Criminal governance during the COVID-19 lockdown in Mexico

By Raúl Zepeda Gil

17 April 2020

Experts are wondering how the implementation of curfews and lockdowns around the world will affect criminal governance in countries with a persistent presence of organised crime. In the case of Mexico, the effects are yet to be seen, but some events are signalling that criminal governance may strengthen in some regions of the country. This also poses the challenge of understanding how criminal governance changes trends in homicides, not only because of how homicides are registered in Mexico, but also because criminal monopolies in Mexico tend to reduce violence (Osorio, 2015). I will elaborate on this below. I begin this post by discussing why it is too soon to make assumptions about homicide trends under the Covid-19 lockdown in Mexico. I then explain some of the contingencies emerging as of now. I conclude by discussing what could happen in light of the Mexican government’s economic response.

International and national media have informed that, in March, homicides continued to climb in Mexico to more than 2,585, higher than the figure recorded for the same month in 2019. Some even commented that this showed that measures taken by the Mexican government have not affected the current conflict between diverse criminal organisations. Nevertheless, the sanitation measures (e.g. curfew, suspension of school activities, travel restrictions to tourist landmarks) implemented to halt the spread of Covid-19 in Mexico were not obligatory until the 31st of March. Therefore, it is likely that the preliminary homicide data in Mexico did not register the effect of the lockdown on homicides and other criminal activities.

Caveats aside, how reliable are homicide figures as a general measure of organised criminal activity in Mexico? It is important to emphasise that Mexico, like other Latin American countries, shows higher homicide rates than the rest of the world mainly due to organised criminal activities. Authors of the classic organised crime literature rightly comment that violence is typically too disruptive and costly for mafias to operate (Schelling, 1971). Nevertheless, Latin American governments, including Mexico, have deployed overly militarised violent strategies to satisfy the United States’ requests to tackle illicit drug trafficking (Reuter, 2009). This tendency has forced organised crime in the region to respond violently to state forces or even begin wars, as states promote conflict via fragmentation strategies (such as decapitating the leadership of those organisations) (Snyder & Duran-Martinez, 2009). Mexico also shows that shocks on international markets for illicit drugs, caused by governmental prosecution in Latin America, affect homicide rates (Lessing, 2015). As Lessing argues, even if governments stop violent prosecution strategies, new violent cycles continue in small and regional conflicts. For these reasons, homicide rates in Mexico can provide a useful indicator of organised crime dynamics.

Autodefensas in Tepalcatepec, Tierra Caliente. Credit: Ignacio Juárez

Since the government of López Obrador took power in December 2018, there has been a dispute about homicide trends. Usually, the crime rates are reported by the Executive Security System of the Federal Secretariat of Security (SNSP in Spanish), which collects crime reports of the state local attorney offices. This data under-reports the total number of cases because not all homicides are registered by the local attorney offices. In contrast, the National Statistics Institute of Mexico (INEGI in Spanish) registers the homicides by using death certificates assessed by local coroners, thus usually the data from INEGI is more reliable. Nevertheless, the INEGI information requires more time to be processed and reported. The López Obrador’s administration began to report the SNSP’s daily homicide rates, but this data shows greater under-reporting than the monthly or yearly data as Alejandro Hope, a security expert, shows.

In my opinion, focusing on monthly numbers of homicides has little relevance if we compare them with larger trends. In the graph below, we can see that homicide rates in Mexico have being rising since 2014. To have a better evaluation of the government’s strategy of deploying a larger military force (the recently created National Guard) across the country, and the effect of Covid-19 on the use of military for the health emergency, we will need to wait for more reliable data from INEGI. If homicide rates in 2020 drop to less than 29 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, it will be likely that the effect of Covid-19 has been to deter criminal activity because of the fear of contagion, less demand for illicit drugs, and less economic activity in general, creating fewer opportunities for criminal revenues. 

In the meantime, it is also important to consider the ways in which economic impacts of the pandemic may provide criminal groups with new strategic opportunities or interact with forms of criminal governance, and how this may shift the dynamics of conflict. Since the Covid-19 lockdown in Mexico began on March 31st, we are only now observing the first signs of these impacts. For example, in Michoacán the gang called ‘Los Viagras’ (an off-shoot of the now disappeared and deathly Knights Templar Cartel) has enforced the lockdown (see Falko Ernst’s tweet below) to regain control of the region, amidst their competition with ‘Jalisco Nueva Generación’, currently the most powerful Mexican Cartel. In Michoacán and Sinaloa, criminal organisations already employ social welfare tactics and enforce social rules like curfews as part of their usual governance activities, which are needed to maintain support of local population to their illicit business (Enciso, 2014). Silence and compliance are vital for a criminal organisation to avoid governmental prosecution and carry on illicit trade or production of drugs.

The logistical importance of Michoacán lies in the port of Lázaro Cárdenas, which connects Mexico with the Pacific Ocean market. It is known that this port receives tons of chemical precursors for the production of synthetic illicit drugs that are more on demand in the United States because of the fentanyl boom and its global trade ban. As Le Cour Grandmaison, Morris and Smith have documented through their fieldwork, this has created issues for many small farmer communities because of less demand for poppy seeds (Le Cour Grandmaison et al., 2019). A lower demand for chemical precursors and less transatlantic trade between Asia and Mexico will affect the revenues of criminal organisations. These groups, in turn, could resort to extortion of citizens and local business that are already suffering hardships because of the lockdown.

As noted by Manuel Eisner in a recent webinar of the Cambridge Violence Research Centre, the usual predictors of violent crime are going to change rapidly because of the lockdown and the economic consequences of the measures taken by governments to contain the spread of Covid-19. New governance and/or economic opportunities for organised crime in Mexico could consist in illicit trade of medical equipment or food distribution if the Mexican government fails to provide enough social and economic relief to affected communities. Organised crime could also distribute welfare relief to families suffering from decreased remittances from family members in the United States due to the high unemployment in that country. The expected mass unemployment of informal workers in Mexico’s big cities as a result of the pandemic also raises questions as to how organised crime may exploit this as an opportunity The Federal Government’s announcement of temporary jobs for farmers and soft credits for small businesses could be insufficient to tackle the magnitude of the crisis. This risks allowing organised crime opportunity to supplant the Mexican state in providing protection and welfare in the upcoming months. The risk is further raised by the fact that many of the soldiers deployed in highly violent areas are going to be diverted to the Covid-19 response.

Finally, aggressive territorial conquest by larger cartels, like Jalisco Nueva Generación, against smaller ones could happen because the former has enough funds to resist the effects of the global recession. As Varese argues, market shocks can trigger transplantation of mafias on certain territories (Varese, 2011). Yet, it is too soon to jump to conclusions due to the huge uncertainty that the pandemic creates.

This pandemic is driving us to uncharted territories in terms of organised crime and it seems that the worst is yet to come. Uncertainty arises over how Mexican drug cartels and gangs will adapt to the current situation, but the scale of the economic crisis will reveal if this is a moment in which social welfare state-building can erode criminal governance, or conversely, one that makes the latter stronger than ever.

Raúl Zepeda Gil is a PhD Student at the Defence Studies Department, King’s College London. His doctoral research aims to explain how organised crime in Mexico mobilises large groups of marginalised male youth into violent activities. His previous research focused on the political economy of the criminal war in Mexico, civil-military relations, education policy, and inequalities related to crime. Follow him on Twitter at @zepecaos


Enciso, F. (2014). ‘El origen del narco según la glosa popular sinaloense.’ Arenas. Revista sinaloense deficiencias sociales, 36. 10-33.

Le Cour Grandmaison, Romain, Morris, Nathaniel and Smith, Benjamin (2019) ‘The last harvest? From the US fentanyl boom to the Mexican Opium Crisis. Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, 1 (3). 312 – 329.

Lessing, B. (2015) ‘Logics of violence in criminal war.’ Journal of Conflict Resolution, 59(8), 1486-1516.

Osorio, Javier (2015) The Contagion of Drug Violence: Spatiotemporal Dynamics of the Mexican War on Drugs, Journal of Conflict Resolution, 8 (59). 1403-1435.

Reuter, P. (2009) ‘Systemic violence in drug markets.’ Crime Law Soc Change 52. 275–284.

Schelling, T. C. (1971). ‘What is the business of organized crime?’ The American Scholar, 40(4). 643-652.

Snyder, R., Duran-Martinez, A. (2009) ‘Does illegality breed violence? Drug trafficking and state-sponsored protection rackets.’ Crime Law Soc Change, 52. 253–273.

Varese, Federico (2011). Mafias on the move: How organized crime conquers new territories. Princeton University Press.

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