The devastation brought by Hurricane Otis to Mexico’s resort town of Acapulco has opened the door for criminal groups to increase their control over a crucial cocaine trafficking hub.

Photos and video published by local media in the days following Hurricane Otis’ October 25 landfall in Acapulco showed heavy damage to the city’s infrastructure and thousands of buildings in ruin. Residents and opposition politicians criticized the government’s inability to provide the aid needed to carry out proper rescue and clean up efforts.

“Everyone will be supported, count on us,” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador stated to the press on October 27, seemingly in response to the criticism.

A major port on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, Acapulco is a crucial entry point for cocaine en route from South America to consumer markets in the United States. As is common in other vacation destinations throughout Mexico, the wealth generated by tourism in the city has also made it an extortion and money laundering hotspot.

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Vying for control over cocaine and other criminal economies are the transnational Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) and Sinaloa Cartel groups, as well as local groups like the Acapulco Independent Cartel (Cartel Independiente de Acapulco – CIDA).

Local media sources pegged the Familia Michoacana as the culprits behind an October 23 massacre of 13 police officers on the outskirts of Acapulco, possibly an indication of the group’s growing influence in the city.

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The hurricane’s aftermath presents organized crime groups in Acapulco with the opportunity to leech off money directed toward rebuilding and relief efforts.

Politicians and organized crime are historically well-connected in Acapulco, and groups also maintain significant influence over the construction sector, Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst at the International Crisis Group, told InSight Crime.

“We’re talking billions of dollars that have to be invested in the reconstruction effort,” he said. “Construction in Mexico is historically a black box where you can pour in a lot of money. There is poor oversight and many ways to twist the accounts.”

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Criminal groups will also be able to bolster recruitment efforts in the wake of the disaster.

Formerly a prominent destination for foreign tourists, Acapulco has suffered economically from years of drug trafficking-related violence. The hurricane’s destruction will further exacerbate poverty and unemployment, pushing more people more towards criminal groups.

“As you have a loss in legal employment, you lose the provision of order in local communities,” Ernst told InSight Crime. “It allows these groups to be more overt and aggressive in terms of providing some form of order.”

Criminal groups have historically used disasters to increase their foothold in Mexican communities, and groups in Acapulco are likely to do the same.

After floods in the state of Zacatecas in 2021, the CJNG distributed aid to affected communities while the Mexican government was absent. La Unión Tepito took on a similar role after an earthquake in Mexico City in 2017, according to a report by Mexican outlet MVS Noticias.

The COVID-19 crisis also provided an opportunity for criminal groups to engage in a bit of public relations while also cementing their local governance. InSight Crime reported in 2020 how groups such as the Gulf Cartel, the Zetas, and the Viagras, took advantage of the situation to distribute food and post about their efforts on social media.

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