The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted life for nearly everyone, drug cartels included. A recent Foreign Policy report chronicled their plight as they face supply shortages and lower demand. While under normal circumstances a downturn in illicit drug markets would be welcome news, the crisis and desperation have driven drug lords to more extreme measures, resulting in a sharp uptick in violence in several states.

In Mexico, authorities reported 2,500 homicides in March, the state’s highest since record keeping began in 1997. Brazil has also experienced a rise in murders. Whereas it had previously experienced three years of decreases, coronavirus-related drug squabbles saw the tide turn upward 10%. In one Brazilian state, Ceará, the rate nearly doubled in 10 days during March.

The story is the same in El Salvador where a pre-virus decline was reversed due to increased gang violence, which led President Nayib Bukele to permit police to use lethal force.

Difficulties Abound

Challenges facing drug cartels are multifold and none of them are easy to overcome. First, there is a severe drought for ingredients used to cook methamphetamines, cocaine, and fentanyl. Chemicals necessary for their production typically are sourced from China, however the global shutdown has made their acquisition nearly impossible. Factories are closed, planes are grounded, and entire borders are locked shut. Ironically, Wuhan, the location of the initial COVID-19 outbreak, was one of the main suppliers for chemicals used in many illicit drugs.

“The main reason China has been the main supplier is the main reason China is the supplier of everything — it does it so cheaply. There was really no cost incentive for the cartels to develop this themselves,” said Ben Westoff, author of Fentanyl, Inc.

As a result, cartels have moved some production in-house, but basic chemicals are still needed from China, as Insider reported. Furthermore, if gangs manage to produce illicit drugs in the quantities they used to, they now lack the means to transport it to distributors in the US.

The US–Mexico remains closed for nonessential traffic until the end of the month. The reduced traffic flow makes it more difficult to smuggle contraband into America. For the small trickle that does make it across, buyers are now scarce, in part due to the closures of establishments that traditionally facilitated drug transactions — bars, clubs, and hotels — but also because of skyrocketing prices. 

“They are facing a supply problem and a demand problem,” said Alejandro Hope, a security analyst and former official with CISEN, the Mexican intelligence agency. “Once you get them to the market, who are you going to sell to?”

Trying Alternatives

Drug users across the world who would typically purchase hard drugs imported from Latin America are now trying a number of alternatives. Some are dialing back their choice of drug and opting for marijuana, which they can grow themselves, Foreign Policy reported. Others, such as heroine addicts in the UK, have turned to fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times stronger and thus more deadly.

“While less drugs on the street may seem like a good thing, what replaces them is usually more dangerous. We know the purity of many drugs is decreasing as dealers cut them with different substances to increase their bulk. This means people often don’t know what they are taking, increasing the chance of overdose,” said Dr. Rachel Britton, directory of pharmacy at We Are With You, a British drug, alcohol, and mental health charity.

Fentanyl can be produced without a dependence on China, making it a lucrative alternative. Fentanyl also fetches a higher price than methamphetamine.

Different Tactics

Cartels have been raising prices and even hoarding drugs in this period of uncertainty. They’ve also turned to charity work in a bid to increase their soft power among local communities, much like how Pablo Escobar endeared himself with Colombians in the 1970s and ‘80s. 

Alejandrina Guzman, daughter of the infamous drug lord El Chapo, has led food drives for starving Mexicans, personally distributing care packages herself. Other cartels have seized the opportunity as well, thanks to the state’s inefficient social programs, as Deutsche Welle reported.

“Mexico isn’t facing a humanitarian crisis or a shortage of goods,” said Falko Ernst, an analyst with the Crisis Group which focuses on Mexico. “Mexican cartels are using the current situation to strengthen their social base.”

Other cartels are diversifying their talents by dabbling in cyber crime, which continues to increase. COVID-19 has forced them to generate new sources of income as traditional revenue streams dry up.

While they try and survive, violence will only increase, particularly as governments are locked down and preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic. The opportunity is there for cartels to wreck more havoc than usual and the economic crisis gives them a compelling reason to do so. 

From manufacturing different types of drugs to hoarding supplies and fighting among one another, cartels are keeping busy. Ultimately, unless Latin American governments rededicate themselves to fighting drug syndicates, underground operations could become stronger when the pandemic ends. In a survival of the fittest, the ones who remain will be more deadly and efficient than cartels of the past. Thanks to their charitable outreach, they may even have more support among the general populace, and possibly even gain political power.

It's a tough moment
LET'S STAY TOGETHER