Mexican Drug Trafficking and Cartel
Operations amid COVID-19
Updated December 15, 2020
Mexico is a primary foreign producer and transit country for il icit drugs destined for the United States.
Policymakers, including many in Congress, have been closely watching how the Coronavirus Disease
2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has affected drug flow patterns out of Mexico, including the flow of potent
opioids and other il icit drugs. Any changes could affect the extent to which Mexico-based transnational
criminal organizations, popularly described as cartels, pose a threat to U.S. national security. To date,
U.S.-bound il icit drug supplies have persisted, despite early supply chain disruptions.
Illicit Drug Flows
According to various press, think-tank, U.S. government, and United Nations reports, the pandemic’s
effect thus far on Mexico-based drug production and trafficking has been mixed. COVID-19-related
lockdowns and slowdowns in container trade and port activity, particularly in China and India, appear to
have caused shortages in precursor chemicals used to synthesize methamphetamine and fentanyl,
resulting in temporary product shortages and price increases. Some reports indicate Mexican traffickers
have stockpiled resources, including cash, due to the uncertainty of how COVID-19 would affect law
enforcement attention on the il icit drug trade. Several high-profile seizures in 2020 point to potential
trafficker miscalculations as cartels adapt to the COVID-19 operating environment. Such seizures,
however, also indicate that il icit drugs and money continue to flow along U.S.-Mexico trafficking
corridors. Mexican opium poppy cultivation and heroin production, for example, have been largely
unaffected by COVID-19-related developments. The pandemic may motivate Mexico-based drug
producers to find alternative precursor sources and further develop domestic production capabilities.
Such reports are consistent with early predictions that global mobility restrictions and trade declines
associated with the pandemic could disrupt il icit drug supply chains and diversify drug trafficking
patterns and routes but that any disruptions to Mexican production and trafficking likely would be
temporary. In October 2020, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) assessed that the
pandemic “has slowed the pace of drug trafficking into the United States” and disrupted some cartel
operations but that cartels’ ability to move large quantities of drugs remains “largely intact.”
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The pandemic does not appear to have diminished the extensive criminal and political power of Mexico’s
organized crime groups. In September, President Trump exhorted the Mexican government to do more to
contain the cartels, which he described as posing “a clear threat to Mexico and the Mexican government’s
ability to exert effective control over parts of its country.” DHS also considers Mexican cartels a key
threat to the U.S. homeland because of their ability to control territory and trafficking routes along the
U.S. Southwest Border and to co-opt officials at various levels of government.
Neither the prospect of infection nor government-mandated mobility restrictions during the pandemic
appear to have significantly deterred cartel activity. The range of criminality by smal er cartels has
broadened or diversified under COVID-19 lockdown pressure, and fragmentation of some cartels has
continued. Current conditions seem to have fostered intensified inter-cartel competition, favoring the
territorial ambitions of larger Mexican cartels. As a result, crimes of assault and homicide have remained
elevated during Mexico’s pandemic response, even as crimes of opportunity, such as kidnapping and
robbery, appear to have declined temporarily.
Mexico’s homicide rate remains “stuck” at historical y high levels and is anticipated to set another record
by the end of 2020. In 2019 and thus far in 2020, the most homicides in Mexico have been reported in the
central state of Guanajuato and the border state of Baja California, where rival groups jockey for drug
routes, extortion rackets, and control of other il icit markets. Organized crime-related violence also has
encroached into the Mexican capital. At one point in April, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López
Obrador seemed to underscore the reality of uncontrolled criminality in his morning newscast by
petitioning the drug traffickers directly to lower their violence.
Angling for the Pandemic Advantage
Some analysts warn that the cartels may try to exploit the pandemic for profit and territorial gain. Press
interviews with cartel-aligned traffickers describe directives to increase drug prices. Some observers
speculate that cartels are using the pandemic as pretext to collude and behave as price-setting cartels.
Mexican crime groups reportedly distributed aid packages to the local populace, branded with cartel
insignia, and enforced COVID-19-related lockdown measures. Such activities, amplified on social media,
appear to be intended to win the hearts and minds of cartels’ local communities to support their criminal
enterprises and attract recruits. The handouts reinforce the perception of a weak Mexican government,
unable to exert territorial control, amid a forecast economic contraction of more than 9% in 2020. Some
observers also posit that the pandemic has motivated cartels to diversify and expand their use of
submersible craft, drones, ultralights, tunnels, and cryptocurrencies.
U.S. Policy Outlook
As Congress considers the pandemic’s effect on Mexican drug flows and cartel activity, the future of
U.S.-Mexico collaboration on drug matters remains a concern for many. In September, Attorney General
Wil iam Barr acknowledged the pandemic disrupted bilateral efforts to combat cartels and expressed his
hope to “get back on track with Mexico.” Congressional focus may center on whether Mexico can devote
sufficient resources for engagement on joint counternarcotics priorities during a pandemic-induced
recession. A key question is how the Mérida Initiative, a joint security and governance partnership
supported by U.S. foreign aid to Mexico, can continue to strengthen bilateral efforts to target transnational
crime. Observers also are watching closely for further consequences resulting from the surprise U.S.
arrest in October of former Mexican Secretary of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos on drug and money-
laundering charges. Responding to Mexican pressure, the United States agreed in November to drop the
case and release Cienfuegos. Although the release of Cienfuegos may sustain bilateral relations in the near
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term, the future of U.S.-Mexico cooperation on major drug-related investigations remains highly
uncertain. In December, the López Obrador government requested the extradition of former Mexican
Public Security Secretary Genaro García Luna, who has been awaiting federal trial since 2019. Mexico’s
Senate voted on December 9 to approve a López Obrador-endorsed proposal to limit U.S. activity in
Mexico, including the role of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
June S. Beittel
Liana W. Rosen
Analyst in Latin American Affairs
Specialist in International Crime and Narcotics
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