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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread, governments have been struggling to minimize its impact on citizens’ livelihoods. But if facing the contagion has proven challenging in countries with stable institutions and rich economies, it is even more difficult in states where the health crisis intersects with authority fragmentation and poor economic conditions. There, violent non-state actors (VNSAs) – accustomed to adapting to rapidly changing conditions – are certainly benefitting from the pandemic: by providing resources to local communities, they are acquiring legitimacy and increasing their control on the ground. Emblematic, in this sense, are the cases of the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA), namely El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, and Mexico.
Criminal groups’ adaptation to changing conditions
In Central America, the presence of VNSAs – such as gangs and drugs cartels – is among the causes of the long-standing problems of political instability and economic hardship. These criminal groups, especially in the poorest and most remote areas where there is a weak presence of the state and law enforcement has proven to be more difficult, have control over communities and perpetuate violent actions aimed at pursuing illicit businesses. This accounts for the extremely high crime and murder rates in the region, driven by extortion, drug trafficking and turf wars, while criminality causes a great macroeconomic loss – the larger in the world due to crime – estimated by the Inter-American Development Bank as more than 3 percent of regional GDP.
The spread of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns and mobility restrictions imposed by governments have at first slowed down the activity of criminal groups – also leading to a decrease in homicide rates early in the year – and forced them to seek alternative means of income generation, since the business slowdown and the suspension of public transport made it difficult for gangs operating in NTCA countries to carry out money laundering and obtain extortion payments from vendors and bus drivers, while border shutdowns impeded cross-border exchange and the implementation of the international supply chain consequently preventing drug cartels from pursuing their businesses. Nonetheless, they have promptly adapted to the new situation: if gangs have begun to enhance drug peddling, contraband and armed robbery, for criminal groups in Mexico – where a general quarantine was never imposed and just few restrictions took place – extortion rackets have become one of the main sources of revenue, focusing on agricultural industries and mining, together with usual illicit businesses less affected by governmental measures as wildlife trafficking.
The crisis as an opportunity
Central American VNSAs have proven to be able not only to rapidly adapt to changing conditions, but also to take advantage of these to strengthen their position, certainly fostered by the failure of the governments to provide relief to communities. The health emergency has been exploited by criminal groups both politically, to obtain legitimacy and gain loyalty and local support – or at least tolerance –, and militarily, to take over territory. In the first place, they played some sort of governance role, performing government functions and engaging in altruism – or better say, pragmatism – by providing public services and resources to communities under their control. Indeed, in some places in El Salvador the MS-13 gang imposed mandatory curfews and established schedules for stores to open and for residents to obtain food, punishing people violating the measures, while in Mexico criminal groups acted as public defender in areas where the state failed to provide security. Furthermore, various gangs in the NTCA countries distributed face masks and basic necessities, such as food aid; likewise, in Mexico, criminal groups handed out packages with food, hand sanitizer and toilet paper – marked with their respective groups’ names and logos – and provided financial assistance to people and businesses in need.
In the second place, they have capitalized on the reduction of the resources previously used by governments to fight crime – now employed for handling the health crisis – and the reduced ability of statal security forces to interpose between warring factions – since they are involved in guarding hospitals and other activities related to the pandemic – to expand their activities into new territories, in an attempt to acquire additional sources of revenue at a time when restrictions have led to increased competition. It is the case, for instance, of the MS-13 gang in Honduras which concentrated its attacks in areas controlled by minor gangs and of the Jalisco Cartel in Mexico, that already controls the great majority of Mexican states.
One last aspect that should be taken into account is the long-term impact of the economic downturn and the soaring unemployment rates caused by the pandemic in driving people to illegal activities, that will ultimately serve the strengthening of criminal groups profiting from local desperation: indeed, this crisis will strongly affect the most vulnerable groups, such as people working in the informal sector – a great part of Central American workforce –, together with young people, who will have to face the lack of opportunities in the formal sectors, hence leading to an increase in the potential recruits for criminal groups. All of this has allowed VNSAs in Central America to strengthen their violent grip on local communities and weaken the legitimacy of the governments. However, it is not clear if they will succeed in maintaining the newly achieved political capital: it will be necessary to better balance their role as service providers and their predatory and violent activities in order to prevent an increase in popular resentment against them.
Address the impacts on formal governance
As we have seen so far, the pandemic has exacerbated institutional weaknesses of the governments in the Central American region and its effects, if unaddressed, may provide additional opportunities for criminal groups to further shift power away from states. In order to avoid such a scenario, governments should, first of all, enforce public health provisions and engage in providing material and economic support prioritizing those regions most affected by the crisis and the population most likely to suffer from its consequences. Nevertheless, they should take into consideration – as risky as it may seem – the option to attempt some kind of collaboration with those actors which have effective control over some areas of the countries, where the state is unable to have its measures widely respected. Furthermore, it is necessary to increase the trust between authorities and citizens, mostly those who see the pandemic as an opportunity for mismanagement, corruption and repressive behavior by governments, by building a stronger presence at the grassroots level, into poorer communities, where crowded quarters, informal labor and weak public service make it difficult to manage the pandemic effectively