COVID-19 poses challenges for Mexican drug cartels

COVID MexicoBy Kennedy Smith, Senior Analyst, Europe and N. America Section
Analytical Question: The Mexican government’s war on drug cartels | Date: 04 April 2020

THE CORONAVIRUS GLOBAL PANDEMIC HAS created economic and territorial challenges for Mexican drug cartels. These challenges will likely hinder the growth of Mexican drug cartels and assist the Mexican government in its efforts to dismantle the illicit drug markets as the virus continues to spread in the Americas.

The Mexican government has been fighting the war on drugs in cooperation with the United States for the past several decades. The emergence of the coronavirus is expected to complicate this war. Mexico is not suffering from the coronavirus to the degree that the US is, but ongoing efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 have led to the closure of the US-Mexico border. The efforts of the US and Mexico to stop the spread of COVID-19 are affecting the Mexican drug cartels both financially and territorially, as production and distribution have lessened.

Mexican drug cartels rely on chemicals imported from China. These fuel the narcotics industry by supplying cheap and readily available products. The chemicals are used to make meth- amphetamine (crystal meth), opium (heroin), methylenedioxymethamphetamine (ecstasy), and other illicit narcotics. Historically, Mexico has struggled to control the well-established drug cartels, which thrive on the illicit drug market in the US and corruption of government officials. The Sinaloa Cartel, in particular, has maintained a strong presence in Mexico along the US southern border since the 1980s, by distributing narcotics into the US. The Sinaloa has been, and remains, one of the most powerful drug cartels in Mexico. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to gravely affect the illicit drug markets in the US, which will likely limit the Sinaloa Cartel’s ability to sell and traffic drugs.

Since the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Trump Administration has ordered a partial closure of the US-Mexican border. Therefore, drug sales to US consumers by way of the illicit drug market will likely decrease. The border shut-down has already caused the Sinaloa Cartel to smuggle just one-third of the usual number of narcotics across the border. Furthermore, drug cartels are no longer receiving chemical shipments from China, resulting in the lack of drug production and distribution. The COVID-19 pandemic will likely impede the cartels’ main source of income. According to sources, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel, García “El Mayo”, has ordered the wholesale price of narcotics to increase. For example, one pound of crystal meth increased from 2,500 to 15,000 pesos. This will likely reduce drug sales until shipments from China resume. The data on this topic is currently inconclusive. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has said that it is monitoring whether the outbreak is affecting illicit drug markets in the US.

It is highly likely that shipments from China will remain halted indefinitely and the US-Mexican border will remain closed as the US and Mexico attempt to control the spread of the virus. The price of narcotics is expected to continue increasing as long as the US-Mexico border remains closed and chemical shipments are halted. As a result, it can be stated with moderate confidence that the Mexican government will be able to gain more control over the cartels during the COVID-19 pandemic.


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Christina Zhao. (2020, March 29). Wuhan COVID-19 Death Toll may be in Tens of Thousands, Data on Cremations and Shipments of Urns Suggest. Newsweek.

John Burnett. (2020, March 28). Life on the U.S.-Mexico Frontier Dramatically Altered by Partial Border Shutdown. National Public Radio.

Keegan Hamilton. (2020, March 23). Sinaloa Cartel Drug Traffickers Explain Why Coronavirus Is Very Bad for Their Business. Vice News.