Small Wars Journal

Criminal Distancing: Drug Cartels and the State during Covid-19

Tue, 02/02/2021 - 6:24pm

Criminal Distancing: Drug Cartels and the State during Covid-19

Paul Rexton Kan

One evening at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown in Colombia, sirens of police vehicles and an ambulance blared down the main street of Cali.  While not an unfamiliar occurrence, residents were startled by the sound of a car accident that quickly followed.  The ambulance had overturned.  Perhaps more ironic than an emergency vehicle being in an accident was that the police were pursuing the ambulance.  Rather than carrying a patient, the ambulance was filled with half a ton of narcotics.            

Drug cartels’ use of “narco-ambulances” is not new.  Drug traffickers have known that few police officers have been willing to risk pulling over a suspicious ambulance, potentially delaying a legitimate ambulance responding to an emergency.  Using ambulances as a ruse to move drugs, weapons and personnel is an example of the many ways that traffickers have continued to evade state authority since the outbreak of the coronavirus. 

Drug traffickers have blended familiar and new tactics as government-imposed Covid-19 restrictions affected their operations.  Whether these tactics have fundamentally altered the balance of power between drug cartels and the state is an open question.  This article offers a preliminary understanding of the various effects on the relationship between cartels, gangs, and the state during the pandemic.

An Abundance of Caution           

Although the coronavirus pandemic has unique contours, it is not the first systemic shock that cartels have had to weather.  The tightening of border controls in the aftermath of 9/11 and the weakening of economies during the global financial crisis of 2008 were times when drug traffickers adjusted to, and in some cases benefitted from, fluctuations in state power.  In fact, as seen with the responses of other organized crime groups to natural catastrophes—earthquakes, hurricanes and tsunamis—criminal activities increased at the expense of state authority and legitimacy.  Much like these cases and in other instances of disasters, a global pandemic has also provided cartels with opportunities to undermine the state.

The pandemic continues to acutely affect many aspects of cross-border trade, meaning that scholars, policy makers and business leaders are still attempting to assess the durability of the adjustments in many parts of society.  For example, how many of the adaptations to education, work and business will remain after Covid-19 has been brought under control?   Moreover, is the length of the pandemic enough time to gauge the longevity of any societal changes?

Those who study and monitor the illicit economy should also keep similar questions in mind.  When providing observations about how drug cartels acted during the pandemic, the title of scholar Luca Giommoni’s article is a prudent warning, “Why we should all be careful in drawing conclusions about how Covid-19 is changing drug markets.”  Of the cautions that Giommoni mentions, the most significant are the dearth of sufficient data; the lack of theories relevant to a unique context like a pandemic; the variability of the duration, intensity, and timing of lockdowns in different countries.

Keeping Giommoni’s cautions in mind, it is possible to responsibly conceptualize how drug cartels behaved in a pandemic. Doing so can help fill in the theoretical gaps that Giommoni observed in the early weeks of the pandemic.  After nearly a year of pandemic adjustments, the opportunity now exists to strike out with some initial, tentative assessments of the pandemic’s effects on cartel interactions with the state.

Cartels Don’t Stay at Home

Throughout the pandemic, drug cartels, like the rest of society, have coped with the shifting governmental mandates aimed at mitigating the spread of the coronavirus.  From stay-at-home orders to social distancing measures, traffickers were affected along with the communities where they live and operate.  As a result, there were three noticeable effects on the relationship between drug cartels and the state during the pandemic: disruption, penetration, and adaptation.

When governments first began recognizing the dimensions of the pandemic and started instituting measures to close cross-border travel in the early weeks of March and April 2020, cartels experienced disruption of their operations.  During the early part of the pandemic, the state had paralyzed many cartels in critical parts of the global drug trafficking network.  On the supply and production side, drug crops and precursor chemicals to make synthetic drugs could not move due to lockdowns, suspension of international travel and limits on global trade.  Cheap gasoline needed to refine cocaine was also unable to move as freely from Venezuela into Colombia.  One result was the price of coca in the Andean region collapsing by 73%, leading a former US Drug Enforcement Administration official to declare “the cartels are taking a beating.”  On the demand side, street prices of trafficked narcotics increased due to the scarcity of supply.  In addition, due to stay-at-home orders, fewer suppliers were able to meet with dealers and fewer dealers were able to meet with their customers. 

Added to the disruption of producing narcotics and getting them to consumers, traffickers have been stymied in laundering money.  In particular, cartels have been unable to rely on their typical operations of purchasing consumer goods and sending them back to countries where critical parts of their illicit supply chain exist.  With greater stockpiles of hard currency on hand, law enforcement has been able to seize a greater amount of assets than prior to the pandemic, further disrupting cartel operations.  In order to reduce costs that disruption has caused, cartels have slashed payments to low-level workers and furloughed some of them. 

Disrupting core business interests of the cartels has not led to the elimination of these groups.  As previously mentioned, cartels have dealt with disruptions due to natural disasters, economic downturns and security crises in the recent past.  In fact, cartels and gangs engaged in familiar patterns of penetration of society by generating good will through the provision of social welfare during times of crisis.  Much like before the outbreak of the coronavirus, cartels and gangs stepped in to fill the capacity gaps of the state.  Criminal groups in Brazil and Mexico enforced stay-at-home restrictions by imposing curfews and creating vehicle checkpoints in neighborhoods where they operate.  While the enforcement of stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures were in keeping with many government policies, gang enforcement demonstrates how criminal groups have acted as ancillaries to state agents, diluting governmental authority.  In many instances, state institutions like police departments, the military, emergency medical services and aid agencies have been pulled away from providing social welfare because they have been dealing with the overwhelming numbers of Covid-19 patients or have had their own personnel infected with the virus.  Further revealing the diminished effectiveness of the state, cartels were able to act more quickly and directly in providing much needed assistance to members in the community.  Cartels and gangs went door-to-door to deliver food, hand sanitizer and masks.

Delivering needed supplies to the community was not the only way that drug trafficking organizations challenged state legitimacy.  States also had to cope with the adaptation of cartel and gang operations.  Disruption of illicit trafficking did not last long.  As the parameters of the Covid-19 restrictions became more familiar to societies, cartels acted symbiotically with the larger adjustments in the legal economy to get their core moneymaking operations moving again.  Drug cartels were able to rely on their longstanding ability to circumvent customs and border officials by smuggling drugs in shipments of medical supplies that were traversing the globe.  According to one report, Mexican cartels have increased their use of tunnels and drones to move narcotics into the United States.  Meanwhile, street level dealers have used food delivery services and apps to provide drugs to their customers.  

Beyond adjusting their tactics to move narcotics to market, cartels have also adapted by diversifying their operations beyond trafficking drugs.  With the medical repercussions on health care workers and hospitals handling a surge of patients, personal protective equipment (PPE) and disinfectants have been in high demand—cartels began to steal and resell PPE and sanitizing supplies.  These actions hampered government responses to provide adequate and timely medical supplies in areas that the coronavirus had struck hard. 

The coronavirus led to disruption, penetration and adaptation in the relationship between cartels and the state.  However, these changes may or may not be enduring or become part of cartels’ repertoire of activities.  The next step in understanding whether disruption, penetration and adaptation could lead to a consolidation, or the permanent increase in drug trafficking organizations’ legitimacy and authority in contrast to the state, is to extrapolate future research questions.

Awaiting Vaccinations…and Data

As with all preliminary assessments, the effects of disruption, adaptation, penetration and potential consolidation are places to start, rather than end, a discussion of cartel and state interaction during the Covid-19 pandemic.  As time moves on, more data will undoubtedly provide greater context for the possibility of any long-term alterations in cartel and state relations.  Provisional research questions for future exploration have, nonetheless, already emerged.

To what degree have cartels become important players in the provision of public health?  The distribution of aid to communities boosted the political capital of cartels and gangs in an area of public health.  However, their core activity, trafficking dangerous narcotics, runs contrary to public health; the spread of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis, due to needle sharing, along with drug addiction have created epidemics in their own right.  The way cartels react to vaccine distribution may be a harbinger of their future operations in the realm of public health.  Interpol has warned states that cartels will continue to engage in fraud by manufacturing and distributing counterfeit vaccines.  Cartels may, nonetheless, steal or redirect authentic vaccines as another tactic in a “Robin Hood strategy” to appear as guardians of a community that the state abandons.  Cartels and gangs may also act again as state adjuncts if they start “pop-up” clinics to aid vaccination efforts.  How these activities influence people’s opinions about the effectiveness of cartels and gangs, rather than states, in providing medical aid warrants further monitoring and assessment.

Will some cartels emerge from the pandemic strengthened? 

Studies have consistently shown that when governments take a more confrontational approach to drug cartels, violence against state agents rises as criminal groups push back.  As previously mentioned, the police and the military enforced stay-at-home restrictions that impeded drug trafficking operations.  However, anecdotal evidence suggests that illness and additional institutional responsibilities distracted security services from concentrating on organized crime, allowing drug trafficking organizations to engage in violence against each other and to attack the police.  Yet, it is unclear if overall levels of violence have increased during the pandemic and whether certain cartels or gangs have sufficiently weakened their rivals and state agents to become more powerful.  If the relative power of some cartels has changed, it may potentially lay the foundation for different patterns of violence in the future.

How deeply has the economic downturn linked to the pandemic affected the cartels?

This question is closely related to the question about whether some cartels will emerge as more powerful organizations.  Just how much of a financial “beating” drug trafficking organizations have taken is not yet known.  Cartels slashing of pay and cutting of low-level employees were dramatic steps.  Whether these steps have helped traffickers to balance their books is unclear.  With jobs being shed in the licit economy, cartels and gangs have a large recruitment pool at their disposal.  However, it is not a given that organized crime groups need the labor when they are also cutting personnel.  Cost-cutting measures of the cartels may be temporary or they may have revealed new efficiencies that will be integrated into their operations.  Another consequence of the economic downturn in the licit economy is the increased number of distressed businesses.  Depending on the liquidity of cartels, they may have improved opportunities to launder money through businesses that need infusions of capital.  Such investments will create a stronger symbiosis between organized crime and the legal economy.  These investments will require an expanded state capacity to root out criminal investments that permeate society.


A preliminary review of the relationship between cartels, gangs, and the state during the pandemic raises a number of new research questions about whether adjustments in criminal tactics have fundamentally altered the balance of power in favor of the cartels.  As the global community continues to fight Covid, cartels and gangs will continue to alter their tactics and strategies, placing more pressure on the state.  Policy-makers and scholars must be as equally adept when adjusting their agendas to ensure that the cartels do not consolidate any of their gains to the detriment of state legitimacy and authority.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Paul Rexton Kan is Professor of National Security Studies and former Henry L. Stimson Chair of Military Studies at the US Army War College. In February 2011, he served as the Senior Visiting Counternarcotics Adviser at NATO Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan.  He is also the author of the book Drugs and Contemporary Warfare (Potomac Books, 2009), Cartels at War: Mexico's Drug Fueled Violence and the Threat to US National Security (Potomac Books, 2012), and Drug Trafficking and International Security (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).



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