In Afghanistan, the Taliban has dispatched health teams to far-flung provinces to confront the coronavirus. In Mexico, drug cartels are offering aid packages to those feeling its economic impact. In Brazil and El Salvador, gangs enforce curfews to prevent its spread.
As governments around the world have responded to the coronavirus, so too have armed insurgents and terrorist groups and drug cartels and gangs, a parallel underworld of public health policy and strategic messaging.
It is hardly the first time such groups have attempted to fill the role of government. But few crises in modern times have tested the limits of the world’s nation-states as the coronavirus has, providing an opening for armed groups to step in where presidents, police forces and parliaments have failed.
In Mexico, at least two drug cartels have begun providing aid packages to residents in places partially controlled by armed groups. In Michoacán, a video emerged last week of the Los Viagras cartel handing out plastic bags of food to hundreds of people. In Tamaulipas, a Mexican state that borders South Texas, photos circulated of boxes full of sugar, oil and other staples distributed in large piles. On the top of each box was plastered the name of the donor: “Gulf Cartel,” they said, “in support of Ciudad Victoria,” the state capital.
Falko Ernst, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Mexico, said there was an “obvious tension” in the effort.
“These groups are trying to be seen as catering materially and providing a notion of security in places where they are also directly preying on the population through extortion and kidnapping and violence,” he said. “But in a lot of places, these groups are the least bad solution for populations that don’t have anywhere else to turn.”
In Brazil’s favelas, the messages come through WhatsApp.
“Whoever is caught on the street will learn how to respect the measure,” one gang warned a Rio de Janeiro slum. “We want the best for the population. If the government is unable to manage, organized crime resolves.”
Last month, as the Salvadoran government was enforcing one of Latin America’s earliest and most stringent lockdowns, leaders of MS-13 decided that they would institute their own curfew. It was a rare overlap of policy between the gang and the government, which have fought each other for years.
From MS-13 to the Trump administration, hardened murderous criminals are running the world.