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Close to 200 active criminal groups act as guardians and protectors of communities while using extortion, kidnapping, and violence

Men with assault rifles stand guard as their colleagues hand out plastic bags of groceries from a pick-up truck to a crowd of mostly older women.

Off-screen, the man recording the mobile phone footage announces that the aid packages come from a local crime boss who runs things here, in the city of Apatzingn in Mexicos western state of Michoacn.

As Mexico braces for Covid-19 the peak of infections is expected in May criminal groups are positioning themselves to leverage the pandemic for their own ends.

Over the past 20 years, successive Mexican governments have proven incapable of curbing illegal armed groups whose expanding territorial control has brought ever- worsening levels of lethal conflict.

Close to 200 criminal groups are active in the country, according to open-source analysis conducted by Crisis Group, driving new homicide records by the year.

34,582 homicides were recorded in 2019, making it the bloodiest year in the country since modern record-keeping began in the 1990s.

In other Latin America countries violence has fallen since the start of the pandemic, as gangs from Brazil to El Salvador impose curfews. But in Mexico, armed clashes between rival crime factions continued throughout March and early April, and 2,585 homicides were registered last month alone.

And as the Mexican authorities concentrate resources on pandemic control, analysts fear that criminal groups will take advantage of the crisis to further shift power away from the state.

A criminal group hands out food supplies in the Mexican city of Apatzingn in Michoacn, Mexico. Photograph: Whatsapp

Sources close to Los Viagras, the group that recorded its hand-outs in the streets of Apatzingn, said the group is asking local businesses for contributions to finance its aid.

Just 30km away, the lieutenant of a competing armed group said he had instructed the municipal government to establish a food bank for his group to organise hand-outs.

Last week, Alejandrina Guzmn a daughter of the jailed Sinaloa drug overlord Joaqun Guzmn posted a Facebook video in which she and several other women assembled Chapo Packages of toilet paper, tinned foods, beans and rice.

Law enforcement assets in Mexico will focus on Covid-19-related lockdowns, and criminal groups are clearly using the economic downturn and lockdowns to build up political capital, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Mexicos criminal groups persecute the communities they rule over, exerting a heavy toll on businesses and civilians at large through extortion, kidnapping, and violence. Yet at the same time they act as guardians and protectors.

Where the state fails to provide basic security to marginalised populations, criminal groups often step in as self-styled public defenders, drawing locals into their orbit.

Such local support can insulate against hostile incursions from state and criminal competitors. In a recent interview, the logic behind such behaviour was made clear by the head of the Cartel of the South, one of groups competing over the Sierra of the southern state of Guerrero, where the bulk of Mexicos heroin is produced.

If we protect [local populations], theyll protect us as well, he said.

Civilians who live under the rule of criminal groups are well aware of the criminals motivations. It isnt like any of them are good people, said one local in Michoacn, But the truth is we cant expect much from anybody else. At least we know [the local armed group], so they are in some way the least bad solution.

Poor populations are expected to be hit hardest by what the World Bank estimates to be a 6% economic downturn in 2020, driven by Covid19-related paralysis and historically low oil prices.

Between mid-March and early April alone, 346,000 formal jobs were were lost in Mexico, but more than half of the countrys workforce is employed in the informal sector which is likely to be hit even harder.

Such bleak economic realities will also threaten the anti-crime strategy of Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador, the president who came to power promising to tackle the socio-economic causes that generate young recruits for crime groups.

The looming downturn means his social programmes will face their greatest challenge even before they have been fully rolled out

From the outset, these programs were missing something. The documents laying them out dont even mention crime, violence, and insecurity, said David Ramrez, security program coordinator at Mxico Evala, a thinktank.

As Mexican authorities shift their focus towards public health, some crime groups could be tempted to launch new offensives in territorial disputes with rivals.

In the past month, deaths, disappearances and displacements were registered across the country, including in Tamaulipas (north), Michoacn and Guanajuato (centre) and Guerrero (south).

In early April, the Jalisco Cartel New Generation regarded as the countrys new criminal powerhouse following the extradition of the Sinaloa Cartels El Chapo Guzmn to the US reportedly stepped up its push into the heavily populated State of Mexico, which surrounds Mexico City.

Covid-19s long-term impact on organised crime and communities in Mexico depends to a large degree on how long the pandemic lasts.

According to a Mexican lawyer who has brokered arrangements between groups such as the Jalisco Cartel and state actors, criminal factions are also concerned by the economic fallout of the outbreak.

Everybody out there is worried right now. Maritime shipping is down, and [crime groups] are having problems getting their hands on precursor drugs [for methamphetamine and fentanyl], and fewer commercial flights from Colombia means less cocaine is coming through, the lawyer said, adding that some crime groups have already stopped paying wages to their members

For now, the shock is temporary. But if they get squeezed for longer, many will turn to alternatives [such as] extortion and kidnapping.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/20/mexico-criminal-groups-covid-19-crisis-opportunity-gain-power