Officers of the Criminal Investigation Unit wearing protective suits to avoid possible contagion with the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, cover the corpse of a member of the Rapid Response Patrol who was shot dead in Tegucigalpa on 18 May 2020. Orlando SIERRA / AFP
Report 83 / Latin America & Caribbean 20+ minutes

Virus-proof Violence: Crime and COVID-19 in Mexico and the Northern Triangle

As the coronavirus rages in Mexico and the northerly Central American countries, criminal outfits have adapted, often enlarging their turf. To fight organised crime more effectively, governments should combine policing with programs to aid the vulnerable and create attractive alternatives to illegal economic activity.

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What’s new? The COVID-19 pandemic had an immediate impact on organised crime across Mexico and Central America’s northern countries as lockdowns slowed movement of people and goods. But criminal groups swiftly adapted to the new normal, using it to tighten or expand their control over people and territory.

Why does it matter? The region’s criminal groups, many acting in collusion with rogue state actors, are largely responsible for some of the world’s highest murder rates and wield asphyxiating power in an increasing number of communities. With state budgets under huge strain, official responses are set to remain lacklustre.

What should be done? Governments should combine policing to contain and deter crime with increased support to the most insecure areas and vulnerable populations. Rather than reverting to heavy-handed tactics, they should invest in programs that reduce impunity and create economic alternatives for at-risk young people, potentially with the help of COVID-19 emergency funds.

Executive Summary

Criminal groups in Mexico and the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) have been quick to absorb the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic and seize new opportunities provided by lockdowns, distracted states and immiserated citizens. At first, trade disruptions and movement restrictions forced some criminal outfits to slow illicit activities. But the lull has not lasted. Exchange of illicit goods already appears to be swinging back to normal, while extortion rackets are resurging. As the region’s recent history shows, quick fixes to rein in organised crime and official corruption are very likely to be counterproductive. Instead, governments should concentrate their limited resources to aid the most violent regions and vulnerable people, ideally through regional programs to curb impunity and create alternatives to criminal conduct. 

After months of lockdowns of varying severity, with disease transmission still uncontrolled and poised to spike again, the threat of rising crime across the region is manifest. Mexico has been afflicted for years by transnational criminal organisations that feed off a lack of economic opportunity and corruption in the state and security forces. The new force in the underworld, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation, has bared its teeth during the pandemic in fights for control of illicit markets such as drug trafficking and “taxing” legal commodities. It has also displayed its paramilitary might in the media. Myriad criminal groups have claimed to be lifelines for local people, largely in bids to widen their support base.

Across the north of Central America, street gangs that have lorded it over their economically struggling strongholds for years have also found ways to take advantage of the pandemic. After the outbreak, they advertised themselves as champions of communities under lockdown, handing out food baskets and forgiving protection payments. Due to COVID-19 movement restrictions, violence fell briefly in Honduras and Guatemala. But it is now back to or above pre-pandemic levels, while extortion rackets in both countries appear set to intensify. El Salvador is an outlier in that murder rates have stayed close to historical lows for reasons that remain disputed. The government says its security plan has kept violent gangs at bay, while Crisis Group has suggested that gang and government leaders may have struck an informal agreement to scale back violence. But, if such a pact exists, neither side has acknowledged it in public, and sudden spates of killings underline that gangs’ commitment to peace is far from robust.

Behind concerns about deteriorating security in Mexico and northern Central America is the realisation that the pandemic (and counter-measures) will worsen the economic and institutional ills underlying the crime wave. The incidence of COVID-19 varies from country to country, but it is hard to imagine that any will avoid a negative impact on livelihoods, public services and the popular mood. Mexico ranks fourth worldwide with its officially reported death toll of over 90,000 – which the government admits is an undercount – while rates of infection in northern Central America stand around the Latin American average. Nonetheless, all four countries are now facing one of the most severe economic contractions in decades, made worse in Central America by the recent devastation left by Hurricane ETA. Expected falls in 2020 GDP, reaching close to 10 per cent in Mexico and El Salvador and causing unemployment to soar across the region, are set to reverse advances in reducing inequality and poverty, weaken public services in poor areas, intensify criminal rivalries and sharpen officials’ motives for consorting with illicit business. 

With a few notable exceptions, government responses to chronic insecurity have so far failed to stem violence.

With a few notable exceptions, government responses to chronic insecurity have so far failed to stem violence or significantly reduce judicial impunity for serious crimes. State security policy will now face even bigger hurdles as budgets are squeezed.

In facing these challenges, however, governments can avoid the errors of the past. Far from reducing violence, militarised crackdowns have splintered criminal groups, exposing communities to more intimidation and forced displacement. Instead of launching missions to “kill or capture” criminal leaders, security forces should aim during the pandemic to protect the most vulnerable and deter the extortion that plagues them. Governments should focus their use of emergency funds on meeting the needs of people most exposed to the pandemic and its fallout, including spikes in violence. In directing COVID-19 relief funds and foreign financing to the most affected regions, governments should look beyond traditional law enforcement approaches. They should develop region-specific approaches that identify the local characteristics of conflict in order to design programs that promise to reduce impunity, prevent recruitment by illicit groups, demobilise violent outfits and create economic alternatives to crime.

Prospects for security in Mexico and northern Central America are bleak so long as the pandemic persists. Apprehensive governments may well be tempted to meet rising murder rates with draconian responses that double down on the failed efforts of the past. But if they do not address some of the sources of the criminal stranglehold over poor communities, chances are the perpetrators of violent crime will grow stronger.

Mexico City/Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 13 November 2020

Crime and COVID-19 in Mexico and the Northern Triangle


I. Introduction

Already among the world’s most violent places, Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle countries are facing the prospect of still greater insecurity as COVID-19 batters a region unprepared to counter the pandemic or cushion its economic effects. Home to more than 160 million people, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have collectively suffered over one million cases of the virus, as well as more than 100,000 deaths – the vast majority of them in Mexico. The medical emergency has stretched public and health services to the limit, while its economic impact is shaping up to make it the most devastating shock in the region’s contemporary history. Poor people, many of them informally employed and lacking any sort of social safety net, are being hit particularly hard. In the absence of concerted state responses, rising poverty and inequality could bolster the conditions that have long favoured the growth of illicit business and deepen the threat posed to states and societies by armed criminal outfits. 

Before COVID-19 arrived in Mexico and Central America, the regional criminal landscape displayed certain common features. After years of using military force to attack narco-trafficking “kingpins” and focusing on the extradition of major offenders to the United States, once-mighty drug trafficking organisations in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico had splintered into myriad groups controlling smaller patches of territory, and in some cases vying with each other for expansion.[fn]Jane Esberg, “More than Cartels: Counting Mexico’s Crime Rings”, Crisis Group Commentary, 8 May 2020. Crisis Group Latin America Report N°77, Fight and Flight: Tackling the Root Causes of Honduras’ Emergency, 25 October 2019.Hide Footnote

Both local and transnational criminal groups have diversified their economic activities over time.

Both local and transnational criminal groups have also diversified their economic activities over time. In Mexico, organised crime has turned more local. By seeking full control over territory, including over people and local state institutions, these groups aim to extort a steady flow of payments from licit sectors of the economy. Agriculture and mining have been ensnared in these rackets, as have other businesses large and small.[fn]See Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Mexico’s Out-of-Control Criminal Market”, The Brookings Institution, March 2019.Hide Footnote In the northern countries of Central America, criminal gangs’ core income generator has also traditionally been the shakedown.[fn]Crisis Group Latin America Report N°62, Mafia of the Poor: Gang Violence and Extortion in Central America, 6 April 2017. Hide Footnote But gangs such as the MS-13 and 18th Street have also started to run small business ventures, particularly restaurants, car washes, auto body shops and local transport services, in part to launder money.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, UN Office on Drugs and Crime official, former gang member and security experts, June and August 2020.Hide Footnote

Against this backdrop, this report looks in depth at how organised crime in Mexico and the Northern Triangle has mutated to thrive in the circumstances of COVID-19. It builds on Crisis Group’s earlier work on the impact of the novel coronavirus in the region as well as its years of study of the factors linking criminal violence, state policy and socio-economic distress throughout Latin America.[fn]See, in addition to the publications cited elsewhere in this report, “Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas”, Crisis Group Commentary, 28 April 2020.Hide Footnote Research for the report included more than 35 in-person and telephone interviews with government officials, police officers, security experts, civil society representatives, and former or active members of criminal groups.

II. The Brief Disruption of Illicit Business

Similar causes underpin the high rates of violence and crime in Mexico and the northern Central American countries, and account for the governments’ difficulties in improving public safety. Crime rings have become more aggressive in how they acquire and assert territorial control. These groups have diversified their sources of income, moving beyond dependence on drug trafficking or extortion. Additionally, in all four countries, the state has proven unable to curb official corruption and security forces’ complicity in illicit activities, or to prevent the erosion of its legitimacy in crime-affected areas.

A. Before the Pandemic

Despite overall similarities among all four countries, there was significant variation in crime patterns immediately prior to COVID-19’s outbreak, with positive trends in Guatemala and El Salvador contrasting with adverse ones in Honduras and Mexico.

Before the pandemic, murder rates were falling in both Guatemala and El Salvador, partly due to declining hostilities among gangs as they all settled into their own pockets of territory. Major improvements in Guatemala’s criminal investigations and prosecutions over the past decade – many of them supported by the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, whose mission the government terminated in 2019 – have also curbed impunity for serious crimes, while the reported understandings between Salvadoran authorities and gangs are likely to have contributed significantly to reducing homicides in that country.[fn]Gobierno de Bukele lleva un año negociando con la MS-13 reducción de homicidios y apoyo electoral”, El Faro, 3 September 2020. Crisis Group Latin America Report N°81, Miracle or Mirage? Gangs and Plunging Violence in El Salvador, 8 July 2020. Crisis Group Latin America Report N°70, Saving Guatemala’s Fight Against Crime and Impunity, 24 October 2018.Hide Footnote

Honduras and Mexico, on the other hand, were struggling to contain the spread of violent crime when the coronavirus hit. In Honduras, fighting among dozens of minor gangs, combined with ineffective and excessively militarised law enforcement, resulted in murders going up in 2019 and the first two months of 2020, reversing an eight-year downward trend.[fn]Between January and February 2020, the Honduran National Police reported 594 homicides, 44 more than during the same period in 2019. Crisis Group Report, Fight and Flight: Tackling the Root Causes of Honduras’ Emergency, op. cit. See Honduran police figures at the website of the Sistema Estadístico Policial en Línea.Hide Footnote Successive Mexican administrations have failed to curtail lethal violence, and homicides were down only 0.57 per cent in 2019 from the record of 36,685 reached the year before.[fn]The total in 2019 was 36,476, according to the National Institute for Statistics and GeographyHide Footnote Despite his campaign pledges to the contrary, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to rely on heavy-handed use of force to address a plethora of entrenched and multi-sided conflicts with criminal organisations. A lack of commitment to reform of the police and justice system has meant that numerous state officials remain complicit in crime.[fn]See Crisis Group Latin America Reports N°69, Building Peace in Mexico: Dilemmas Facing the López Obrador Government, 11 October 2018; and N°80, Mexico’s Everyday War: Guerrero and the Trials of Peace, 5 May 2020.Hide Footnote

B. Effects on Illicit Activities

The pandemic’s immediate effect was predictably to slow down illicit economic activity in all four countries, but criminal groups soon recovered by various means. 

By late March, Northern Triangle governments had imposed strict lockdowns and restrictions on people’s movements, causing an abrupt but short-lived drop in the revenues of criminal groups and street gangs. Honduras’ National Anti-Gang Force (FNAMP) estimated that extortion crimes had dropped by 70-80 per cent from mid-March to late April.[fn]Crisis Group interview, National Anti-Gang Force officer, 22 April 2020.Hide Footnote The closure of local markets and suspension of public transport in Guatemala and El Salvador compelled leaders of the two main gangs, the 18th Street and MS-13, to forgive some protection payments, particularly from small vendors and bus drivers, two sources which authorities believe account for most of their revenues.[fn]In El Salvador, the 18th Street gang is split into two factions, the Southerners and the Revolutionaries, which function as two autonomous groups. “Pandillas amenazan a quien incumpla la cuarentena”, El Faro, 31 March 2020. “Pandilleros conceden indulto en el cobro de extorsión”, El Periódico, 26 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Government-imposed lockdowns hurt criminal groups involved in transnational smuggling in northern Central America.

Government-imposed lockdowns also hurt criminal groups involved in transnational smuggling in northern Central America. Border shutdowns and mobility restrictions hindered the overland drug trade, according to an official in the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and testimony from the Guatemalan town of Jalapa, situated in a busy drug corridor in the centre of the country.[fn]Jalapa is a common transit point for cocaine smuggled from Chiquimula and Jutiapa, on the border with Honduras and El Salvador, and for drugs coming through Guatemala City. Crisis Group interviews, security guard from Jalapa and UNODC official, May and August 2020. “Identificadas 10 rutas del narcotráfico”, Prensa Libre, 21 October 2014.Hide Footnote The suspension of commercial flights curbed small shipments by “mules” who carry synthetic drugs and – to a far lesser extent – cocaine.[fn]The UN Office on Drugs and Crime calculates that barely 4 per cent of cocaine is smuggled through the air. “COVID-19 and the Drug Supply Chain: From Production and Trafficking to Use”, UNODC, May 2020, p. 3.Hide Footnote Border shutdowns across the region also helped reduce illegal migration to the U.S., although they could lead to an increase in human smuggling over the medium term. UN agencies and Interpol argue that trafficking networks have remained operational and will return in full force as soon as mobility restrictions ease.[fn]COVID-19 Impact on Migrant Smuggling and Human Trafficking”, Interpol, 11 June 2020; “COVID-19 measures likely to lead to an increase in migrant smuggling and human trafficking in longer term, UNODC report finds”, press release, UNODC, 14 May 2020.Hide Footnote

In Mexico, where the government shied away from the quarantines imposed in the rest of the region, the narcotics trade was nevertheless shaken.[fn]The Mexican federal and state governments imposed restrictions on commerce, including restaurants and shops, and ran an uneven campaign calling upon citizens to maintain a “safe distance” from one another, but largely refrained from mandatory measures so as to limit the epidemic’s economic fallout. See “Neighbor at Risk: Mexico’s Deepening Crisis”, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 4 September 2020. Hide Footnote Mexico is the biggest exporter of heroin, marijuana and, together with China, methamphetamines and fentanyl to the U.S.[fn]See “2019 National Drug Threat Assessment”, Drug Enforcement Administration, December 2019; “2020 World Drug Report”, UNODC, June 2020. Hide Footnote Interruption of Chinese production of precursor chemicals for the latter drugs also caused traffickers headaches. At the same time, historically low oil prices and low domestic petrol consumption cut heavily into the revenues of criminal groups involved in oil siphoning, which has lately become an important racket in the country.[fn]See John P. Sullivan and Adam Elkus, “Open Veins of Mexico: Strategic Logic of Cartel Resource Extraction and Petro-Targeting”, Small Wars Journal, 3 November 2011.Hide Footnote The economic shock prompted some groups to furlough a number of foot soldiers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, operator working with criminal groups involved in oil siphoning in central Mexico, 10-15 April 2020. Hide Footnote Tough lockdown measures in South America’s cocaine producers and exporters – Colombia’s maritime and terrestrial borders have been closed to most traffic (with exceptions including cargo trade) since 17 March 2020 while the government shut down all international flights on 23 March, only gradually restoring them from September – created further economic pressure as they complicated use of a major supply line.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Jalisco and Sinaloa Cartel operators, 10-15 April 2020. While cocaine reaches Mexico for transhipment to the U.S. and domestic consumption via commercial and clandestine maritime routes as well as on small aircraft, commercial flights provide an additional pathway. See “Security Operations” in Jeffrey Price and Jeffrey Forrest (eds.), Practical Aviation Security (Oxford, 2017), pp. 515-545. Regarding Colombia’s border control measures during the pandemic, see “Duque ordena cerrrar todas las fronteras terrestres y marítimas”, El Tiempo, 16 March 2020; “Desde este lunes 23 de marzo, no podrán ingresar vuelos internacionales”, Radio Nacional de Colombia, 23 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Some of these business disruptions turned out to be brief. By late May, imports into Mexico of precursor chemicals were “flowing very well again”, according to a high-level operator working with the Jalisco Cartel and other Mexican criminal groups.[fn]Crisis Group interview, 29 May 2020.Hide Footnote It also helped, he said, that global and domestic oil prices had started to climb back up by late April.[fn]Crisis Group interview, 21 August 2020. Historical oil prices are available at Hide Footnote In fact, U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities reported that, while cocaine seizures fell dramatically in March and April, volumes of other confiscated drugs – such as heroin – remained relatively stable during the first months of the pandemic or even rose in the cases of fentanyl and methamphetamine.[fn]In a survey of U.S. adults released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 per cent of respondents in June said they had started or increased substance use to deal with stress or emotions related to COVID-19. “In shadow of pandemic, U.S. drug overdose deaths resurge to record”, The New York Times, 15 July 2020. “The opioid crisis, already serious, has intensified during coronavirus pandemic”, The Wall Street Journal, 8 September 2020. For drug seizures, see “Enforcement Statistics Fiscal Year 2020”, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.Hide Footnote Consumption of some illegal drugs, notably methamphetamine, appears to have risen in the U.S. during the pandemic, as have overdose deaths in several U.S. cities.[fn]How Mexico’s drug cartels are profiting from the pandemic”, The New York Times, 7 July 2020.Hide Footnote

C. Economic Adaptation

Confronted with obstacles to drug trafficking and drop-offs in extortion revenue, criminal groups rapidly adapted. Their first move was to reduce expenses and rely more on “savings”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UNODC official, Guatemala City, 10 September 2020.Hide Footnote Just as some Mexican criminal groups furloughed members, gangs in the north of Central America such as the MS-13 and 18th Street moved to trim the payroll: “Like in a business, when there is a crisis you cut unnecessary costs”, said a former gang member, adding that gangs in El Salvador also started limiting “economic support” to relatives and lawyers of jailed gang members.[fn]Traditionally, gangs use extortion revenues to cover their detained members’ legal fees and to subsidise the living expenses of the detainees’ relatives. Crisis Group telephone interview, former gang member, 30 March 2020.Hide Footnote

Extortion has remained a critical source of revenue for criminal groups in northern Central America and Mexico during the pandemic.

Extortion has remained a critical source of revenue for criminal groups in northern Central America and Mexico during the pandemic.[fn]More than 5 per cent of businesses surveyed by the Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce in April confirmed having suffered extortion. If accurate, this number would be a sharp drop from the 22 per cent that were being extorted in 2016, according to the most recent survey available, but there are indications that it is too low due to underreporting. “Encuesta Empresarial #2 Impacto de la ampliación de medidas de emergencia por el COVID-19 en la economía de la MIPYME”, Cámara de Comercio e Industria de El Salvador, 13 April 2020. “Extorsiones a la pequeña y micro empresa en El Salvador”, Fundación Salvadoreña para el Desarrollo Económico y Social, 23 June 2016.Hide Footnote Yet they have been compelled to adapt the rackets to keep the money flowing in straitened circumstances. Gangs, for example, have stepped up the use of new forms of payment, such as wire transfers via banks or other online platforms, to substitute for in-person collections.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, extortion and security experts and prosecutor, National Anti-Gang Force official, April and June 2020. “Pandillas modifican cobro de extorsión por impacto del covid-19 en El Salvador”, La Prensa Gráfica, 23 June 2020. Hide Footnote Once the Honduran and Guatemalan governments started reactivating the economy in early June and August, respectively, police reported that gangs resumed shaking down some businesses toward which they had shown leniency earlier, and in some cases demanded back payment.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, National Anti-Gang Force officer, 16 June 2020. “Pago retroactivo de extorsión exigen a transportistas”, Proceso Digital, 13 June 2020. “Extorsionistas también esperan la reactivación del transporte público”, Prensa Libre, 26 August 2020.Hide Footnote Current and former Guatemalan gang members recounted that at the height of the lockdownthe 18th Street gang had exempted certain businesses, but continued to demand extortion payments from local shops and transport operators no matter how much government health measures had affected them.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Guatemalan active and former gang members, Chinautla, October 2020.Hide Footnote

Guatemalan authorities tried to halt the resurgence of extortion, but to little avail. When they sought to isolate jailed leaders of the 18th Street gang, also known as la rueda (the circle), the gang retaliated by holding prison guards captive on at least two occasions.[fn]Autoridades de Guatemala buscan debilitar a la pandilla Barrio 18”, CNN, 2 September 2020. “Reos toman de rehenes a guardias de sistema penitenciario en Preventivo de la zona 18”, Nómada, 4 September 2020.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, individuals and groups passing themselves off as the main gangs, known as “imitators”, have stepped up their activities, increasingly targeting households and using online phishing to identify their next victims.[fn]In Guatemala, authorities define “imitators” as those who disguise themselves as gang members to demand extortion payments. Most of them act individually or in small groups, often in areas without a strong gang presence. The authorities thus do not consider “imitators” to be organised crime, though some experts argue that some of them have developed hierarchies. Crisis Group telephone interviews, Guatemalan police officer, security expert, anti-extortion prosecutor and former gang member, June and October 2020. “Coronavirus: Por crisis en comercios y transporte criminales extorsionan domicilios”, Prensa Libre, 3 April 2020. “Alertan de nuevo modo de extorsiones en redes sociales”, República, 13 August 2020.Hide Footnote According to the police, they are reportedly responsible for more than 80 per cent of shakedowns in the country, but a prosecutor specialising in extortion-related wire-tapping warned that most victims of gang extortion do not report those crimes to the police for fear of retaliation.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Guatemalan police officer and anti-extortion prosecutor, June and October 2020.Hide Footnote

Gangs operating in the Northern Triangle have also stepped up drug peddling and other petty crime to make up the shortfall in extortion revenue. Security sources indicate that the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs have diversified into retail sales of marijuana – which is grown mostly in Guatemala and Honduras – and synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and fentanyl, now processed in northern Central America. [fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, National Anti-Gang Force and Guatemalan police officers, Salvadoran former gang member and UNODC official, April, June and August 2020. “Así subsisten ahora las estructuras criminales al no extorsionar a transportistas en la cuarentena”, TuNota, 23 April 2020.Hide Footnote In the case of Honduras, gangs have increasingly resorted to armed robbery and contraband.[fn]The MS-13 in Honduras no longer depends on extortion revenues due to its involvement in cocaine trafficking, and part of its leadership had already been airing the idea of suspending this practice in the past couple of years. Crisis Group telephone interviews, Honduran FNAMP officer and journalist, 2 and 9 September 2020.Hide Footnote Testimonies from Guatemala and El Salvador point to gangs’ efforts to meddle with or profit from the distribution of health care equipment such as face masks and emergency government aid, with Salvadoran authorities forced to include certain gang-connected families among the beneficiaries of handouts and subsidies.[fn]In the first three months of Guatemala’s quarantine, the government paid a “family bonus” of around $120 per month. The authorities received more than 300 complaints of threats to or theft from recipients. Crisis Group telephone interviews, Salvadoran security expert, humanitarian worker and UNODC official, 7 May, 28 July and 12 August 2020. “Coronavirus: MP recibe denuncias por amenazas a beneficiarios de bono familia y robo de recibos”, Prensa Libre, 18 June 2020.Hide Footnote

International drug trafficking through northern Central America persists, much of it apparently by boat or private jet.

Meanwhile, international drug trafficking through northern Central America persists, much of it apparently by boat or private jet. In May, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime warned of a possible increase in maritime drug shipments from South America as a result of reduced air traffic and border shutdowns.[fn]COVID-19 and the Drug Supply Chain: From Production and Trafficking to Use”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Guatemalan authorities report that private jet landings have continued unabated, particularly in the northern jungles of Petén.[fn]The Guatemalan rainforest: lush jungle, Mayan ruins and narco jets full of cocaine”, The Washington Post, 5 July 2020.Hide Footnote In Honduras, cocaine seizures have even increased: by late September 2020, authorities had already confiscated 2,830kg of cocaine over the course of the year, compared to 2,218kg in all of 2019.[fn]Drug Flights Climb Again in Honduras and Guatemala”, Insight Crime, 14 October 2020.Hide Footnote By mid-October, Guatemalan and Honduran authorities had also already located and destroyed close to as many illegal airstrips in 2020 as in all of 2019.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The increasing number of coca cultivation camps found in both Guatemala and Honduras have also sounded alarms that these transit countries could be morphing into producers as well.[fn]Honduras Goes From Transit Nation to Cocaine Producer”, Insight Crime, 19 March 2020. “Guatemala joins ranks of cocaine producers as plantations and labs emerge”, Reuters, 19 September 2019.Hide Footnote

As noted above, in Mexico, crime rings have been weaning themselves off reliance on drug trafficking for fifteen years, expanding into other illicit businesses. One of the most lucrative areas of growth has been to “tax” licit economies through extortion. In central Mexico, criminal groups have focused on extracting payments from the agricultural sector, such as the avocado, lime and berry industries in Michoacán and Jalisco.[fn]America’s appetite for avocados is helping to fuel the Mexican cartels, but giving up guacamole isn’t the solution”, Business Insider, 23 February 2020. Crisis Group interviews, lime and berry producers, farm workers, 2015-2020.Hide Footnote Affecting firms of all sizes, extortion has become a crucial means of generating income in areas where state protection is absent or incomplete.[fn]For a comprehensive overview, see Felbab-Brown, “Mexico’s Out-of-Control Criminal Market”, op. cit.Hide Footnote According to the Bank of Mexico, one in every fourteen businesses nationwide suffered shakedowns in 2019, with the rate rising to one in five in certain regions.[fn]Las extorsiones afectan a 1 de cada 5 empresas en el sur: Banxico”, Forbes, 12 December 2019.Hide Footnote

Climbing commodity prices also mean that mining has become a more enticing source of extortion revenue, even if criminal groups have to compete over it.[fn]On the role of natural resources as conflict drivers, see “Organized Crime and Illegally Mined Gold in Latin America”, Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, April 2016.Hide Footnote The price of gold, which has jumped during the pandemic due to a flow in global investment toward dependable assets, will make the precious metal even more highly coveted by rival criminal outfits.[fn]Gold prices: five reasons gold is set to explode”, Forbes, 25 June 2020. Hide Footnote Similarly, the price of iron ore has risen as a result of reinvigorated Chinese demand.[fn]Iron ore prices reached a six-year high in September, according to Business Insider data. On Mexico’s central Pacific coast, iron ore was a key item sought by local criminal groups until its price dropped sharply in 2013. See “La tormentosa vida en Lázaro Cárdenas”, Revista Nexos, 1 October 2016. The rebound of prices will likely trigger greater criminal interest, as well as conflict, according to local sources involved in clandestine mining. Crisis Group interviews, June and September 2020. Hide Footnote Mexican outfits have also continued to profit from other illicit markets less affected by lockdowns, such as wildlife trafficking.[fn]Wildlife trafficking, another lucrative organised criminal enterprise, has reportedly remained stable during the pandemic. See “Coronavirus Has Not Slowed Looting of Latin America’s Maritime Species”, Insight Crime, 24 June 2020. Hide Footnote The capacity to swiftly adapt to changing conditions and to find alternative revenue sources, combined with high levels of judicial impunity and state collusion, accounts for many groups’ operational resilience.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Mexico’s Everyday War: Guerrero and the Trials of Peace, op. cit.Hide Footnote

III. Benefitting from Contagion

Criminal groups have not only absorbed the COVID-19 era’s economic shocks, but they have also leveraged the contagion and the resulting lockdowns to their benefit. In some areas, the criminal groups are using the pandemic to tighten their grip on the territory and people they control. Where these groups are embroiled in turf battles, the health emergency has in some cases motivated them to compete more fiercely while state authorities are distracted by the public health challenge.

A. “Hearts and Minds”

Some criminal groups in northern Central America and Mexico have tried to turn the flawed state pandemic responses to their advantage by making displays of benevolence. They have handed out basic food packages, for instance – gestures that were limited in number and restricted to a few areas but became widely known.[fn]Mexican cartels are providing COVID-19 assistance. Why that’s not surprising.”, Brookings, 27 April 2020; “In El Salvador, criminal gangs are enforcing virus-related restrictions. Here’s why.”, The Washington Post, 1 June 2020.Hide Footnote The handouts, which the criminal groups publicise on social media channels, are aimed at drawing particular communities into greater dependence and buying their loyalty vis-à-vis hostile state forces and non-state groups.[fn]In El Salvador, the Southerners faction of the 18th Street gang handed out food. See “Cómo las pandillas MS-13 y Barrio 18 se están convirtiendo en actores clave contra la epidemia del coronavirus en El Salvador”, RT, 11 April 2020. For Mexico, see “Mexican criminal groups see Covid-19 crisis as opportunity to gain more power”, The Guardian, 20 April 2020. Hide Footnote According to one criminal leader active in Mexico’s southern state of Guerrero, as long as “they [the local population] are with us and not with them [hostile groups]”, there is less risk that locals will share crucial intelligence – such as the whereabouts of safe houses – with third parties.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Chichihualco, September 2019.Hide Footnote

Some criminal groups have tried to turn the flawed state pandemic responses to their advantage by making displays of benevolence.

Likewise, the 18th Street gang in Guatemala donated thousands of face masks to authorities, in a bid “to be recognised in the communities and prevent residents from denouncing them”, according to an officer from a police unit specialising in gang issues.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Guatemalan police officer, 23 June 2020. “Reos donan más de 5 mil mascarillas confeccionadas por ellos”, El Periódico, 19 April 2020.Hide Footnote The decision by some 18th Street and MS-13 leaders to forgive certain extortion payments seemingly showed a public face of compassion.[fn]Transportistas expresan que la MS13 les notificó que no cobrará más extorsión”, Confidencial, 15 August 2020. “Pandillas amenazan a quien incumpla la cuarentena”, El Faro, 31 March 2020. “Pandilleros conceden indulto en el cobro de extorsión”, El Periódico, 26 March 2020. “Mara Salvatrucha entrega carta a Lidieth Díaz anunciando que ya no cobrarán más extorsión”, Confidencial, 17 August 2020.Hide Footnote Their motive, however, was not so much altruistic as pragmatic, coming as it did in response to the general economic slowdown.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, UN official, Guatemalan security expert and Salvadoran former gang member, April-June 2020. Hide Footnote “They’re donating face masks with other people’s money: they’re taking, rather than giving”, said one disgruntled Guatemalan gang member.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Guatemalan gang member, Chinautla, October 2020.Hide Footnote

Criminal groups have also sought to exploit the pandemic by acting as enforcers of public order, taking advantage of their territorial presence and community ties in poor neighbourhoods. In Salvadoran cities such as Santa Ana and San Salvador, gangs have regulated the movement of people in lieu of police.[fn]Un reparto de víveres bajo el control de la MS-13”, Revista Factum, 26 May 2020; “Cómo las pandillas MS-13 y Barrio 18 se están convirtiendo en actores clave contra la epidemia del coronavirus en El Salvador”, op. cit. Hide Footnote Using the pretext of containing viral spread, the MS-13 enforced curfews in some places in El Salvador, punishing violators.[fn]In El Salvador, gangs are enforcing the coronavirus lockdown with baseball bats”, Los Angeles Times, 7 April 2020.Hide Footnote One Salvadoran humanitarian worker put it this way: “If gangs say they have never been so calm [meaning they have never killed so little], locals say gangs’ grip [on the communities] has never been so strong”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Salvadoran humanitarian worker, 28 July 2020.Hide Footnote

Criminal groups have sought to exploit the pandemic by acting as enforcers of public order.

While this phenomenon is less prominent in Mexico, some non-state armed actors, chiefly the so-called self-defence groups in Guerrero, have acted in a similar fashion.[fn]See “Limitan paso a comunidades de Guerrero por Covid”, Reforma, 14 May 2020.Hide Footnote Here, the strategic appeal to locals’ “hearts and minds” has an electoral motivation: some criminal groups are looking to use their services to the public as a means of encouraging voters to select their preferred candidates or parties in forthcoming elections, with the idea that once in office these indebted politicians will allow them to operate with impunity.[fn]See Crisis Group Report, Mexico’s Everyday War: Guerrero and the Trials of Peace, op. cit. Hide Footnote One group’s jefe de plaza, or local lieutenant, said he had “instructed” the local government to set up a food bank for his group to use for handouts.[fn]Crisis Group interview, 16 April 2020. Hide Footnote In some cases, however, the food parcels distributed by criminal bands in Mexico were snatched from legal companies or financed through increased extortion from local businesses, according to observers with direct knowledge.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, 13 April 2020. Hide Footnote

B. Competing for Territory

The pandemic has rekindled pre-existing feuds for control over land, commodities, access to illicit markets and trafficking corridors – as well as communities sitting in the path to larger profits. The Jalisco Cartel New Generation has continued its campaign of territorial expansion across Mexico, particularly in the country’s central region. It showcased its armed might in a viral video depicting a convoy of its “special forces” unit, as well as by brazenly ambushing the local head of public security in an affluent area of Mexico City.[fn]See “Brutal gang rises as Mexico’s top security threat”, The Wall Street Journal, 8 July 2020.Hide Footnote According to sources close to the group, as well as members of opposing organisations, in some areas the Jalisco Cartel has been more aggressive in attempts to take over territory on the assumption that security forces are caught up in pandemic-related activities such as guarding hospitals, reducing their ability to intervene in gunfights.[fn]Crisis Group interview, 3 April 2020.Hide Footnote

But, despite the COVID-19 circumstances, the underworld remains far from united. No single force has yet shown itself capable of dominating any part of Mexico’s hyper-fragmented criminal landscape, which, according to a Crisis Group study, features no fewer than 198 active armed groups.[fn]Esberg, “More than Cartels: Counting Mexico’s Crime Rings”, op. cit. The study finds that at least 463 criminal groups operated in Mexico for some duration between mid-2009 and 2019. The number of active groups has doubled since 2009. Hide Footnote Bold as its campaign is, the Jalisco Cartel has encountered fierce opposition from locally rooted groups and has failed to turn its presence in the vast majority of Mexican states into territorial hegemony. The state of Guanajuato might become the exception, where Jalisco has gained the upper hand after the arrest of its main competitor’s leader.[fn]See “Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 30: ‘El Marro’ – José Antonio Yépez Ortiz Leader of the Cártel Santa Rosa de Lima Arrested in Guanajuato”, Small Wars Journal, 17 August 2020. Hide Footnote But even in that region, “they are still a long way from being in total control … [and] the state remains extremely hot”, said a source working with the cartel’s upper echelons, referring to the prevalence of conflict among groups vying for power.[fn]Crisis Group interview, 21 August 2020.Hide Footnote

In other places in Mexico, necessity – and not opportunity – is driving organised crime’s efforts to acquire more territory. The lieutenant of an armed group fighting over the state of Michoacán explained that falling demand for goods such as mangoes meant that extortion revenues were drying up. Instead of trying to squeeze blood from a stone, the group decided to step up its attempts to conquer new turf in search of additional sources of revenue.[fn]Crisis Group interview, 14 April 2020. Hide Footnote

Gangs’ bids for territorial expansion in northern Central American countries vary greatly. In Honduras, dozens of minor gangs challenge the main outfits every day in the streets of San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, even though the 18th Street and MS-13 gangs remain the biggest players. Police officers and experts suggested that gangs large and small – particularly the MS-13 – found in the pandemic an opportunity to step up recruitment and attacks on rivals, particularly in areas controlled by minor gangs, such as the Rivera Hernández neighbourhood in San Pedro Sula.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Honduran security experts, National Anti-Gang Force officer and journalist, June, September and October 2020. One security expert who tracks gang crimes said that while many murders during the period have been reported in “border areas” where gangs vie for influence, the most significant change is seemingly an increase in internal gang punishments for disloyalty, particularly within the 18th Street gang. Crisis Group telephone interview, Honduran security expert, 15 October 2020.Hide Footnote In Guatemala, gang-run territory in the capital’s poorer neighbourhoods is fairly well demarcated, leading these groups to focus on expanding their presence in other minor cities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Guatemalan UNODC official and former gang members, Chinautla and Guatemala City, October 2020.Hide Footnote The outlier is El Salvador, where the MS-13 and the two 18th Street factions have taken over almost all smaller outfits and consolidated their presence in around 90 per cent of the country’s municipalities in recent years, sharply reducing the violence that inter-gang turf wars previously caused.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Miracle or Mirage? Gangs and Plunging Violence in El Salvador, op. cit.Hide Footnote

C. Levels of Violence

Crime, and organised crime in particular, accounts for a large share of lethal violence in Mexico and northern Central America and has deep roots, as noted above.[fn]Criminal gangs, for example, are estimated to be responsible for between 20 and 50 per cent of the total homicides in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Crisis Group interviews, Honduran FNAMP, Guatemalan anti-gang division (DIPANDA) and Salvadoran police officers, October 2019 and June 2020. See also Markus-Michael Müller, “Governing Crime and Violence in Latin America”, Global Crime, vol. 19, nos. 3-4 (28 November 2018), pp. 171-191. In Mexico, organised crime is estimated to be responsible for 44 to 80 per cent of overall homicides. See “Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico: 2020 Special Report”, Justice in Mexico Department of Political Science and International Relations, University of San Diego, July 2020, p. 12. Hide Footnote While some commentators hoped that the COVID-19 pandemic would reduce violent crime across the board, that did not come to pass.[fn]Some observers thought that the coronavirus would be a golden opportunity for states to crack down on economically exposed criminal groups. See, eg, Enrique Krauze, “With coronavirus hurting the drug business, there’s an opportunity to corner cartels”, The Washington Post, 26 May 2020. Hide Footnote Instead, the virus’s effects on violence so far have been fleeting. Government policies, particularly mobility restrictions and border shutdowns, contributed to lowering levels of violence in some Central American countries, as did some gangs’ decisions to forgive protection payments. But pre-existing turf wars, coupled with growing scarcity of resources and accelerating fragmentation in some criminal groups, have entailed ongoing – if not intensified – clashes among street gangs. Having briefly dipped, homicide rates are now back to pre-pandemic levels in most places. In Mexico, meanwhile, high levels of armed conflict continued unabated, with 2020 homicides continuing at levels similar to and possibly higher than in 2017 and 2018 – the latter of which is the highest on record.[fn]See “Homicidios en México alcanzarían nuevo récord en 2020 pese al confinamiento, prevé gobierno”, Forbes, 2 September 2020.Hide Footnote

The virus’s effects on violence so far have been fleeting.

Where governments enforced strict measures to prevent the virus’ spread, levels of violence decreased, but only temporarily. Even before the first COVID-19 cases appeared in the Northern Triangle of Central America, these governments had closed their borders, suspended international flights to and from the hardest-hit countries, and declared states of emergency.[fn]Cómo hace frente al covid-19 cada país de América Latina”, BBC Mundo, 30 March 2020.Hide Footnote They went on to impose nationwide mobility restrictions such as quarantines and curfews.[fn]Cuarentenas y toques de queda se extiende por América”, Forbes Centroamérica, 18 March 2020.Hide Footnote These measures coincided with a sharp drop in homicide rates: March was one of the least violent months in years, particularly in El Salvador and Guatemala.[fn]La violencia da un respiro a Centroamérica ante aislamiento por el coronavirus”, El Periódico, 11 May 2020; “CIEN: Guatemala registró en marzo la tasa de homicidios más baja de la década”, El Periódico, 23 April 2020; “Las razones por las que marzo ha sido el mes menos homicida de la historia reciente de El Salvador”, RT, 1 April 2020.Hide Footnote Police officers from these two countries and Honduras agree that the restrictions, along with enhanced patrols to enforce lockdown measures, had hindered gangs’ capacity to move about and thus to commit murder.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran police officers, May and June 2020.Hide Footnote

After remaining stable for a month, homicides in Guatemala and Honduras started to climb again from late April, while they did so in El Salvador from July. In all three countries, they are now back to pre-pandemic levels, though rates for now remain lower than in 2019 (see Appendix B).[fn]This is in line with the downward trend in levels of violence, only interrupted in Honduras last year, across the region in recent years (El Salvador since 2016, Honduras since 2011, Guatemala since 2010). Figures drawn from national police forces and assembled by Crisis Group.Hide Footnote “Nothing has changed in terms of when, where and how murders take place in the country”, said a Honduran security expert.[fn]Homicidios en el contexto COVID-19 en Honduras”, IUDPAS, 5 June 2020. One third of the homicides between March and May occurred on weekends, when the government-imposed curfew was total. Crisis Group telephone interview, Honduran security expert, 22 June 2020.Hide Footnote Similarly, in El Salvador, violence dropped back down to historically low levels in May and June after an uptick connected to a gang killing spree in April, only to pick up again in July; the annual murder rate nevertheless remains very low relative to previous years.[fn]Calculations made by journalist Roberto Valencia, based on national police figures. See his tweet, @cguanacas, 10:15am, 12 October 2020. “El año en el que El Salvador se volvió menos homicida que México”, The Washington Post, 6 September 2020. On the gang killing spree in April, see Crisis Group Report, Miracle or Mirage? Gangs and Plunging Violence in El Salvador, op. cit.Hide Footnote Across the region, quarantine appears to have made domestic violence against women notably worse: the Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace reported a 70 per cent increase in complaints of attacks on women in Central America between mid-March and late May.[fn]Rising violence against women in Latin America confirms fears of abuses in lockdowns”, Reuters, 9 June 2020. “Es prioridad asegurar la continuidad de los servicios de atención a víctimas de violencia durante la pandemia de COVID-19”, UN Population Fund, 9 June 2020. “Feminicidios bajan, pero mujeres no están ‘61 % más seguras’ como dice Bukele”, GatoEncerrado, 6 June 2020. Hide Footnote

As for Mexico, where the government was slow and uneven in its response to the virus, violent crime has stayed at fairly constant levels. Although the authorities suggested containment measures early on, they made them mostly voluntary, pointing to the initially low rates of transmission. Later, in the face of rising infections and deaths, the federal government placed some restrictions on economic and leisure activities, as well as general mobility. But it always put a higher priority on economic activity, and large swathes of the country where people live hand to mouth never entered general quarantine.[fn]Poor areas both within and outside cities continue to suffer the highest COVID-19 infection and death rates in Mexico. See “Zonas marginadas de México concentran el mayor número de muertes y contagios de COVID-19”, El Financiero, 14 July 2020. Hide Footnote The lack of restrictions in the countryside appear consistent with an uninterrupted pace of bloodshed and displacement there.[fn]Desplazados en Guerrero: ‘Aquí el virus que está matando a la gente es la violencia’”, Proceso, 25 March 2020.Hide Footnote

IV. Fighting Crime in the Time of COVID-19

Even before COVID-19 swept through Mexico and Central America, it was clear that the region’s problem of violent crime had no quick fix. Now conditions are even tougher. States are facing reinvigorated criminal groups that have adapted to the pandemic’s restrictions, amid one of the sharpest economic downturns ever recorded in the region, with the likelihood that poverty, need and inequality will deepen further, driving new recruits into the arms of criminal organisations and helping those organisations consolidate their control over communities. Governments as well as donors should concentrate their resources on the populations most likely to suffer greater violence as times get harder.

A. The Economic Downturn and Criminal Recruitment

After months of pandemic-related constraints on economic activity, the region is facing its worst economic crisis in decades. Mexico has been hit hard by a 47.1 drop in exports to the U.S., and economists project a decrease in GDP of around 9 per cent in 2020.[fn]IMF slashes global GDP forecasts, warning of an economic crisis ‘like no other’”, Forbes, 24 June 2020.Hide Footnote Already from March to June, the country lost more than 1 million formal-sector jobs and up to 11.5 million jobs in the informal sector.[fn]México perdió 1 millón 113 mil empleos en los primeros 4 meses de epidemia”, Animal Político, 12 July 2020; “Millones de empleos perdidos en México, la otra cara de la crisis por el Covid-19”, France 24, 17 June 2020.Hide Footnote The percentage of the population unable to meet basic needs could rise to 56 per cent (70 million people), according to a study by Mexico’s National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy. Should this estimate prove accurate, it would represent a 50 per cent increase over 2018 in the number of Mexicans in such grim poverty. The study concluded that “this crisis threatens Mexico’s advances in social development and will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable groups”.[fn]La política social en el contexto de la pandemia por el virus SARS-CoV-2”, Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social, May 2020.Hide Footnote

With domestic markets paralysed and international trade unsettled, northern Central American economies are contracting.

With domestic markets paralysed and international trade unsettled, northern Central American economies are also contracting. The International Monetary Fund recently revised its economic outlook for the region, foreseeing a 2 per cent GDP contraction in Guatemala this year, a 6.5 per cent drop in Honduras and close to 9 per cent dive in El Salvador and Mexico.[fn]See the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook Database.Hide Footnote The UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) also projects that poverty levels will increase by 3 to 6.5 percentage points in the Northern Triangle, and extreme poverty by 2.9 to 4.5 points, with El Salvador again faring the worst.[fn]Enfrentar los efectos cada vez mayores del COVID-19 para una reactivación con igualdad: nuevas proyecciones”, Informe Especial COVID-19 No. 5, ECLAC, 15 July 202.Hide Footnote One study in July showed that 57 per cent of households surveyed in the so-called Dry Corridor of Central America, an area largely covering parts of the Northern Triangle and Nicaragua that is home to around 4.5 million people, were suffering moderate or critical food insecurity.[fn]‘Aquí lo que hay es hambre’: Hambre y pandemia en Centroamérica y Venezuela”, Oxfam, 10 July 2020.Hide Footnote The devastation caused by Hurricane ETA across Central America in early November is sure to make this grim outlook ever worse.

Dire economic conditions and deepening poverty could strengthen criminal groups as well as spur increasing crime rates.[fn]Studies have shown that both inequality and absolute poverty are contributing factors to increases in crime and lethal violence, although findings vary across regions and scholars debate the degree to which these factors drive organised crime. See “Citizen Security with a Human Face: Evidence and Proposals for Latin America”, UN Development Programme, November 2013; Bandy X. Lee, “Economic Correlates of Violent Death Rates in Forty Countries, 1962-2008: A Cross-Typological Analysis”, Aggression and Violent Behavior, vol. 19, no. 6 (November 2014). Hide Footnote Illicit groups draw recruits from a pool of largely economically disadvantaged populations, especially young men: a 2017 survey in El Salvador found, for example, that seven of ten gang members came from households getting by on less than $250 a month, and more than 8o per cent had never worked regularly, either in the formal or informal sectors.[fn]José Miguel Cruz, Jonathan D. Rosen, Luis Enrique Amaya and Yulia Vorobyeva, “La nueva cara de las pandillas callejeras: el fenómeno de las pandillas en El Salvador”, Centro Kimberly Green para América Latina y el Caribe, Instituto Jack D. Gordon para Políticas Públicas, Universidad Internacional de la Florida, Fundación Nacional para el Desarrollo, 22 March 2017, p. 5. Hide Footnote As employment opportunities in the licit formal and informal sectors dwindle, more young people could gravitate to labour-intensive illicit businesses, which use new members for tasks such as murder for hire, collection of extortion money, production or distribution of drugs, or mundane tasks.[fn]In Guatemala, the Centre for National Economic Research (CIEN) has created a crime complaints index, gathering figures for ten different crimes. While the index’s inter-annual variation was –4.4 per cent in May, it had gone up again to –0.4 per cent by August, with crimes against people experiencing a 0.3 per cent increase. Crisis Group telephone interview, Honduran journalist, 29 July 2020. “COVID-19 and the Drug Supply Chain: From Production and Trafficking to Use”, op. cit.; “Boletín Estadístico de Delitos”, Centro de Investigaciones Económicas Nacionales, 16 September 2020.Hide Footnote As one journalist from San Pedro Sula put it: “Here the businesses fired half of the employees [...] but you can make 1,000 lempiras (around $40) a week just being a lookout”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Honduran journalist, 9 September 2020.Hide Footnote

Dire economic conditions and deepening poverty could strengthen criminal groups as well as spur increasing crime rates.

Economic hard times will also enable criminal groups to consolidate their control over communities that have grown increasingly dependent for their livelihoods on illicit rackets, enabling those groups to drum up support for electoral candidates, and potentially to bend the actions of state and judicial institutions in their favour. The risk is particularly clear in El Salvador, where the issue of whom the main gangs might support in the February 2o21 general and municipal elections is reportedly a topic of secret discussion between gang leaders and government officials.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, prison system official, August 2020. “Gobierno de Bukele lleva un año negociando con la MS-13 reducción de homicidios y apoyo electoral”, El Faro, 3 September 2020.Hide Footnote

B. Flawed Policy Responses

The region’s governments, which have proven unable to remedy the underlying conditions that give rise to consistently high rates of violent crime, are now largely unprepared to face an even greater challenge from criminal groups. Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has made social and economic programs the centrepiece of his efforts to combat insecurity at its roots.[fn]For a discussion of these programs’ effectiveness in Mexico’s high-conflict zones, see Crisis Group Report, Mexico’s Everyday War: Guerrero and the Trials of Peace, op. cit. Hide Footnote But doubts persist about these initiatives’ effectiveness and their usefulness as responses to the pandemic’s economic fallout.[fn]Coneval ve fallos en programas insignia de AMLO; gobierno ignora recomendaciones”, Animal Político, 7 July 2020. Hide Footnote At the same time, the Mexican government continues to deepen its reliance on highly militarised security institutions, including López Obrador’s newly created National Guard, a police force that is civilian in name only and is a blunt instrument for fighting organised crime.[fn]Of the National Guard’s 90,000 officers, 51,101 come from the army, 10,149 from the navy and 26,376 from the former federal police. The third cohort are the only ones paid by a civilian institution, the Public Security Secretariat. Overall, under López Obrador more soldiers have been deployed on Mexican streets than under the previous two administrations. Despite his campaign vows, López Obrador has been reluctant to invest in reforms of civilian police and justice institutions, instead further strengthening the armed forces’ role. See Crisis Group Report, Mexico’s Everyday War: Guerrero and the Trials of Peace, op. cit.; and Esberg, “More than Cartels: Counting Mexico’s Crime Rings”, op. cit. Also see “Ni civiles ni policías: Guardia solo ha reclutado a militares que carecen de evaluación policial”, Animal Político, 17 August 2020; and “Gobierno de AMLO, el que más militares ha desplegado”, SDP Noticias, 6 September 2020. Hide Footnote As long as these policies continue, the risk remains that criminal groups will fragment further while violent competition over illicit revenues intensifies.

The governments of northern Central America also remain wedded to iron-fist methods, which after two decades show few signs of yielding a sustained reduction in violent crime. At first, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s tough strategy led to a decline in murders, but in 2019 homicides started to climb again.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Fight and Flight: Tackling the Root Causes of Honduras’ Emergency, op. cit.Hide Footnote El Salvador’s stark drop in homicides after years of extreme violence appears to stem from an informal understanding between gangs and authorities, but President Nayib Bukele’s administration has kept up its bellicose rhetoric against these groups, priding itself on treating their members harshly.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Miracle or Mirage? Gangs and Plunging Violence in El Salvador, op. cit.Hide Footnote Guatemala’s President Alejandro Giammattei has also insisted on hardline measures, deploying security forces in crime-ridden areas under short-lived “states of exception” and confining or transferring prisoners to cut off communication with the outside. These measures have brought only temporary improvements. Shakedowns and murders went back up as soon as security forces left targeted areas or when extortionists ended their confinement, often following habeas corpus requests to the courts.[fn]Monthly homicides in the twelve municipalities where the government imposed a state of exception in February reportedly went down to 0.9 from 1.5, but they went up again to 1.3 in March after these measures ended. “Informe sobre los primeros 100 días de gobierno”, Diálogos, 3 June 2020, p. 13; “Acciones interinstitucionales logran reducir a cero en algunos días, las llamadas extorsivas desde Pavón y Cantel”, Guatemala Interior Ministry, 1 June 2020; “Baja histórica en extorsiones está en peligro por falencias en cárceles de Guatemala”, Prensa Libre, 20 August 2020.Hide Footnote

The governments of northern Central America remain wedded to iron-fist methods, which after two decades show few signs of yielding a sustained reduction in violent crime.

A crucial element in determining the future of gangs over the course of the pandemic in Central America will be their treatment in prisons, the source of most orders to extract extortion payments or commit murders.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Guatemalan former and active gang members and UNODC official, Honduran security expert and FNAMP officer, Chinautla and by telephone, September and October 2020.Hide Footnote One of the first measures the region’s governments took to prevent the virus’s spread in their overcrowded jails was to suspend family visits, which gang leaders often use to exchange coded messages and pass orders to the outside world.[fn]In spite of this effort, authorities have reported more than 2,200 cases or suspected cases of COVID-19 in the three countries’ jails, although the outbreaks seem to have been contained. Crisis Group telephone interviews, Guatemalan security experts, 23 June and 7 September 2020. “Centros Penales descarta casos positivos y sospechosos de COVID-19 en recintos carcelarios”, El Salvador Presidency, 13 August 2020; “Cuántos casos de coronavirus hay en las cárceles del país, afectadas por el hacinamiento de reos”, Prensa Libre, 31 August 2020; “93 casos activos de COVID-19, una muerte y 37 sospechosos en cárceles de Honduras”, La Prensa, 8 September 2020. Hide Footnote Communication with outside contacts has also been stymied by the imposition of military rule over prisons in Honduras, and by the decision in El Salvador to enforce stricter prison regimes for members of different gangs, who are now forced to share the same cells.[fn]According to the news website El Faro, the government offered to reverse this decision in conversations with jailed gang leaders. “Gobierno de Bukele lleva un año negociando con la MS-13 reducción de homicidios y apoyo electoral”, El Faro, op. cit.; “Gobierno salvadoreño habría negociado beneficios con la Mara Salvatrucha si reducía homicidios”, France 24, 5 September 2020. The Bukele government rapidly denied the story and arranged visits to three prisons, with national and international media in tow, to show that the situation had not changed. On military rule in Honduran jails, see “Honduras declares state of emergency in prison system”, AP, 17 December 2019.Hide Footnote Nevertheless, gang members, security experts and police officers argued that, at least in Guatemala and Honduras, jailed gang leaders manage to contact those outside by phones that are illegally smuggled into prisons, sometimes bypassing signal disruption devices by using independent transmission networks.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Guatemalan former and active gang members and UNODC official, Honduran security expert and FNAMP officer, Chinautla and by telephone, September and October 2020. “Baja histórica en extorsiones está en peligro por falencias en cárceles de Guatemala”, Prensa Libre, 20 August 2020; “Cae jefe de la MS que instalaba redes para uso de celulares en cárceles”, La Prensa, 31 August 2020.Hide Footnote They also use “apps like WhatsApp and Telegram that we lack the technology to intercept”, one Guatemalan prosecutor explained.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Guatemalan anti-extortion prosecutor, 8 October 2020.Hide Footnote

The initial disruption in extortion proceeds, combined with the unequal allocation of these takings within gangs, has caused internal strains. As some gangs decided to cut unnecessary costs, jailed members’ relatives and low-level operatives found themselves without an important source of financial support.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Guatemalan UNODC official and former Salvadoran gang member, Guatemala City and by telephone, 30 March and 10 September 2020.Hide Footnote This step, combined with the order from certain gang leaders to suspend some extortion in order to win public approval, prompted lower-level members to start collecting their own small payments without “permission” from gang bosses or skimming bite-size sums from the gangs’ extortion income.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Guatemalan police officer, 23 June 2020.Hide Footnote Such practices have reportedly spurred a tide of killings perpetrated against members of the same gang to punish misbehaviour.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Guatemalan active and former gang members and security expert, Honduran security expert, Chinautla, Guatemala City and by telephone, September and October 2020.Hide Footnote

Disputes between jailed and free gang leaders, compounded by the increased difficulty of communication, are contributing to the progressive fragmentation of gang cliques. The fractures are particularly noticeable in the 18th Street gang, where internal frictions are not new, but risk being exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, 23 June 2020. “Coronavirus Rattles Barrio 18 Structure in Guatemala”, Insight Crime, 16 June 2020.Hide Footnote The proliferation of rogue gang factions could fuel internecine violence and jeopardise any future process aiming to address the gang issue as a whole, including through dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Salvadoran former gang member, June 2020. Crisis Group Report, Miracle or Mirage? Gangs and Plunging Violence in El Salvador, op. cit; Crisis Group Report, Fight and Flight: Tackling the Root Causes of Honduras’ Emergency, op. cit.Hide Footnote

C. Recommendations

In the face of a potential increase in recruitment by criminal outfits, their entrenchment in vulnerable communities and a return to the high levels of violence they perpetrate, governments should develop policies targeted at preventing further deterioration in public safety. These plans should not neglect the role of firm, forceful policing in containing extreme criminal aggression and protecting people vulnerable to displacement or other serious harm. But they should also ensure that impoverished areas receive material and technical support so that people living there have ways to stay afloat without involvement in illicit activities. In doing so, governments and foreign partners would also help mitigate the worsening exodus of Mexicans and Central Americans fleeing the region. 

Governments should use COVID-related donor funds and emergency multilateral credit lines to step up state support for the public through basic service provision.

For starters, governments should use COVID-related donor funds and emergency multilateral credit lines to step up state support for the public through basic service provision, above all in health care, and financial subventions for the poor. Where possible, they should also back law enforcement campaigns aimed at preventing a spike in extortion coinciding with economies’ reopening.[fn]A total of $230 billion in credit from multilateral lenders is reportedly available to fund the response of emergency and low-income countries to the pandemic. Communiqué from G20 Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors Meeting, 14 October 2020.Hide Footnote These campaigns should strengthen the investigative capacity of local law enforcement and establish better channels of communication between merchants and police to make extortion easier to report when it takes place.[fn]A Criminal Culture: Extortion in Central America”, Insight Crime and Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, May 2019. Hide Footnote

Regional governments should also use emergency funds that parliaments have made available for alleviating the humanitarian emergency to boost domestic production of basic goods and food, especially in rural areas that are more susceptible to drug trafficking and illicit crop production.[fn]In El Salvador, for example, parliament has approved government efforts to seek more than $3 billion through loans, bonds and donations, but there is dispute over how transparently the government has used these funds. In Guatemala, 14.6 billion quetzals (about $1.9 billion) have been approved although little of that sum has so far been spent. “Gobierno se resiste a transparentar el uso de $3 mil millones para atender la emergencia”, El Faro, 23 September 2020; “Cómo quedó la ejecución de los programas sociales después del estado de Calamidad”, Prensa Libre, 2 October 2020.Hide Footnote They should allocate money in an even and transparently non-partisan way, particularly in El Salvador and Honduras, where 2021 elections could tempt rulers to use crisis expenditure to nurture popular support.[fn]There have been reports, for example, that the Honduran government has been channelling these funds to ruling National Party sympathisers. “Covid-19 is Complicating Central America’s Chronic Illnesses”, Italian Institute for International Political Studies, 13 July 2020.Hide Footnote To soften the pandemic’s impact, the Mexican government should also reconsider some of its extreme austerity measures, an emblem of the López Obrador administration from its outset, which have meant among other things the closure of an array of state agencies deemed superfluous or corrupt, and wide-reaching spending cuts.[fn]“El Gobierno de México pone en marcha el cierre de una decena de subsecretarías por la austeridad”, El País, 1 September 2020.Hide Footnote Resources have instead been focused on social and economic programs that rely chiefly on direct assistance to recipients, with the goal of alleviating inequality and poverty. Although these appear to be appropriate responses to Mexico’s economic debacle, a clear methodology for how these programs will generate their desired effects is so far lacking.[fn]See Alán López, “Jóvenes perdiendo su futuro”, Nexos, 17 February 2020.Hide Footnote It is also questionable whether they are the right means of addressing the privations caused by the pandemic, with those hit hardest economically, including informal-sector workers and small and mid-sized businesses, receiving too little support so far.[fn]Overall, the López Obrador government has not deviated from its austerity policy. It continues to reject taking on debt to up its COVID-19-related stimulus spending, which is lower than most OECD countries. The government’s economic response to the pandemic has consisted mainly of doubling down on the flagship programs designed to support impoverished populations and areas, including granting four million one-time loans not higher than 25,000 pesos ($1,190) to small firms, but nothing to larger businesses. See “Too little, too late? Mexico unveils $26 billion coronavirus spending shift”, Reuters, 22 April 2020; “Mexico reports ‘catastrophic’ 60,000 Covid-19 deaths”, Financial Times, 23 August 2020; “Mexico’s budget assumptions met with scepticism”, Financial Times, 9 September 2020. Hide Footnote

Comprehensive security plans during the pandemic should seek not just to deter crime but also to target its sources.

Across the region, comprehensive security plans during the pandemic should seek not just to deter crime but also to target its sources. Broadly speaking they could aim to foster legal alternatives to crime, protect civilian populations through geographically focused police deployments, shore up local security and justice institutions and take steps to rid them of corruption, and, where feasible, introduce incentives for young members of criminal groups to reintegrate into law-abiding society. For example, governments should enhance witness protection programs and offer reintegration and employment programs to criminal groups willing to hand over their weapons.[fn]Around 80 per cent of homicides in northern Central America are perpetrated with a firearm. “Living with Armed Violence”, Halo Trust Foundation, 26 June 2020.Hide Footnote In rural areas, governments should partner with private-sector and foreign donors to offer incentives for farmers to replace illicit with legal crops, thereby preventing a boom in coca, marijuana and poppy cultivation.

The extent of the challenges ahead means that authorities likely should focus on a select number of regions affected by high levels of violence and at particular threat from the pandemic’s fallout. They should develop intervention plans for these regions – analysing the dynamics particular to those conflict settings, developing tailored interventions that look beyond traditional law enforcement solutions (for example, to combat corruption and cultivate licit economies), and focusing local, national and international resources to support them. In Mexico, such plans should be rolled out first in regions with the highest levels of lethal conflict, such as Michoacán, Guerrero and Guanajuato, and subsequently extended to other areas.[fn]For an outline of regional intervention plans in Mexico, see Crisis Group Report, Mexico’s Everyday War: Guerrero and the Trials of Peace, op. cit.Hide Footnote Central America’s most violent cities, such as Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula in Honduras, Guatemala City in Guatemala, and San Salvador in El Salvador, should be priority locations for programs to encourage the disarmament and reintegration of gang members, while remote jungles used for drug trafficking also merit dedicated state attention.[fn]In Guatemala, these areas are in Petén, San Marcos, Alta Verapaz and Izabal provinces, and in Honduras they are in Olancho, Gracias a Dios and Yoro. A comprehensive account of the elements of the most recent successful effort at disarmament in Latin America, that of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2017, can be found in Gerson Arias and Carlos Andrés Prieto, “Lecciones del fin del conflicto en Colombia: dejación de armas y tránsito a la legalidad de las Farc”, Institute for Integrated Transitions, 2020.Hide Footnote

Long-term progress in this direction, however, hinges on institutions capable of carrying out these plans transparently and without criminal connivance.[fn]Enhancing Government Effectiveness and Transparency: The Fight Against Corruption”, World Bank, 22 September 2020.Hide Footnote Strict oversight and accountability mechanisms are essential, yet they still lack the political backing they need across the region. Under President López Obrador, efforts against selected individuals suspected of corruption have increased, but there are no signs that the government plans to reinforce previous Mexican administrations’ attempts to build an overarching anti-corruption system.[fn]For an overview, see Gina Hinojosa and Maureen Meyer, “El futuro del Sistema Nacional de México: La lucha anticorrupción bajo el mandato del Presidente López Obrador”, Washington Office on Latin America, August 2019. Hide Footnote Anti-corruption efforts in northern Central America have stalled following the departure of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala and the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, the mandates of which were cut short by the respective national governments.[fn]Guatemala case reveals how corruption perpetuates itself in Central America”, Univision, 16 July 2020.Hide Footnote

The U.S. and European Union should work with regional governments to step up support for a dormant UN-backed development plan for Central America and southern Mexico.

Donor governments, neighbours like the U.S. and international organisations should recognise that supporting steps in these directions is in their immediate interest, as they can mitigate the risk that the region will slide deeper into the vicious cycle of dire living conditions, violence and emigration.[fn]Falko Ernst, “Time to End the Lethal Limbo of the U.S.-Mexican Drug Wars”, Crisis Group Commentary, 7 October 2020.Hide Footnote International financial institutions, in particular, should consider not only loosening credit conditions but also starting a debt relief program for pandemic-related funding to prevent a financial crisis in the region down the line.[fn]World Bank calls for debt relief programme as amounts owed hit record levels”, The Guardian, 12 October 2020.Hide Footnote The U.S. and European Union should work with regional governments to step up support for a dormant UN-backed development plan for Central America and southern Mexico.[fn]The most recent outline of a Comprehensive Development Plan for El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and southern and south-eastern Mexico was signed in January 2020 by representatives of all four countries under the auspices of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. “The Comprehensive Development Plan is an Innovative Proposal that Addresses the Structural Causes of Migration, With a Focus on Growth, Equality and Environmental Sustainability”, ECLAC, 15 January 2020.Hide Footnote While the U.S. government has prioritised its own private investment strategy in Latin America launched in December 2019, called “Growth in the Americas”, it should tie investments in infrastructure projects to robust anti-corruption campaigns and improvements in state institutions’ effectiveness, with the aim of helping stabilise the region and preventing a return to mass northbound migration driven by conflict.[fn]Under the initiative, which excludes Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela, the U.S. has pledged $1 billion to each of the northern Central American countries. “América Crece: Washington’s new investment push in Latin America”, Toward Freedom, 8 October 2020. Hide Footnote

V. Conclusion

Despite initial signs that the COVID-19 crisis might disrupt crime and its attendant violence in Mexico and northern Central America, the pandemic is in fact exacerbating the socio-economic and institutional weaknesses that underpin these phenomena. After an early dip in the Northern Triangle countries, homicide rates have returned to pre-crisis levels in most places, while in Mexico they have held steadily high throughout the health emergency. With the gradual reactivation of economies, extortion is expected to roar back in northern Central America, while the reopening of borders and airports will likely reinvigorate drug trafficking via land and air and other smuggling. At the same time, the economic hardship caused by the pandemic could drive more people, youngsters in particular, to join the ranks of organised crime. 

Governments in the region, already struggling to fight crime before the pandemic, face troubling prospects. The economic impact of COVID-19 could linger much longer than the contagion itself, as both the formal and informal sectors languish, poverty and inequality rise, and governments scramble for loans to fund investment and socio-economic relief packages. Authorities should combine targeted policing with the investment of emergency funds that multilateral lenders have made available to respond to the health crisis, giving priority to those regions most exposed to the pandemic and its fallout, including areas affected by rising violence. Donors should pitch in, guided by the same principles. Organised crime has shown notable resilience and adaptability as the coronavirus shapes the present. The governments of Mexico and northern Central America ought to respond with focused and strategic interventions that break with the tried and failed methods of the past. 

Mexico City/Guatemala City/Bogotá/Brussels, 13 November 2020

Appendix A: Map of Mexico

Appendix B: Map of Guatemala

Appendix C: Map of El Salvador

Appendix D: Map of Honduras

Appendix E: Per Capita Homicides in Mexico and Northern Central America

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