I traveled to where cartel operatives were handing out food in the ramshackle village of La Loma de la Concepcíon in the hills of the Mexico State. Ireneo, a 58-year-old flower farmer, described how his two teenage nieces obtained some of the food bags, known as “narco despensas.” The word came from the gangsters close to nightfall in April and spread rapidly through the village. About 200 residents, many of them teenagers or children, trekked up a dirt path to a clearing and formed in two lines to receive their plastic bags of milk, sugar, soap, rice, beans and other rewards. In some of the bags was a note saying, “Support from La Familia Michoacana, the M Comando,” the name of the drug cartel that dominates the area.
The handouts have helped the family get through the difficult period, said Ireneo, who asked that his last name not be used. “I believe that if someone comes with support, then you have to take what they give, wherever it comes from,” he said as roosters crowed in the background.
Others have no illusions about the cartel charity. “They give now what they take later from honest people,” said Guadencio Jiménez, a 31-year-old farmer in the nearby village of Santiago. “I am against these guys.”
Cartels also dominate a portfolio of crimes in their turfs, including human smuggling and sex trafficking. They engage in kidnapping and extortion, which hamper business and can cause people to flee their homes.
The cartel food relief was boosted by social media and made headlines across the world. But it helps few Mexicans, with the handouts reaching what is probably only a few thousand families. “It’s symbolic,” said Lorenzo Meyer, a political scientist. “It’s taking advantage of the crisis of coronavirus and sensation of emergency to say, ‘We’re here.’”
President López Obrador, who calls himself a leftist, has promised to uplift the poor with generous social programs, handing out fertilizer to farmers and scholarships to students. In April, he criticized the cartels for giving with one hand and killing with the other. “It would help if they thought of the suffering of the mothers of the victims,” he said.
But official aid has been hampered by a policy of avoiding debt despite the severity of the looming recession. While the government struggles to provide aid countrywide, the cartels focus on small communities. There they buy themselves concentrated support so that they can later hide people or merchandise and recruit smugglers and killers.