How drug cartels are exploiting coronavirus – handing out food to the poor to get them on side and slaughtering rivals – The Sun

BODIES riddled with bullets and blood spilled in the streets are familiar scenes in Mexico's brutal cartel wars. 

But since the pandemic began, the cartels have taken their horrific violence and money-making rackets to new extremes.

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While police are strained dealing with the pandemic, cartels have unleashed a staggering wave of bloodshed — the worst on record — massacring rivals to take control of new territory.

The problem is worsened by the disruption of international supply chains, which means cartels are struggling to get hold of chemicals needed to make drugs like methamphetamine and cocaine.

That's pushed cartels into fiercer competition with each other, and into revving up other illegal rackets.

One dangerous scam involves forcing pharmacies to buy bogus medicines, which in turn end up in the bloodstreams of genuinely sick people needing treatment.

While another is to steal petrol out of buried pipelines leading to fuel shortages and dangerous explosions.

Record-breaking bloodshed

Since 2006, when Mexican soldiers were ordered to fight the war on drugs, Mexican cartels have become increasingly brutal in battling for control of the nation's multi-billion dollar drug trade.

Massacres, mass graves, and decapitated bodies hanging from bridges have all become sickeningly common scenes.

And the violence gets worse every year.

Last year was the worst year in the country's history for murder — there were 34,582 slayings in 2019, which equates to 95 every day.

But in March this year, there were a staggering 2,585 murders in a single month — the bloodiest since records began in 1997.

That horrific figure already puts 2020 on to break last year's appalling record.

Deadly shootouts have erupted all over the country, with some of the worst clashes in the central Mexican city of Ceyala.

Cartels in the area use burning vehicle roadblocks and military-grade weapons to fight security forces who are desperately trying to disrupt fuel theft.

Gangs make a fortune by setting up illegal taps on vulnerable gasoline pipelines and then selling the bootleg fuel.

But as well as violent clashes with authorities, cartels fight with each other for control of the dangerous fuel racket.

One firefight in the border state of Chihuahua left 19 gang members dead last month.

But some of this year's unprecedented violence has even been directly in protest to coronavirus lockdowns.

Obed Durón Gómez, the mayor of popular resort town Mahahual, was shot dead in April while inspecting a quarantine roadblock designed to slow the spread of the virus.

Investigators are looking into threats Gómez received from cartels who wanted him to lift the lockdown interfering with their criminal activities.

Authorities hoped the pandemic would slow the spiralling violence — but it's actually thrown fuel on the flames.

"It seemed in late March, when the coronavirus had become more widespread, that we would have a considerable reduction [in violence]," Mexican President López Obrador said.

"Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way."

Bogus medicines forced on pharmacies

It's not just warring gun-toting gangsters who are at risk because of the cartel's crimes during the coronavirus.

The Mexican public are in danger too as hitmen force pharmacies to buy bogus medicines.

Sicarios associated with the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, one of the rising criminal forces in Latin America, are thought to be responsible, La Jornada reports.

The gang makes the pirate medicines and then forces legitimate dispensaries into buying them.

That means millions of Mexicans' lives are endangered as the dodgy drugs end up being dished out along with real medicines.

The problem is so big that as many as 60 per cent of all the medicines sold in Mexico are counterfeit, according to Mexico's National Union of Pharmacy Entrepreneurs.

And these medicines can be given out to people with extremely serious conditions including cancer, HIV, and diabetes.

But cartels don't care, as the twisted racket is thought to rake in at least $666.5million a year.

'Chapo packages' for the poor

Despite the danger they pose to vulnerable people, cartels are actually trying to win them over — by handing out "Chapo packages".

With Mexico's tourism industry decimated by international travel problems and local lockdowns, the poorest are being hit by hardest by coronavirus chaos.

A staggering 70million Mexicans ⁠— 56 per cent of the population ⁠— might not earn enough to cover basic necessities if the downturn continues, a study by the Mexican government revealed this month.

That offers cartels the perfect opportunity to buy the people's goodwill.

Cartels in Mexico, which has had 54,346 cases of Covid-19 and 5,666 deaths, are now giving out food parcels to the needy and publicising their aid work on social media.

In Guadalajara, boxes branded with drug lord El Chapo's face are being distributed by members of his gang, the Sinaloa Cartel.

The effort is being organised by Chapo's daughter, Alejandrina Guzman, who has been filmed handing out "Chapo packages' of tinned foods and toilet paper.

But she's not alone — rival cartels are doing the same.

Videos show men in balaclavas handing out packages purporting to come from the bloodthirsty Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

It's thought they're trying to win grassroots support from locals who have been horrified by more than 250,000 drug-related killings in the country since 2006.

The Mexican government has pledged billions to support the "most vulnerable" from the economic effects of the crisis.

But it has also condemned the cartels' aid and demanded an end to the criminals' handouts.

"These criminal organisations that have been seen distributing the packages, this isn't helpful," Mexican President López Obrador said at a press conference.

"What helps is them stopping their bad deeds."

Protest prison riots

The pandemic is even presenting opportunities for cartel members in prisons.

Because while authorities are stretched dealing with the pandemic, lags can pile more pressure on them with prison riots.

Mexico has already passed a prisoner amnesty allowing low-level offenders like thieves and drug possessors to be released early in a bid to combat the spread of the nation's overpopulated prisons.

According to the country's National Institute of Statistics and Geography, around 37 per cent of Mexico's prisons were overcrowded at the end of March.

Prisoners have rioted across Latin America in protest over coronavirus conditions.

On May 12, three prisoners were killed during a riot at the Social Reintegration Center of Colima on Mexico's Pacific coast, according to reports.

It's thought the disruption began with protests against new coronavirus restrictions introduced in prisons.

These have included slashing the number of visitors inmates have been allowed in half.

Analysts from AKE International, a security consultancy, believe the unrest could be used by cartels to forward their own interests.

"COVID-19 could embolden these groups to increase their demands to the state by threatening widespread riots," they write.

"They can gain leverage from inmates should the state be seen as reluctant to address what can be portrayed as a humanitarian request."

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