As Mexico focuses on coronavirus, drug gang violence rises

By Drazen Jorgic and Uriel Sanchez
MEXICO CITY / ACAPULCO, Mexico (Reuters) - The coronavirus threatens to hamper Mexico's fight against some of its most vicious drug gangs as police and officials fall ill, security forces are diverted to guard medical centers, and military barracks are converted to COVID. 19 clinics.
The powerful Jalisco cartel and its rivals are using a vulnerability to step up the fight to control drug trafficking in Mexico, security officials and analysts say.
The number of homicides at a national level has risen to a record level, although the number of other crimes has declined because most of the country has stayed at home to avoid the corona virus.
In recent weeks, armed men have kidnapped and killed seven police officers, murdered 10 people in a drug rehab center, and disposed of 12 bullet-ridden corpses from a rival crime outfit in areas where the Jalisco New Generation (CJNG) cartel operates is.
The military, a key component of Mexico's anti-cartel campaign, was developed to contain the coronavirus and convert the barracks into COVID-19 treatment clinics.
Police officers who are overweight or suffer from health conditions have been taken off the streets in some regions because they are at high risk from COVID-19, according to Mexican officials.
In the state of Guerrero, where around 40 armed groups, including the CJNG, operate, police have been weakened by outbreaks of coronaviruses in their ranks, a senior Guerrero police officer said.
When an official gets sick, he needs to isolate for an additional four weeks, on average, for another two weeks, he added, complaining that some officials also came up with dubious medical records to avoid work.
In rural Guerrero, a mountainous country on the Pacific coast that governments have long since been unable to control, armed vigilante groups that analysts say have imposed cartel links, curfews, and prevented residents from trying to leave villages To contain the virus, residents told Reuters.
With an official number of over 18,300 deaths, Mexico has the seventh-highest number of coronavirus deaths worldwide.
Corona virus strains the federal government's bandwidth to fight organized crime, another senior security official said.
"Coronavirus is undoubtedly a priority right now," said the official. "You can feel that."
Nationwide, 4,700 National Guard security personnel out of a total of 90,000 were assigned to guard hospitals, medical devices and health personnel, the Federal Ministry of Security told Reuters.
The Mexican government did not respond directly to a request from Reuters for comment on whether the fight against coronavirus is holding back the fight against cartels, but a senior security official said the government continues to focus on its tasks.
The official said that only a small percentage of the militarized police were assigned coronavirus tasks to the National Guard, and that the majority retained their crime prevention and combat functions.
President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said this month that Mexico "will not stop responding to and fighting organized crime."

The murder rate is growing
CJNG's drive for dominance helped ensure that homicide rates rose to an all-time high in the first four months of 2020 and hit Lopez Obrador. 34,582 people were murdered in 2019.
Lopez Obrador said this month that about 70% of the murders this year were cartel-related.
Mexico has been banned from corona virus since March 23 when it ordered schools, businesses, and government offices to close.
But drug battles increased homicide rates in March, when 3,000 murders occurred. This was the second highest monthly record ever and the largest since Lopez Obrador's seizure of power in December 2018.
The daily murder rate was almost identical in April, government data showed, and on June 7, Mexico suffered the most violent day of the year with 117 murders.
"There are shootings you can't miss almost every day," said Jose, a student in Aguililla, one of the many cities in Michoacan state where local cartels are fighting to keep the Jalisco gang out.
CJNG, led by former policeman Nemesio "El Mencho" Oseguera, who has a $ 10 million bounty on his head, was found by smaller gangs trying to control the smuggling routes for methaphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl to the United States fought violently. Last month, the police found 12 bodies of suspected CJNG members in a truck in Michoacan.
A note about the corpses, allegedly signed by the Familia Michoacana cartel, ridiculed a CJNG regional chief.
Cartels have long fought for control and drug trafficking routes across the large Tierra Caliente or "Hot Land" region in western Mexico that includes the states of Michoacan, Guerrero and Mexico.
Even before the pandemic, federal and state authorities were often missing in rural areas of the region.
"There are areas the government does not enter ... and criminal groups have total control," said Gregorio Lopez Jeronimo, a Roman Catholic priest, better known as "Father Goyo" in the Michoacan city of Apatzingan, part of the Tierra Caliente.
Gangs are trying to take on the role of government to alleviate social needs during the pandemic.
In several regions, they lend money to companies in areas where people have suffered an economic blow as a result of the closure. This emerges from a government document published by local newspapers.
Videos of multiple gang armed fighters distributing food to impoverished local populations during the ban have driven home the loss of territorial control by the government.
"The pandemic has fully uncovered gaps in government control over certain areas," said Mike Vigil, a former agent of the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
"Unfortunately, these gaps are filled by the drug cartels."

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic and Uriel Guerrero; additional reporting by Diego Ore; editing by Alistair Bell)

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