CULIACÁN, Mexico – As with many companies, the Sinaloa Cartel was shocked when the coronavirus spread and the world came to a near complete stop.
Government measures to contain the virus had hampered their operations, cut off the supply of chemicals for the manufacture of synthetic drugs – such as fentanyl and methamphetamine – and canceled trafficking routes across international borders.
But the cartel is not just any company. It established itself as one of the most powerful drug trafficking groups in the world with a mix of business acumen, resourcefulness and outlaw actions.
And so while many legitimate businesses remain baffled by the pandemic, the cartel has adapted quickly, as have other organizations that dominate the narcotics trade in Latin America, where almost all of the world’s cocaine is produced and most of the heroin consumed in the United States.
“Cartels have long demonstrated their resilience,” said Scott Brown, chief of the Arizona office of Homeland Security Investigations. “They are going to continue to find new and innovative ways to try to move their product.”
Drug trafficking organizations have cut payrolls and devised solutions to traffic substances and bring them to their consumers, according to interviews with sources close to the Sinaloa Cartel, law enforcement officials in the United States and Latin America, and security analysts.
During this year, some traffickers have increasingly relied on new tools such as drones and cryptocurrencies and opted for creative uses of strategies from the past, such as underground tunnels and sea lanes.
US officials have also noted an increase in the recruitment of low-income or drug-addicted Americans to smuggle narcotics into their body cavities.
The changes, sources said, have allowed the Sinaloa Cartel and the region’s other large drug trafficking groups to recover quickly, even as the pandemic continues to devastate economies.
The agility of the trafficking groups has forced authorities throughout the region to adjust their tactics to respond to the new circumstances, even as some law enforcement agencies in Latin America and elsewhere have been overwhelmed by tasks related to trafficking. pandemic that have absorbed resources that would otherwise have been dedicated to the fight against drug trafficking.
Authorities said that even before the pandemic, the game of cat and mouse between drug dealers and law enforcement officers was anything but static.
“It’s fluid,” said Matthew Donahue, deputy chief of operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). “You can’t have an answer and live by it. It could change tomorrow. “
As the first wave of the pandemic moved from continent to continent in late winter and early spring, government action to respond to the emergency disrupted the entire drug trade.
In Latin America, lockdowns hit drug traffickers hard, bringing operations to a near halt in some places.
“When it first came,” Donahue said of the pandemic, “it put everything in a kind of stalemate.”
Faced with travel restrictions, agents from Mexican drug trafficking organizations had trouble reaching Central America in order to coordinate maritime shipments. As operations slowed down, some criminal groups were forced to store their product in Latin America, Donahue said.
The slowdown was felt across all of the Sinaloa Cartel’s sprawling networks, from the coca fields of South America to the drug-packing facilities in Mexico and along its international trafficking routes, an accountant for the organization said that monitors its drug shipments throughout the region.
As many legal firms attempt to counter the impacts of the pandemic, the cartel reorganized itself, laying off many low-level employees, including truck drivers, warehouse workers and security personnel, both the accountant and two other associates said. of the criminal organization in interviews. The sources requested anonymity because they spoke without authorization and feared for their safety.
When the flow of drugs regained momentum, transportation obstacles led to a sharp drop in the frequency of shipments, as cocaine from the Andean countries of South America arrived in Mexico once every two weeks, instead of several times. per week, as was the case before the pandemic, cartel associates and a Mexican Navy official said.
The slowdown caused the wholesale price of cocaine in Mexico to double, the cartel’s accountant said in an interview in Culiacán, a city in northwestern Mexico where the organization is based.
Drug trafficking disruptions were particularly notable along the entire southwestern border of the United States.
The vast majority of illicit drugs that enter the United States from Mexico arrive through the legal ports of entry along that border, hidden in passenger cars and commercial vehicles or smuggled in by travelers arriving on foot, through often disguised as tourists or travelers going shopping for a day.
But the Donald Trump administration’s restrictions on all “non-essential travel” have caused fewer non-US passenger cars and pedestrians to pass through ports of entry, increasing the exposure of smugglers.
“With less traffic going through the checkpoints, it would make sense for officers to have more time to focus on what is happening at the checkpoints,” said John R. Modlin, Acting Chief Agent for the Tucson Sector Patrol. of the United States Border Patrol.
The drug cartels quickly adapted to the evolving landscape.
Amid the severe reduction in air travel and obstacles to crossing the land border, drug traffickers in Latin America have relied more on maritime routes, including the use of more semi-submersible boats and speedboats, which are low-profile vessels equipped with high-powered engines, according to reports from the Colombian Navy, as well as from US and Mexican law enforcement officials and associates of the Sinaloa Cartel.
Trafficking groups also began to hide more and more drugs among legal goods packed in shipping containers and transported on cargo ships, particularly on the routes connecting South America with Mexico and Latin America with Europe, according to US officials. Mexicans and Colombians.
According to officials and analysts, another apparent change in methodology is that some traffickers have shipped fewer cargoes, albeit in larger quantities, than in the past, perhaps as part of a strategy to reduce risk as well as a reflection of limitations in the transportation options.
This year, it appears that drug trafficking organizations have used more tunnels along the southwestern border of the United States to smuggle their products from Mexico. They have sometimes reactivated tunnels that were inactive, according to DEA’s Donahue and associates of the Sinaloa Cartel.
The Sinaloa accountant estimated that the organization’s use of the tunnels had increased by 40 percent during the pandemic.
In some places, traffickers have also increased the use of drones to transport drugs across the border, US authorities said.
“We regularly detect drone smuggling attempts and disrupt drone smuggling attempts, and that certainly wasn’t the case a year ago,” said Brown, the special agent in charge of the Arizona Homeland Security Investigations office. “Across the southwestern border, it’s a rare day when there isn’t a drone smuggling attempt.”
“And I’m sure we didn’t detect all of them,” he said.
While smugglers continue to try to smuggle drugs through ports of entry, US authorities have detected at least one particularly drastic change in tactics in the profile of smugglers discovered at those border crossings.
Before the pandemic, the cartels used to hire foreign-born smugglers who crossed the border from Mexico to the United States under the pretext of sightseeing or taking a shopping trip.
But because pandemic-related border restrictions have blocked entry to many foreign visitors, criminal groups have been recruiting more US citizens and green card holders, who are not subject to the restrictions, to introduce drugs. smuggled into the United States, US officials said. These smugglers are often discovered with the narcotics hidden inside their bodies, officials say.
Guadalupe Ramírez Jr., director of field operations for the Office of Customs and Border Protection in Arizona, recalled that when he was director of ports of entry in Nogales from 2009 to 2016, the “internal carriers”, as officials of the border to these smugglers, they were rare.
“Now it seems that almost daily we discover internal carriers,” and most are US citizens or permanent residents, Ramírez said.
The challenges of introducing drugs into the United States also appear to have spurred the development of clandestine laboratories for the production of synthetic drugs in the country, said Celina Realuyo, professor at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington.
And law enforcement agencies around the world have also detected an acceleration in the use of cryptocurrencies and the so-called dark web for drug transactions and money laundering during the pandemic, he said.
“They are adapting,” Realuyo said of the drug trafficking groups. “They already had some kind of resources, and what they are doing is adapting faster to their context.”
Kirk Semple is a correspondent for The New York Times covering Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. He is based in Mexico City. @KirkSemple