadalajara, a daughter of Mr. Guzmán, who markets clothing and other items based on her father’s notoriety, has also been distributing food packages decorated with a drawing of the elder Guzmán.

Some analysts say the Mexican president is partly to blame for the cartels’ new swagger. Mr. López Obrador, who blames drug violence on Mexico’s poverty and inequality, for the first year of his term dropped previous governments’ policy of confronting organized crime. Instead, he opted for a policy dubbed “abrazos, no balazos,” or “hugs, not bullets,” which consisted of offering more job and educational opportunities to prevent young people from being lured into gangs.

After some setbacks, he has recently put the military back in charge of taking on cartels. Last October, the Mexican government was forced to free the elder Guzmán’s son, who had been briefly captured by the military, after hundreds of Sinaloa cartel gunmen took control of Culiacán, the state capital.

In March, during a presidential tour of Mr. Guzmán’s home territory in the Sinaloa mountains to supervise a road-building project, Mr. López Obrador, in a widely criticized meeting, briefly shook hands with the imprisoned drug lord’s 92-year-old mother, and said he supported her efforts to obtain a U.S. visa to visit her son in prison.

Write to José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com

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