New Orleans I had to do a doubletake. What in the world? There were pictures of armed men with masks giving out food and protective gear in Mexican barrios. Another picture, eerily like the ones Local 100 representatives and members had taken during distribution with the boxes of KN95 and our smiling members, had masked people with boxes of masks that they were distributing in the same way in low income areas. What didn’t add up? These distributions were being made by Mexican drug cartels! Looking at the headline in the Wall Street Journal, I should have gotten a clearer clue, if the pictures hadn’t caught my eye first, when it said “Mexican Cartels Distribute Coronavirus Aid to Win Popular Support.”
Don’t misunderstand me. We have no truck with drug cartels and the bloody death count they have racked up in Mexico or the tragic body count their products have inflicted throughout the world. We oppose everything about their mission and methods. That doesn’t mean we think they are stupid, nor do we underestimate them.
“Cartel philanthropy,” as observers call it, seems have broken out in a dozen different Mexican states during the pandemic. Mexico’s president derides it, pointing out the hypocrisy of the cartels’ violence, but at the same time the relief programs to the poor from the government have been weak, and there has been no massive stimulus program since the country has eschewed debt. As the Journal reported,
Security analysts say Mexico’s powerful cartels and criminal gangs are using the pandemic to build up their popular base in areas they control or dispute, adding a layer of protection when law enforcement authorities target them. “It’s a challenge to the state,” says Renato Sales, a former top Mexican law-enforcement official.
Observers see these actions as direct challenges to the state. In this gap, the cartels have seen an opening,
In this pandemic, who among us would argue that the state doesn’t need a challenge, and that it is not our responsibility to raise that challenge in both word and deed. In the United States or Britain rather than seeing the national government step up in the crisis, a similar lack of response forced actions by membership organizations, like ACORN and our union, who also, by definition, are peoples’ organizations and fueled by popular support. Low- and moderate-income families and their communities are challenged by food insecurity and lack of personal protection. Local 100 members working in healthcare and other essential workers might have finally won PPE at their workplaces, but are all worried when they turn in their masks to go home that they are bringing the virus to their families, so they saw the masks given to them as lifesavers.
In Mexico, the boxes of masks being distributed in some cases featured the names of the cartel or its leader. A drawing of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán, the imprisoned head of the Sinaloa cartel, is featured on the boxes of some masks and the masks themselves. The cartel run by his sons now had policed curfews to enforce stay-at-home orders.
President Trump might have done better by getting masks and food to people in our communities with USA branded everywhere, than his gratuitous signing of a letter following stimulus checks that some people received. In fact, the Republicans and the president are still stalling on expanding even food stamps and health care access. Delivering real aid requires a belief that support of the people, rather than businesses and the rich, is really what matters. If even criminals have gotten the message, maybe politicians will figure it out sooner, rather than later.