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Investigation into the Recent Wave of Humanitarian Drug Cartels in South America

Drug cartels have begun enforcing quarantine curfews and handing out supply aid packages to demand authority from local communities suffering from the Covid-19 pandemic.



Similar to many other industries, the illegal drug trade has been negatively impacted as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, which has taken the world by storm. 


While the social distancing lockdown has exacerbated drug addition in the United States, South American drug cartels in Mexico have found innovative ways to keep their businesses alive. Gangs across South America have used the crisis as a means of exerting influence in their respective turfs; whether being by handing out aid with an ‘El Chapo’ logo or encouraging curfews amidst war against rival gangs and officials (NBC). The pandemic restrictions have reduced the movement of drugs across borders, yet have increased the demand. The United States Customs and Border Protection has confiscated significantly less cocaine, yet seizures of fentanyl and heroin have remained steady, with crystal meth imports increasing, coinciding with a spike in overdose death in various states in the US (The Guardian).


Moreover, some cartels in South America have devised new means of avoiding national shutdown restrictions and anti-narcotics police operations. For example, on July 1, US and Columbian naval forces seized 7.5 tonnes of cocaine en route to Panama from the Cartagena port. The drugs being shipped from a Columbian paramilitary group to criminal organizations was one of Columbia’s largest drug busts in the past 5 years (The Guardian). 


The reason for this, according to health professionals, stems from stress, economic hardship, and loneliness which have become prevalent during the coronavirus pandemic. Marcelina Jasmine Silvia in the American Journal of Managed Care writes that “individuals battling sobriety have been pushed into isolation and have decreased access to treatment and opportunity for distractions from addictions” (NY Times).


On the contrary, while many cartels leave a trail of mass graves and disappearances behind them, some have now begun to hand out boxes with supplies and food, labeled as “Gulf Cartel” to Mexican communities struggling to survive during the economic meltdown caused by the pandemic (NBC). Irene, in the village of La Loma de Concepcion, described how 2 of his teenage nieces received “carco despensas” or food bags, from gangsters who sped through the village at nightfall (The Guardian). Around 200 residents formed in two lines to receive plastic bags of milk, soap, rice, beans, and other goods. Some bags also contained notes saying, “support from La Familia Michoacana, the M Comando,” the name of the drug cartel which dominates the local area (NBC).


The cartel food relief was boosted by social media and made global headlines, yet only aid a few Mexicans, with the food donations racing only a few thousand families. Lorenzo Meyer, a political scientist, quotes its taking advantage of the crisis of coronavirus and sensation of emergency to claim their territory and boost their control over communal turfs” (NBC).



In another attention-grabbing move, cartels in the city of Iguala begun enforcing quarantine in local areas by hanging up signs saying, “stay inside your homes. We don’t want desmadres outside.” Video reports show gunmen in the Sinaloa State beating alleged quarantine breakers with a bat marked “Covid-19” (NBC).


While the sudden charitable injunctions from drug cartels may seemingly stem out of concern for the community and general public amidst the Covid-19 restriction, it is a selfish and manipulative move. As the pandemic has halted mass drug imports and drug movement, cartels are using the opportunity as a means of gaining control over vulnerable communities and building a facade of trust and companionship to gain more power in their tufts.


While the Corona pandemic continues to ensue in South American countries, the real impact of the pandemic will soon arise once the cartels can exert their accumulated power onto an economically fragile nation.



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