Small Wars Journal

Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 15: Skullduggery or Social Banditry? Cartel Humanitarian Aid

Mon, 11/25/2013 - 5:41am

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”).[1]  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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5]

Interrupting Relief?

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.[6] 

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 Caballeros Templarios, who along with the La Familia Michoacana have a long tradition of narcocultura and embracing the mantle of social banditry.[7]

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.[8]  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.[9]  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.[10]  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…[11]

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.[12]  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.


[1] “Cártel del Golfo reparte toneladas de despensas a afectados por ‘Ingrid’ en Tamaulipas,” Proceso, 22 September 2013 at

[2] “Cartel Del Golfo Apoyando Aldama, Tamps,” YouTube, published 22 September 2013; retrieved 24 November 2013 at

[3] Ildefonso Ortiz, “Tamaulipas floods Twitter with Ingrid alerts; video appears to show Gulf Cartel dabbling in disaster relief,” The Monitor, 23 September 2013 at

[4] Dudley Althaus, “Some Mexicans count on Gulf Cartel for storm relief,” Global Post, 23 September 2013 at

[5] ““Los Zetas” reparten despensas a damnificados en Tamaulipas,” Proceso, 10 October 2013 at

[6] “Gangs Prventing Storm Aid From Reaching Victims in Southern Mexico,” Latino Daily News, 26 October 2013 at

[7] John P. Sullivan, “Criminal Insurgency: Narcocultura, Social Banditry, and Information Operations,” Small Wars Journal-El Centro, 03 December 2012 at; translated as “Insurgencia Criminal: Narcocultura, Bandidos Sociales y Operaciones de Información,” Small Wars Journal-El Centro, 04 November 2013 atón.

[8] David Agren, “Mexico floods: quick response, not enough disaster prevention,” Christian Science Monitor, 20 September 2013 at

[9] Laurel Morales, “Drug Cartel Provides Storm Relief, Helps Image,” Fronteras, 30 September 2013 at

[10] Tim Johnson, “How cartels win with storm damage,” Mexico unmasked (McClatchy), 28 September 2013 at

[11] 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

[12] “Drug Cartels Conduct Humanitarian Operations,” OE Watch, Foreign Military Studies Office, Vol. 3, Issue, 11, November 2013 at

Categories: El Centro


Outlaw 09

Thu, 12/05/2013 - 11:49am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C----this was taken from John Sullivan's recent article which goes to what I indicated---would argue that currently Mexico is at stage 3 on the list below and headed towards stage 4---what is interesting for me is the simple fact that if one takes the drugs out of the equation what is going on inside Mexico is an old fashioned insurgency (maybe a throw back to the Zapata Revolution which was never completed) against the existing government---maybe we could call this new model criminal induced insurgency;

1. Local Insurgencies (gangs dominate local turf and political, economic and social life in criminal enclaves or other governed zones);
2. Battle for the Parallel State (battles for control of the ‘parallel state.’ These occur within the parallel state’s governance space, but also spill over to affect the public at large and the police and military forces that seek to contain the violence and curb the erosion of governmental legitimacy and solvency);
3. Combating the State (criminal enterprise directly engages the state itself to secure or sustain its independent range of action; cartels are active belligerents against the state);
4. The State Implodes (high intensity criminal violence spirals out of control; the cumulative effect of sustained, unchecked criminal violence and criminal subversion of state legitimacy through endemic corruption and co-option. Here the state simply loses the capacity to respond).

Outlaw 09

Thu, 12/05/2013 - 11:29am

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C--here is the problem ---the Mexican/Central American transnational criminal organizations ie drug cartels have already realized that the earnings from drugs can be more than matched by investing in legal and illegal businesses in Mexico, they can acquire vast amounts of money via extortion and taxing commercial/agricultural shipments to the US, are heavy into the counterfeit products smuggling, and they are deeply involved in human smuggling.

All in all they have successfully established a shadow government as well as a shadow economy and a shadow security force abeit infighting tends to hurt the earnings but overall they are progressing nicely from their point of view. And they effectively have a "democratic" government held in checkmate.

And what is our response from this side of the border---tonnes more border patrol and customs personnel, more fences and higher fences, electronic monitoring, more DEA and government intelligence personnel inside Mexico more police in the US chasing drug dealers, more people in jail on drug charges and yet the TCOs have established virtual dominance of the drug trade in most of the large and middle sized cities in the US, their counterfeit products are being sold on the streets of virtually all US cities and their human smuggling is thriving regardless on what we place on the borders.

So who is ahead in the game? Is it not about time to rethink and take a different approach---if so then what would that approach be?

Bill C.

Thu, 12/05/2013 - 7:39am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Given that the Mexican government does not seem to be able to provide the necessary disaster relief and does not seem to be able to provide adequate security for its population,

Then should we first look into whether the businesses and people of Mexico are being adequately taxed? This, so that they might properly pay for and thereby provide -- much as other countries do -- these basic professional services to their people?

This such determination to be made before we ask the people and businesses of the United States -- via their taxes -- to pay the bills, provide the capabilities and perform the duties which rightfully belong to the country of Mexico.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 9:25pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Aren't we saying the same thing?

This is a site where commenters are primarily interested in military matters. The US Military should not be in the lead in dealing with Mexico. That is likely why fewer people comment on the issue around here, not because it is not important or because people don't care.

As you said, COIN is not the answer which is the same as when I said that this is an issue of policing and policy.

When I said "go lightly", what I meant is the US approach toward Mexico as a foreign policy issue must be handled delicately, most of our problems relate to our own policies, our societal appetite for drugs and our own internal confusion regarding immigration. We are not a monolith, the US, and our policies that contribute to violence are hotly contested in the domestic arena. This will take time for the US to sort through.

It is possible for us to make things worse by engaging in the wrong way in Mexico, that's all I meant.

I am not saying there are not problems but when looked at from a US point of view, should our external policy be more aggressive than the following attempts? I'm just asking, I don't know.

<blockquote>The Merida Initiative is an historic program of cooperation that acknowledges the shared responsibilities of the United States and Mexico to counter the drug-fueled violence that has threatened citizens on both sides of the border. The U.S. Congress has funded the Merida Initiative with wide bipartisan support, appropriating over $1.6 billion to Mexico. It is currently providing technical expertise and assistance to Mexico for police professionalization, judicial and prison reform, information technology enhancement, infrastructure development, border security, and the promotion of a culture of lawfulness.</blockquote>

Are the cartels simply responding in their own way to State (Mexican and US) initiatives?

The cartels are well entrenched into parts of American life but the issue is complicated and there is a sick symbiotic relationship between our own poorly governed areas, the appetite for drugs, and external actors like drug cartels.

The US has long served as a kind of safety valve for some Mexican problems as much as our drug policies have fueled violence. Some countries export some of their poor. I'm sure that is a contested point but it's worth considering. Immigration has slowed down as our economy has cooled. How has this combined with facts on the ground in Mexico? And so on. At any rate, we can't be too pushy when it comes to telling the Mexicans what they should and shouldn't do domestically. It could backfire, is my hunch, that's all I meant.

The problem exists. What the US should do about it is a more difficult question.

And I see a lot of description in these articles but what are the actual numbers? That the state is weak and under threat, I have no doubt. But how weak and how much of a threat? Here in my corner of the US, depending on which numbers you pull out, things look bleak or things don't look so bad. I honestly don't know.

PS: Oh, ignore the last part about numbers. There are plenty to support it's a problem. Dumb thing to write. Don't know why I did write it. I still think the US should tread carefully except where it is improving its own policing and thinking about better policy.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 2:39pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Madhu---so going lightly has got us what?

Would argue that currently there is such a solid shadow government in place that the existing "democratic" government is in fact in name only---the massive amount of corruption within the government, police and military due to the estimated 39B USD drug business can never be overcome by going lightly---actually Mexico has a long history of corruption dating back to the Zapata times.

With our troops having crossed the border during that Revolution it sort of left a bad taste in the Mexican culture thus boots on the ground is out so I am not sure what can be done to throttle the cartels---kind of like having an insurgency showing up inside the US with a pullback or sanctuary for them to retreat to.

Now it is no longer just about drugs but the transnationals have branched in the business world which actually is earning more than the 39B on the drug side.

With that much economic power-how does a "democratic" government even compete for the population? That population has now risen up in what is being called the Autodefensa (civilian defense---sounds like the VSO program in AFG).

Now there is being reported the first true counter insurgent group that is competing to secure some areas against the government because the government has dished out violence not only towards the cartels but as well against the local population.

So going lightly stops where?---say Nashville, TN when The Knights Templar cartel (Spanish: Caballeros Templarios) decides not to expand there?

If one really reads this article--do you not recognize the Hezbollah effect in Lebanon or Hamas in Gaza but this time it is south of the border and I believe that going anything other than lightly will not cause any more problems than what is already happening.

COIN is not the answer as some keep repeating.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 1:34pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

No one is ignoring anything, it is an example of what Nils Gilman calls 'deviant globalization' which is a trend seen in many places, not just Mexico:…

It is a matter of policy and law enforcement (and context, Canada deals with the same American policies but is not Mexico); the American military with its doctrine's is likely to make things worse, IMO.

The US is in an enviable position because of it's relationships with its neighbors (compared to many other parts of the world) and its oceans. We go lightly with Mexico because to do otherwise might makes things much, much worse.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 4:15pm

In reply to by Robert J. Bunker

It is not just only the drug cartels in Mexico---the AFG connection is even a good match business wise from the other side of the world.

The drug business patterns are changing/morphing so fast it is almost impossible for the public security side to keep up regardless of country.

Example---yesterday on the German/Polish border German Customs discovered raw opium valued at 1.5M Euros headed for Berlin---really major thing is that normally heroin is what comes into Germany---this is the first indicator of a shifting in the processing side and basically processing in a large German city of AFG opium.

Robert J. Bunker

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 2:58pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

To bring this full circle John Sullivan was a contributor to Nils book "Deviant Globalization" and Nils is
writing the preface for a new work we have going on Global Criminal and Sovereign Free Economies and the Demise of the Western Democracies: Dark Renaissance. Routledge Advances in International Political Economy Series. So we have been talking a lot about these topics with each other. I'm also seeing quite a bit of back and forth SWJ El Cento and Borderland Beat discussions where the commentators are pulling from multiple journals, blogs, sources these days. The RPG 29 tactical note was one case in point. That note was also linked over at so we are seeing some good debates starting to take place.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 1:34pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

No one is ignoring anything, it is an example of what Nils Gilman calls 'deviatnt globalization' which is a trend seen in many places, not just Mexico:…

It is a matter of policy and law enforcement (and context, Canada deals with the same American policies but is not Mexico); the American military with its doctrine's is likely to make things worse, IMO.

The US is in an enviable position because of it's relationships with its neighbors (compared to many other parts of the world) and its oceans. We go lightly with Mexico because to do otherwise might makes things much, much worse.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 12/04/2013 - 1:24pm

What is interesting is that SWJ debates COIN or no COIN, Iraq, Iran and AFG but what goes on daily south of the border seems to be uninteresting even when a recent El Centro article mentions the RGP 29.

Foreign Policy has a very good article on the Cartels that needs to be discussed in this forum. "Think Again: Mexican Drug Cartels"

There was a SWJ article from 2011 which in fact went to the heart of the issue just written about in FP.

Mexico is jelling into something that is far larger than anything ever seen in Iraq or AFG. No one seems to care as it has long ago left the stage of drug smuggling and it has moved into what I was call a drug driven insurgency which has morphed into a transnational organization on multiple different levels and actually drug smuggling is no longer the primary money driver.

It has created a shadow government and economy rivaling any form of democratic governance

Outlaw 09

Tue, 11/26/2013 - 2:30pm

Is it possible that the transnational criminal organizations in Mexico are morphing into a Mexican form of Hezbollah?

If so are they now a far more serious threat to the US that say AQ?

Especially if one looks at the previous report on TCO activity in the heartland of Oklahoma.