The response to COVID-19 by criminal groups was not uniform nor necessarily successful. Whether a criminal organization thrived and struggled depended on pre-existing relationships with the state, the diversity of their criminal portfolio or their hierarchical structure and ability to maintain order and discipline within their own ranks.
At the pandemic’s onset, armed groups from Brazil to Mexico enforced lockdowns, handed out masks and supplies and punished transgressors. It was a startling illustration of just how much authority governments had ceded to criminal organizations, and it seemed as if every criminal group could take advantage of the space opened during the pandemic.
But it was also a façade. Like any upperworld actor, criminal organizations suffered spits and starts. They lost clients and got hammered by authorities and rivals alike. In the end, whether they won or lost during 2020 seemed to depend on three main variables, which we outline below.
1. Pre-existing Criminal-Political Ties
The criminal groups who seemed to gain from the onset of coronavirus were those who had already forged a relationship with the state prior to the pandemic. This included the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) in El Salvador.
Just days after the quarantine came into force, the gang decided to impose a curfew, prohibit public gatherings and dictate when and how locals shop for basic goods, a high-ranking member of the MS13 told the Salvadoran online news outlet El Faro, coinciding with testimonies heard by InSight Crime around the same time.
“They walk around dressed in black, with clubs and firearms,” a resident of the El Coro community in San Salvador told InSight Crime in April, in reference to the MS13’s evening patrols aimed at ensuring compliance with coronavirus restrictions.
The gangs also allegedly circulated voice messages threatening retribution against those failing to comply with the lockdown and shared videos of people being beaten for breaking quarantine, the Los Angeles Times reported in April.
But the MS13 flexed its muscles in political ways as well. The gang is no stranger to leveraging its political capital, having been a protagonist in various backroom deals brokered with government officials across the political spectrum, including presidents, mayors and members of congress.
El Salvador’s current president, Nayib Bukele, knows this game as well. In his previous role as mayor of San Salvador (2015-2018), Bukele’s City Hall team set up an intricate dialogue with both the MS13 and its rivals in the Barrio 18, which opened the door for his administration to revitalize the city’s Historic Center (detailed in an InSight Crime investigation into gang dynamics in El Salvador’s capital).
Bukele won the presidency in 2019 in part because of this successful urban revitalization plan, and in 2020, the new president reportedly entered an informal pact with the MS13 on a national level. In exchange for it bringing down the country’s high murder rate and allowing his party to campaign in areas where the gang holds influence, the MS13 was allowed to administer government assistance packages in some areas under their purview, according to one government functionary who worked with the program administering the assistance and several other government officials who had knowledge of it.
Mario Vega, a prominent evangelical pastor in El Salvador, also told InSight Crime in October that government-financed coronavirus assistance programs were being run by the gangs in the neighborhoods where they exerted a strong influence. And Jeannette Aguilar, a security expert and longtime investigator of gangs, said members of El Salvador’s military told her that provisions for alleviating the strain of coronavirus needed to be handed directly to the gangs.
Other outlets, such as Factum, also detailed how the MS13 was distributing food packages in cash-strapped communities and enforcing the nationwide mask mandate. What’s more, when it wanted, the MS13 also appeared to flaunt its relationship with the government. Two San Salvador residents living in neighborhoods under MS13 control, for instance, told InSight Crime that the gang’s members were favoring their relatives by letting them sell goods when other vendors were adhering to the nightly curfew.
And in one neighborhood, local street vendors belonging to the families of gang members were the only ones with permits to go out during the lockdown, according to Mario, one of the San Salvador residents who spoke to InSight Crime but who asked that his full name not be revealed.
The imposition of these quarantine measures was by no means uniform or complete, and the Bukele government vigorously denied it forged any type of pact or arrangement with the gang, but the number of accounts that corroborated the MS13’s control were hard to refute. In sum, the gang had secured more political capital amidst the pandemic because of their longstanding relationship with the government.
2. Diversified Criminal Economies
The coronavirus pandemic showed how the economics of criminal activity often match those of their legal counterparts. More diversified criminal groups that were involved in a wider range of activities were able to better weather the storm and capitalize on opportunities than those dependent on fewer revenue streams. In turn, this had a direct bearing on the ways criminal groups showcased their power.
In 2020, InSight Crime reported how the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG) was Mexico’s predominant criminal threat, largely powered by diversified revenue streams: trafficking cocaine and synthetic drugs, control of crucial port infrastructure, oil theft and multiple ways of laundering money. Throughout COVID-19, the CJNG has used this advantage to significantly expand its already dominant position in Mexico during the pandemic.
Yet, 2020 did not start well for the CJNG. Chemical precursors to make fentanyl and methamphetamine, a major earner for them in both Mexico and the United States, were slowed as shipments from China were temporarily suspended. Soon however, the CNJG – and its rivals in the Sinaloa Cartel – had found new suppliers in other countries. To be sure, a December report by the Guardian showcased how the supply chain for the fentanyl trade had become more complex, involving countries with less regulation, such as Vietnam and India. In a pinch, the CJNG could even steal what it needed.
The CJNG also appeared to adapt in other markets as well. What’s more, the group pounced on weakened competitors who had fragmented or could not deal with the impact of the virus. During 2020, the CJNG made rapid gains in the states of Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Veracruz and Mexico City.
Contrast that to the case of La Unión Tepito, Mexico City’s largest criminal group. La Unión Tepito began 2020 in a comfortable position, collecting extortion from shops, market stalls and illegal street vendors in the capital’s Historic Center and other commercial hotspots. It was also providing those same businesses with counterfeit goods to sell and had established numerous drug sales points in posh neighborhoods.
But an over-reliance on extortion soon exposed the group. According to Mexico City’s Citizen Council for Security and Justice, extortion cases dropped by a whopping 91 percent from November 2019 to November 2020. La Unión Tepito made what moves it could. Its members have reportedly beaten business owners who refused to pay, recruited children to help shakedown victims, or moved to target shops in richer parts of the capital.
But overall, La Unión Tepito suffered. Businesses stopped paying extortion. Shopkeepers got angry when they stopped receiving merchandise for which they had pre-paid. The group also saw a high number of arrests, its leader under pressure and lost key criminal real estate to its rivals, La Fuerza Anti-Unión, who have seemingly allied with the CJNG.
Another city, Rio de Janeiro, has gone through similar convulsions related to coronavirus, also, in part, due to the varying criminal economies at play. In that case, militia groups – paramilitary-style organizations largely made up of active and retired police officers who control up to 33.1 percent of the city – refused to allow businesses to close for fear of losing income from extortion. (In May, for example, shopkeepers reported receiving death threats from militia members if they dared to close.) In contrast, gangs such as the Red Command (Comando Vermelho – CV), prison gangs who are more tied to local drug trafficking, enforced strict curfews in favelas under their control, going door-to-door to warn people to stay at home.
It’s hard to know what the long-term results of the different approaches will be in terms of criminal governance. But from a health perspective, they were shocking. An August study by Brazilian and Spanish universities found that the COVID-19 death toll in areas controlled by the militias was 29 percent higher than the national average; in areas controlled by the CV, the death rates were 43 percent lower than the national average.
“Results show that the reaction of organized crime to a public health crisis depends on its form of criminal governance,” the study read.
Disciplined Command Structure
Mexico’s CJNG seemed to benefit during the pandemic not just because of its diversified portfolio but also due to its centralized leadership. Behind most of its expansion in 2020 was the hand of its leader, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias “El Mencho.” In the last few years, amid allegations of ill-health, El Mencho was never seen and his name rarely used. But he appears to have used the pandemic to reassert his visible control of the group, commanding both their violent actions and attempts to help the community.
It began with a show of force: In July, the group circulated a video with dozens of armored men chanting El Mencho's name. Soon after, messages or videos expressing the group's loyalty to him were publicly circulated following the group's aggressive invasions of Zacatecas and Mexico City, as well as in Guanajuato where the CJNG toppled the Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel.
In eastern Veracruz, the CJNG also pushed back splinter groups of the once-mighty Zetas, wresting control of a number of prisons in the state and moving northwards to challenge the Gulf Cartel. There, the group handed out boxes of essential supplies to rural residents who were then filmed thanking El Mencho.
But nowhere was the group’s expansion more efficient and ruthless than in the central state of Zacatecas. In April, 17 municipalities in the state awoke to find “narcomantas” (banners) with similar messages hailing Mencho’s control.
“From today, the state of Zacatecas is represented by the CJNG,” one read. “We guarantee security and respect to the citizens of Zacatecas as we have done in other states we represent. We ask authorities to not collaborate with kidnappers and extortionists so they do not become our enemies.”
These were accompanied by videos on social media with CJNG members, stating “Zacatecas is ours now…it belongs to Mr. Mencho.”
In Colombia, internal hierarchy also impacted criminals’ ability to effectively enforce their will during the pandemic. This could be seen when comparing similar actions by two of the country’s principal criminal threats, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN), who boasts a centralized command structure, and the Urabeños, a federation that emerged from the country’s former paramilitary armies.
On paper, the two groups look similar. According to a September report by the Peace and Reconciliation Foundation (Fundación Paz y Reconciliación -- PARES), the Urabeños have a more widespread presence. The report listed them as being active in over 200 municipalities in Colombia, sightly outpacing the ELN’s 160. They both rely on proceeds from a wide variety of criminal activities, among them extortion, illegal mining and international drug trafficking.
But this is only part of the story. While the ELN has distinct fronts that operate with a great degree of autonomy, they still answer to a Central Command (Comando Central – COCE). In contrast, the Urabeños mixes directly controlled cells with local, semi-autonomous criminal gangs operating under what can be called a “franchise” system.
These different ways of organizing the troops were manifest in 2020. In February, the ELN declared a nationwide “paro armado” (armed strike). In at least 27 documented operations in late February, entire rural communities were shut down with curfews. Electrical infrastructure was taken down, highways were closed due to bomb threats and explosives, and pro-ELN graffiti and flags popped up across the country.
In October, the Urabeños attempted their own armed strike. It was somewhat underwhelming. While graffiti hailing the group appeared on walls and houses in around 60 municipalities nationwide, there was little of the control illustrated by the ELN or the ripple effect in the communities thereafter.
The pandemic also helped mark the difference. When it began, the ELN declared “an indefinite ceasefire in an act of humility and greatness … and [to] free the country from fear of war, at least for these times of emergency.”
Soon after the ceasefire, the ELN used violent threats to cow the population. In early April, pamphlets in the northern department of Bolívar stated the ELN was “forced to kill people in order to preserve lives.”
The group also acted in a coordinated and decisive matter to drive back enemies, especially the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL), a former guerrilla army turned criminal organization, and the Rastrojos, who, like the Urabeños, emerged from the ashes of the paramilitary armies.
In Norte de Santander, the ELN also imposed curfews and roadside controls while communicating smoothly with its members in Venezuela. There, the ELN was greatly aided in fighting the latter by the almost open support of the Venezuelan military, which has declared the Rastrojos, who control much of the cross-border contraband and human smuggling, to be a priority target.
This aid from the Venezuelan government also helped the ELN make significant strides in Venezuela, both along the border and in the state of Bolívar, where it dominates much of the illegal mining, controls a number of Indigenous communities, and is able to divert food, water, gasoline and other supplies for its needs.
This was all the more impressive as there had been doubts as to whether the ELN’s command and control structure would survive in 2020. Since talks with the government collapsed in early 2019, a number of the ELN’s top leaders have been stranded in Cuba where the talks were being held, for fear of prosecution in Colombia or extradition to the United States. One of the guerrilla’s most visible commanders, Andrés Felipe Vanegas Londoño, alias “Uriel,” was killed in October by government forces.
Despite these threats, the ELN’s hierarchy appeared largely untroubled, with fronts able to exercise a degree of autonomy while still listening to central instructions. And the group was able to reportedly expand aggressively without much resistance from Venezuelan forces, maintain control over lucrative cross-border economies and even execute soldiers stepping out of line.
The Urabeños, meanwhile, struggled to maintain the status quo. The group scrambled to reactivate old routes and contested new ones, taking care of much of the cocaine departing from Colombia’s Caribbean coast. However, much of its leadership still appears concentrated in the hands of Dairo Antonio Úsuga, alias “Otoniel,” who has seen associates and family members regularly arrested or killed. As such, it is uncertain to what extent he can successfully coordinate actions by the group’s members and franchisees.
For example, where the ELN’s expansions were largely successful, the Urabeños stumbled. One renewed push in 2020 was into the southern department of Nariño, a heavily contested area, an epicenter for coca crops and one of Colombia’s most violent hotspots. There, the group has failed to set up any tangible measure of control. Commanders have been arrested and arsenals seized.