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Executive Summary: COVID-19 Diplomacy in Mexico by Cartels and Foreign Actors

Team: Kayla Kearns, Neoclis Soteriou, Nina Smith, and Alexandra Wong NORTHCOM

Week of: 05/03/2021


Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine[1]


The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a loss of jobs and lack of resources provided by the government throughout Mexico, likely creating an opportunity for cartels to increase their power across the country and undermine the Mexican government. Mexico has since been vulnerable to COVID-19 due to an increase in predisposed health factors among citizens, lack of proper resources, and inability to protect citizens from increasing cartel violence. Vaccine diplomacy, when some countries use their supply to strengthen regional ties and enhance their own global status, has affected Mexico’s ability to properly secure an adequate amount of vaccines for the country.[2] As such, Mexican cartels have stepped in to aid the public during these troubling times. In April 2020, a video emerged showing the daughter of El Chapo, formerly the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel and also known as Joaquín Guzmán, handing out aid packages to those in need during the pandemic. Other Mexican cartels have taken advantage of the government’s weakened state to strengthen ties with Mexican citizens by undermining their trust in the government, and also to create new means of income after the drug smuggling and money laundering market were hit hard. Cartels have since sought monetary income through means of taking COVID-19 supplies from the government and setting up fake vaccination and testing sites throughout Mexico. Likely, the COVID-19 pandemic has also created a power struggle amongst various cartels who are seeking to expand their areas of control, leading to an increase in violence between rivals and the state.


COVID-19 and Mexico

Mexico has been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the country’s death toll at an estimated 600,000.[3] The Mexican population is more vulnerable to the pandemic than other countries due to the pre-existing epidemics of hypertension, diabetes, and obesity caused by poor nutrition from industrialized foods, all of which contributed to the country’s high death rate.[4]


The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted Mexico’s economy, leading to the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression, which significantly affected the manufacturing and service industries.[5] Mexico’s economy has shown signs of recovery, which would likely be suppressed if the country sees another increase in coronavirus cases. Economic hardships are likely to undermine Mexican citizens’ faith in the government, making them more likely to look elsewhere for aid. The return to a pre-pandemic economy is imperative to the Mexican government, and a key to this plan will be a successful vaccine rollout.


Due to uncertainty as to when a “third wave” of COVID-19 cases might hit the country, a rapid vaccine rollout is vital for Mexico. However, Mexico has had difficulty in securing a steady supply of vaccines for several reasons: it waived its vaccine agreement with India due to the dire situation there, high-income countries are blocking a waiver proposal for vaccines’ intellectual property rights, and the WHO’s vaccine initiative will not provide a sufficient amount of vaccines.[6] Mexico instead has turned to vaccine diplomacy from Russia, China, and Cuba who have all sent vaccines to Mexico, thereby gaining a foothold in the region.


Mexico’s difficulty in securing an adequate supply of vaccines is also likely to undermine the government’s domestic credibility. Additionally, several of the vaccines Mexico is seeking to secure have yet to complete internationally approved testing which could lead some to refuse vaccination. Low opinions of the Mexican government, enhanced by its inability to effectively deter criminal gangs and cartels, will likely lead citizens to seek vaccinations elsewhere. As such, Mexican cartels have taken advantage of this opportunity to profit off the COVID-19 pandemic and build trust with Mexican citizens.


COVID-19 Crisis and Cartel Propaganda


Cartels face challenges in times of disruption, but historically, they have often been able to benefit from changes in state power.[7] The Mexican government has provided limited financial support to its citizens throughout the pandemic, leading to discontent with the government’s leadership.[8] In contrast, cartels have filled the gaps left by the state and have engaged with local communities, enforcing lockdown restrictions, imposing curfews, and creating vehicle checkpoints in local communities.[9] Through these actions, cartels have acted as ancillaries to state security forces, undermining the authority of legitimate officials. By supplanting the authority of the Mexican government, cartels further entrench themselves in the community, which allows them to more easily conduct their activities. In eastern Mexico, the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and the Gulf Cartel have distributed aid boxes stamped with their logo,[10] and in Guadalajara, the Sinaloa cartel distributed aid packages containing oil, sugar, and rice, stamped with the “El Chapo 701” brand.[11] The cartels use social media to boost their public image, circulating videos of these aid packages, spreading the message that cartels support local communities more effectively than the government.


These humanitarian acts have the potential to undermine the state far into the future. These actions and their propaganda value have strengthened cartels’ images in local communities, supporting a “protector of the community” narrative.[12] Even before the pandemic, local gangs smuggling gasoline would often leave small amounts for farmers, but as communities increasingly depend on cartel aid through the pandemic, this reliance — in place of substantive social support systems from the government — may continue.[13] Moreover, these acts of perceived goodwill are likely to attract recruits to cartels, especially as many are unemployed due to the weak economy, further entrenching cartels within communities and strengthening their presence.


COVID-19 for Cartel Profit


While cartels are taking advantage of the pandemic to build goodwill with the Mexican public, they have suffered from the global response to COVID-19. Border restrictions affected the supply side of the drug trade while stay-at-home orders made moving drugs from suppliers to dealers to customers more difficult. Through necessity, organized crime has adapted, and this activity continues to undermine Mexican society. Mexico’s National Council of Private Security (Consejo Nacional de Seguridad Privada - CNSP) reports that cartels are establishing laboratories to make counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines.[14] There are fears that these groups, particularly Familia Michoacana and CJNG, may steal vaccines along distribution routes to regional hospitals to market their fake vaccines as the stolen vaccines, allowing them to sell counterfeit vaccines for a profit. It has also been reported that the cartels are exploiting the public’s fear about coronavirus, setting up fake testing locations and charging as much as $50 USD per test.[15] Similar extortion for stolen personal protective equipment (PPE) and sanitation products has occurred as well. These schemes not only take advantage of innocent people but also undermine the government.


Geopolitical Consequences


Cartels bolstering their public image in certain regions of Mexico through the distribution of pandemic related aid strengthens their presence, weakening the legitimacy of the Mexican government within these regions and throughout the country.[16] This decreases international confidence in Mexico’s ability to effectively counter the cartels, and most notably damages Mexico’s relationship with the United States (US), as it is Mexico’s primary partner in the war on drugs. Furthermore, Mexican toleration of, or cooperation with, cartels is likely to have negative consequences for US-Mexico relations. If the Mexican government accepts that cartels can more effectively provide aid, it would be unlikely to intervene militarily against cartel activities. This would make it easier for cartels to traffic drugs and other contraband between the US-Mexico border, harming US national security and escalating the ongoing opioid epidemic.


Increased Chinese and Russian involvement in Mexico is somewhat likely to have negative geopolitical consequences for the US, as they move into territory historically seen as firmly within the American sphere of influence. Increased Russian and Chinese influence in Mexico may degrade US national security, manifesting in the smuggling of Chinese-made vaccines into the US via China’s underground trade alliance with Mexican cartels.[17] China is likely to attempt to leverage this alliance to increase its control over the global pharmaceutical industry. Mexico’s vaccine diplomacy strategy appears to “cross a wide ideological spectrum of countries.”[18] This includes adversary states of the US (Russia, China, and Cuba), the US itself, and US allies like France. The indiscriminate choice of vaccine diplomacy partners suggests a simple strategy by the Mexican government to ensure the acquisition of an adequate vaccine supply, rather than a deeper intent to build lasting bonds. This is supported by the Mexican foreign ministry statement that "vaccine nationalism" should be avoided because "no one will be safe until everyone is safe."[19]


If the US is concerned about the potential risk of negative geopolitical or national security consequences due to Mexican vaccine diplomacy towards Russia and China, the most effective strategy would be to eliminate the Mexican demand for vaccines. The US could accomplish this by supplying vaccines to Mexico, curtailing further Russian and Chinese influence in the country. This would bolster American influence in Mexico, and likely have the positive geopolitical consequence of improved bilateral relations between Mexico and the US.


CTG Efforts


The NORTHCOM Team at The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is working around the clock to detect and monitor any developments relating to vaccine diplomacy in Mexico by cartels and foreign actors, including the distribution of pandemic related aid and vaccines by cartels and the supply of vaccines to the Mexican government by Russia and China. Additionally, our team is working to provide analysis on the nature of the threats posed by vaccine diplomacy in Mexico. We also seek to provide analysis on strategies that relevant actors can employ to deter and defeat threats arising from vaccine-related influence in Mexico by cartels and foreign actors.

________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[1]Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine” by U.S. Secretary of Defense licensed under Creative Commons

[2] Vaccine diplomacy: how some countries are using COVID to enhance their soft power, The Conversation, February 2021, https://theconversation.com/vaccine-diplomacy-how-some-countries-are-using-covid-to-enhance-their-soft-power-155697

[3] Three times higher than reported: Mexico’s Covid death toll estimated at 600,000, NBC News, May 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/mexicos-covid-death-toll-estimated-600000-new-study-finds-rcna869

[4] Coronavirus in Mexico made worse by trio of health risk factors, Reuters, May 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-mexico-risk/coronavirus-in-mexico-made-worse-by-trio-of-health-risk-factors-idUSKBN22N241

[5] Mexico's economy in 2020 suffers worst slump since 1930s, Reuters, January 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mexico-economy-gdp/mexicos-economy-in-2020-suffers-worst-slump-since-1930s-idUSKBN29Y1OF

[6] Mexico’s Vaccine Diplomacy: an Effort to Bring Production Home, Mexico Business News, April 2021, https://mexicobusiness.news/health/news/mexicos-vaccine-diplomacy-effort-bring-production-home

[7] Criminal Distancing: Drug Cartels and the State During COVID-19, Small Wars Journal, February 2021, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/criminal-distancing-drug-cartels-and-state-during-covid-19

[8] Report: Mexican Economy Shrinks 8.5% in 2020, Associated Press, January 2021, https://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2021-01-29/report-mexican-economy-shrinks-85-in-2020#

[9] Criminal Distancing: Drug Cartels and the State During COVID-19, Small Wars Journal, February 2021, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/criminal-distancing-drug-cartels-and-state-during-covid-19

[10] Ibid.

[11] El Chapo's daughter, Mexican cartels hand out coronavirus aid, Reuters, April 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-mexico-cartels/el-chapos-daughter-mexican-cartels-hand-out-coronavirus-aid-idUSKBN21Y3J7

[12] Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 29: An Overview of Cartel Activities Related to COVID-19 Humanitarian Response, Small Wars Journal, May 2020, https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/mexican-cartel-strategic-note-no-29-overview-cartel-activities-related-covid-19

[13] Mexico Can't Stop Drug Cartels From Handing Out Virus Aid, Associated Press, April 2020, https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2020-04-20/mexico-cant-stop-drug-cartels-from-handing-out-virus-aid

[14] Liquid Gold - False COVID-19 Vaccines Emerge in Latin America, InSight Crime, January 2021, https://insightcrime.org/news/analysis/false-covid-vaccines-emerge/

[15] Cartels cash in on coronavirus, FreightWaves, January 2021, https://www.freightwaves.com/news/cartels-cash-in-on-coronavirus-long-haul-crime-log

[16] El Chapo's daughter, Mexican cartels hand out coronavirus aid, Reuters, April 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t-8iNURe5fU

[17] Intelligence Report: China, Mexico and the Opioid Crisis, Linkedin, May 2021 https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6796833469746966529/

[18] COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy: Mexico courts allies across ideological spectrum, Yahoo News, August 2020 https://ca.news.yahoo.com/covid-19-vaccine-diplomacy-mexico-121226768.html

[19] Ibid.

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