Mexican Cartels Pose New National Security Threat Post-COVID: Study

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Victim of narco killing, Mexico. Photo by Michael Thielen via Flickr

Rising youth unemployment will provide a “fertile field” for the expansion of Mexico’s crime cartels in the aftermath of COVID-19, predict three researchers who studied the impact of the pandemic on crime rates in Mexico City.

That could pose a major national security threat to America’s southern neighbor, the researchers warned.

The researchers found that while most types of conventional crime have decreased in Mexico City since authorities imposed a lockdown last March, organized crime has “expanded” its influence—in some cases by offering food and other services that the government has failed to provide.

The economic damage from COVID-19, which has already caused historic downturns across Latin America, is likely to last well beyond the pandemic, with experts predicting that in Mexico alone the share of the population in poverty will rise from nearly 42 percent to almost 50 percent by the end of 2020.

Mexico’s GDP is expected to fall by 9 percent.

“Under this adverse economic scenario, once a vaccine becomes available, we expect conventional crime to resume and organized crime to increase even more,” said the study.

“If this comes true, it could jeopardize the Mexican government’s main functions and turn this social situation into a national security issue.”

The study co-authors, Jose Roberto Balmori de la Miyar,  of the University Anahuac Mexico, Business and Economics School; Lauren Hoehn-Velasco , of the Georgia State University Andrew Young School of Policy Studies;  and Adan Silverio-Murillo of the School of Government, Tecnologico de Monterrey, compared  Mexico City crime data between January and May 2020 to the same period the previous year.

They found decreases in crimes related to domestic violence, burglary and vehicle theft;  and a decrease in assault and battery, and extortion. But the lockdown had no effect on crimes like robbery, kidnapping and homicides—which have been associated with organized criminal activity.

“Our findings show that organized criminals continue to expand their influence in Mexico and, worse yet, use this exceptional circumstance to build up support from specific segments of the population by providing COVID-19 assistance in the form of food handouts,” said the study authors.

That wasn’t surprising, they wrote, noting that organized crime groups around the world frequently filled gaps in services created by government inefficiencies or corruption.

“These sorts of actions by criminal groups can be very profitable and are frequently employed by other mafias in the world like the Yakuza in Japan or the Sicilian mafia in Italy,” they wrote.

But Mexico’s plunging employment levels—especially among youth—offered new opportunities for Mexican cartels.

“Organized crime will have a fertile field in Mexico to recruit new gang members as youth unemployment is at an all-time high,” the study predicted.

This study based its conclusions on records from Mexico City’s Attorney General’s Office.

“The particular context of Mexico offers a glimpse into the effects of a lockdown on crime in a developing country and shares many characteristics with other countries in Latin America,” wrote the study authors.

“In particular, Mexico has a significant presence of organized criminal enterprises —besides conventional criminals—and institutional weaknesses in the criminal justice system.”

The stay-at-home order timeline in Mexico City was similar to that of the rest of the world.

Following the lockdown, mobility in Mexico City decreased by around 70 percent.

However, organized criminal activity was not impeded.

In the middle of the stay-at-home order, one of the most powerful drug-trafficking organizations in Mexico, Jalisco New Generation Cartel, ambushed Mexico City police chief Omar Garcia Harfuch, wounding him, while killing two of his bodyguards.


The bullet-riddled car of Mexico City’s police chief, Omar García Harfuch, who survived the attack. Photograph: Mexico Prosecutor Office/EPA

“Such high-profile government officials will be threatened more than ever unless the government makes extraordinary investments in criminal justice and the promotion of the rule of law,” wrote the study authors.

Mexico lags in public safety spending even within the Latin America region, the authors pointed out.

“Worse yet,  we expect that as youth unemployment reaches all-time highs, organized crime will proliferate, unless the government actively seeks to prevent it,” the researchers wrote.

The study, entitled “Druglords Don’t Stay at Home: COVID-19 Pandemic and Crime Patterns in Mexico City,” has not yet been peer reviewed. It can be downloaded here.

Additional Reading:

In Mexico, Crime is the Only Thriving Business, The Crime Report, April 9, 2020

Violence and the Pandemic: Uncertain Outlook for Post-Pandemic World, The Crime Report, April  24, 2020

This summary was prepared by TCR Deputy Editor Nancy Bilyeau

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