If bad people do good things, then are they necessarily bad people? This difficult question is one that Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has had to face as he recently acknowledged that drug cartels have been distributing care packages to the public across the country. This movement to accumulate political capital and public influence is not a new strategy for organized crime syndicates. Colombia’s infamous Pablo Escobar would hand out food packages and throw massive fiestas, which were assertions of power and control that only increased his cartel’s authority over the general populace. But as the world faces a global shutdown and governments struggle to care for the masses, Mexican cartels are now stepping in to fill the government’s shortfalls. They are displaying compassion and altruistic motives to win the people over, while simultaneously, homicide rates increase, human trafficking soars, and the drug trade grinds to a halt. The concern is for what this propaganda could do for the cartels in the long run, in the aftermath of a global pandemic.
“Mexico faces an acute humanitarian crisis and shortage of goods,” Falko Ernst, an analyst with the Crisis Group who focuses on Mexico, told DW News. According to the NY Post, more than 8,000 people have tested positive for the Coronavirus in Mexico, and as of April 20th, 700 have died. Hospitals and medical staff have also been the subjects of abuse and attack as civil order quickly dissipates in many of Mexico’s cities. The Associated Press reported that residents who don’t want Coronavirus patients in their neighbourhoods have threatened to burn hospitals. President López Obrador and his government are trying to stitch security and structure back into the disrupted lives of the general populace, but the cartels’ intervention undermines the legitimacy and effectiveness of their response. Alejandrina Guzman, the daughter of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, is using her company – El Chapo 701 – to pack and deliver packages full of food, masks, hand soaps, and other supplies, all dubbed Chapo’s provisions. This propaganda gives a face to effective aid and, while Mexico’s social welfare programs struggle to cover everyone and are highly politicized, gives the people something to believe in.
This is the real danger facing Mexico’s social and economic future. There are no legal means to stop the unarmed civilians of the cartels from distributing these packages; the Mexican welfare system simply has to out-compete the cartels. López Obrador must also be careful not to eradicate the labour-intensive illicit economies of poppy cultivation that are providing jobs in the midst of rising unemployment and recession, as pointed out by Brookings Press. It is a very fine line that the government must balance, halting the illegal acts of the cartels while not harming the civilians who rely on them. The cartels are of course not saints, no matter the number of food packages they distribute. With shutdowns in effect, the number of homicides climbed to 3,000 in March according to the Sun, the most since July 2018. Many criminal organizations have also shifted their efforts to human trafficking, the Yucatan Times reported. What is important is that the government not retaliate by enacting war-like actions, especially given the state of Mexico’s general populace.
López Obrador has avoided open confrontation with the cartels and is opting for passive long-term solutions such as job training and better education. He adopted a similar tone when he addressed the public. “I don’t rule out that there are people in the gangs who are becoming conscious, because I don’t think you can spend your life always watching your back, worrying about another gang, going from one place to another, because you could get eliminated, that is no life at all,” as reported by the Associated Press. If bad people do good things, regardless of their general ulterior motives, there is the hope that some of those individuals are in fact good. The physical and psychological war between Mexico and the drug cartels has been going on for decades, and it is unlikely that it will end anytime soon. After all, organized crime is much like the virus we face now, invisible and penetrating systems at every level.