Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 15: Skullduggery or Social Banditry? Cartel Humanitarian Aid
John P. Sullivan
Mexico’s cartels are significant social, political, and economic actors. The extent of their socioeconomic and political influence is the subject of great debate yet, as their recent response to natural disaster demonstrates, they are influencing the populace in new and diverse ways. In the aftermath of recent hurricanes (i.e., Hurricanes Manuel and Ingrid) in Mexico cartels provided “humanitarian” aid to the victims of the storms. As a result they positioned themselves in a positive light in the communities they assisted. This strategic note documents and assesses this cartel foray into the provision of social goods—specifically “humanitarian aid.”
Cartel Disaster Relief
On 22 September 2013, Proceso reported that the Gulf Cartel (Cártel del Golfo/CDG) dispensed tons of supplies to persons impacted by Hurricane Ingrid in Tamaulipas. In this report, it was noted that the CDG posted a video on YouTube claiming that “they help because they have a heart” (“Si ayuden es por que tienen corazon”). The video—punctuated by a “rap style corrido” voice over—shows pickup trucks loaded with supplies: food, water, rice, masa, milk, that are then dispensed to the affected community. The ability for the cartel to mobilize and distribute groceries and aid without government interdiction raises questions about state capacity in the contested disaster zone. Questions about state capacity and cartel intentions were raised on social media in the immediate aftermath of the storm. Tweets became the common method of sharing disaster situation reports. Social media also became a way for the CDG to publicize its relief efforts. As one report noted:
The most interesting twist came Sunday when an Internet video claiming to be from the Gulf Cartel began circulating through social media. The video shows several pickup trucks filled with food items being driven across the state and through dirt roads where the food was delivered to the communities. In the video, a written message claiming to be from the Gulf Cartel says that the organization is from Tamaulipas and cares for the people of the state.
The aid to the town of Aldama provided by the CDG was publicized on social media and widely reported by traditional media outlets. These types of social works are also heralded in banners known as narcomantas. The CDG and other cartels have long publicized their “good works.” In the case of disaster relief, the cartels continue to build their social status while eroding public perceptions of government capacity. The social media reports of CDG aid were promulgated during Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto’s tour of Mexico’s storm-struck Pacific coast. Some analysts believe it is also likely that the Sinaloa Cartel also provided post-cyclone relief in northwestern Sinaloa after Hurricane Manuel.
Los Zetas also used the recent storms as a venue for solidifying local support. Perhaps in response to aid provided by their bitter rivals the CDG, the Zetas reportedly distributed food and other provisions to storm victims in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas. They distributed groceries in packages marked with the letter “Z” at local schools.
While reports of cartels dispensing aid circulated widely, other reports assert that gangs or cartels were preventing aid from reaching victims. According to these reports, armed gunmen disrupted disaster relief to cities in the Tierra Caliente and Montaña regions. The cities where aid was interrupted by thefts of relief vehicles included Coyuca de Catalan, Ajuchitlan del Progreso, Arcelia, Teloloapan and San Miguel Totolapan in Tierra Caliente and Tlacoapa, San Luis Acatlan and Metlatonoc in the Montaña region.
It is unknown which gangsters were responsible for these interruptions or if these were opportunistic thefts or perhaps orchestrated to erode confidence in the state. The regions impacted are home to the Cabelleros Templarios, who along with the La Familia Michoacana have a long tradition of narcocultura and embracing the mantle of social banditry.
By many accounts, state response to the disasters was effective and robust with military and civil defense workers quickly mobilizing response. Beyond the response, weak disaster prevention and mitigation are believed to have been inhibited by rampant corruption. Perhaps this reported interference was a case of cartel skullduggery—a means of discrediting the state or rival gangsters. Perhaps these reports are reverse information operations seeking to erode support for the cartels.
Assessing the Situation
Hurricanes Ingrid and Manuel struck Mexico on 15 September 2013. In the aftermath of these cyclones 155 people were killed and 58,000 were left homeless. Crops were devastated and livestock killed. Government relief efforts were quick and robust but the scale and complexity of the disasters’ damage limited the speed and depth of state response. Drug cartels seized the opportunity to provide aid and influence community sentiment in their favor.
The drug cartels filled a void in capacity. As Mexican journalist Raymundo Riva Palacio noted:
The federal forces do not have the human capacity to simultaneously deploy across the country in rescue and evacuation operations and offering care to communities. The cartels, however, operate surgically with their potential clientele. Criminals will benefit proportionally from the discomfort of those affected by delays in relief or no relief at all…
This is a dangerous, indeed ominous indicator of the corroding influence of cartel information operations on state solvency in significant parts of Mexico.
Conclusion: InfoOps toward Territorial Control
In this sequence, we see (at least) two criminal cartels providing humanitarian operations within their zone of territorial control or interest. This amounts to utilitarian provision of social goods to shape community perceptions. This is essentially social banditry (Robin Hood-type operations) to shape perception and forge community support or tacit acceptance of cartel operations. The cartels are competing among themselves and with the state for public sentiment.
The cartels exploited their on-the-ground personnel and logistic capacity to build social support and delegitimize state legitimacy by providing humanitarian aid in the plazas they control or seek to control. The cartels essentially utilized humanitarian aid, amplified by information operations—indeed the aid was intrinsically a form of InfoOps—to discredit the state, provide assistance to their own supporters, and build bonds with the citizenry within the plazas where they seek to exert territorial control.
 “Cártel del Golfo reparte toneladas de despensas a afectados por ‘Ingrid’ en Tamaulipas,” Proceso, 22 September 2013 at http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=353468.
 “Cartel Del Golfo Apoyando Aldama, Tamps,” YouTube, published 22 September 2013; retrieved 24 November 2013 at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YaFqh2WebXA#t=15.
 Ildefonso Ortiz, “Tamaulipas floods Twitter with Ingrid alerts; video appears to show Gulf Cartel dabbling in disaster relief,” The Monitor, 23 September 2013 at http://www.themonitor.com/news/local/article_e18ec87e-24a8-11e3-8605-0019bb30f31a.html.
 Dudley Althaus, “Some Mexicans count on Gulf Cartel for storm relief,” Global Post, 23 September 2013 at http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/mexico/130923/gulf-cartel-drug-war-storm-relief.
 ““Los Zetas” reparten despensas a damnificados en Tamaulipas,” Proceso, 10 October 2013 at http://www.proceso.com.mx/?p=354980.
 “Gangs Prventing Storm Aid From Reaching Victims in Southern Mexico,” Latino Daily News, 26 October 2013 at http://www.hispanicallyspeakingnews.com/latino-daily-news/details/gangs-preventing-storm-aid-from-reaching-victims-in-southern-mexico1/27692/.
 John P. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations,” Small Wars Journal-El Centro, 03 December 2012 at http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/criminal-insurgency-narcocultura-social-banditry-and-information-operations; translated as “Insurgencia Criminal: Narcocultura, Bandidos Sociales y Operaciones de Información,” Small Wars Journal-El Centro, 04 November 2013 at http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/insurgencia-criminal-narcocultura-bandidos-sociales-y-operaciones-de-información.
 David Agren, “Mexico floods: quick response, not enough disaster prevention,” Christian Science Monitor, 20 September 2013 at http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Americas/2013/0920/Mexico-floods-quick-response-not-enough-disaster-prevention.
 Laurel Morales, “Drug Cartel Provides Storm Relief, Helps Image,” Fronteras, 30 September 2013 at http://fronterasdesk.org/content/9062/drug-cartel-provides-storm-relief-helps-image.
 Tim Johnson, “How cartels win with storm damage,” Mexico unmasked (McClatchy), 28 September 2013 at http://blogs.mcclatchydc.com/mexico/2013/09/how-cartels-win-with-storm-damage.html.
 The full quote in Spanish is “Las fuerzas federales no tienen la capacidad humana para desplegarse en simultáneo por todo el país en tareas de rescate, evacuación y atención a las comunidades. Los cárteles, en cambio, operan quirúrgicamente con sus potenciales clientelas. La molestia de los afectados por los retrasos en la atención o en aquellas zonas donde aún no llega la ayuda, beneficia proporcionalmente a los criminales, pero a la vez, en zonas específicas de la costa sur del Pacífico, crea condiciones para que la guerrilla amplíe su base social y reclute nuevas milicias, que se nutren del hambre y el rencor.” See Raymundo Riva Palacio, “Cóctel ominoso: Estrictamente personal,” Eje, 29 September 2013 at http://www.ejecentral.com.mx/coctel-ominoso/.
 “Drug Cartels Conduct Humanitarian Operations,” OE Watch, Foreign Military Studies Office, Vol. 3, Issue, 11, November 2013 at http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil/OEWatch/Current/Mex_03.html.