Mexican Drug Trafficking and Cartel Operations amid COVID-19

Mexican Drug Trafficking and Cartel
Operations amid COVID-19

Updated April 2, 2021
Mexico is a primary foreign producer and transit country for il icit drugs destined for the United States.
Policymakers, including many in Congress, have closely watched how the Coronavirus Disease 2019
(COVID-19) pandemic is affecting 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 (TCOs), popularly described as cartels, pose a threat to U.S. national security. To date,
U.S.-bound il icit drug supplies appear to be returning to pre-pandemic levels, despite early supply chain
Illicit Drug Flows
According to various press, think-tank, U.S. government, and United Nations reports, the pandemic’s
effect 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 stockpiled
resources, including cash, uncertain of how COVID-19 would affect law enforcement attention on the
il icit drug trade. Several high-profile seizures in 2020 suggest potential trafficker miscalculations as
cartels adapted 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. Additional y, Mexican opium
poppy cultivation and heroin production 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 although pandemic-associated global mobility
restrictions and trade declines could disrupt il icit drug supply chains and diversify drug trafficking
patterns and routes, 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 remained “largely intact.”
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Cartel Operations
The pandemic does not appear to have diminished the extensive criminal and political power of Mexico’s
criminal organizations. In 2020, 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. Mexico’s cartels remain the primary
source of heroin and fentanyl trafficking into the United States. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement
Administration, the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) in particular “show
signs of expansion in Mexico” and have increased their role in production and pil pressing.
Neither the risk of infection nor government-mandated mobility restrictions during the pandemic appear
to have significantly deterred cartel activity. Since the pandemic’s onset, the range of criminality by
smal er cartels has expanded as new opportunities for exploitation have appeared. Current conditions
seem to have fostered intensified inter-cartel competition, favoring larger Mexican cartels’ territorial
ambitions. As a result, crimes of assault and homicide have remained elevated during Mexico’s pandemic
response, even as crimes of opportunity, such as robbery, appear to have declined.
Mexico’s homicide rate remains “stuck” at historical y high levels, with 27 murders per 100,000 in 2020.
During 2020, the most homicides in Mexico were reported in the central state of Guanajuato and the
border state of Baja California, where rival groups jockeyed for drug routes, extortion rackets, and control
of other il icit markets. Organized crime-related violence even encroached into the Mexican capital. There
was a sharp increase in murders of public office holders and candidates for Mexico’s midterm elections
scheduled for June 2021. Although Mexican President Andrés López Obrador retains high approval levels
(above 60% in early 2021), his handling of the Mexican crime groups and his failure to reduce violence
are frequently criticized.
Angling for the Pandemic Advantage
As predicted, the cartels seem to have exploited 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 community support for their criminal enterprises and attract recruits. The aid
packages reinforced the perception of a weak Mexican government, unable to exert territorial control,
amid a forecast economic contraction of some 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. Congress may consider whether
Mexico can devote sufficient resources to joint counternarcotics priorities. A key question is how the
Mérida Initiative, a joint security and governance partnership supported by U.S. foreign aid to Mexico,
may be modified by the Biden Administration to target transnational crime. Observers also are watching
closely as U.S.-Mexico anti-drug cooperation was severely buffeted in late 2020 by the surprise U.S.
arrest (and subsequent release) of former Mexican Secretary of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos on drug and
money-laundering charges and restrictions on U.S.-Mexico law enforcement cooperation approved by

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Mexico’s Congress. The fifth North American Dialogue on Drug Policy, original y to be held in Mexico
in December 2020, has been rescheduled for later in 2021. In March 2021, the State Department reported
that, despite some successes, “the volume of dangerous drugs from Mexico and violent crime within
Mexico … remain alarmingly and unacceptably high…. Mexico must, together with the United States,
define shared goals to reduce impunity for TCOs and measure results in support of these efforts.”

Author Information

June S. Beittel
Liana W. Rosen
Analyst in Latin American Affairs
Specialist in International Crime and Narcotics

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