It was basically a coup attempt and nobody noticed.
Here in Puebla, the state government tried to take over city buildings in order to secure power for drug cartels that they allegedly have a pact with. But, with empty streets and the media covering COVID-19 almost to the exclusion of anything else, few people found out what happened.
Meanwhile, a water company tried to illegally drill wells, police are reportedly taking bribes from people not wearing face masks, and narcos are distributing goods in order to secure their territory. The impunity with which corrupt officials and large corporations get away with odd and heinous acts is only increasing under the cover of COVID-19.
Puebla City is just two hours to the south of Mexico City, and Puebla State is home to much of the country’s fuel theft and human trafficking — two industries that involve a lot of organised crime. Following the earthquake here in 2017, then the death (likely murder) of the state governor in December 2018 and new elections five months later, politics has been messy.
I talked to two government sources, who asked to remain anonymous for their safety. They said the MORENA-run state government was trying change the city security head by force, so that a narco-friendly person would be in charge of the city’s police.
“There are two types of organised crime in this country — one that is permitted and has the collaboration of the police, and one that isn’t,” one source said.
And it seems that the governor of Puebla, Luis Barbosa, already has a deal with the narco-aligned private water company. He has gone back on his promise to de-privatise the company and instead, his government has passed measures to ensure water cut-offs. When it comes to confronting the pandemic, Barbosa has been all over the shop, stating, “The poor, we are immune (to COVID-19).”
In March, Barbosa issued a decree taking control of city security, a move the city mayor denounced as unconstitutional. The mayor, Claudia Rivera, also denounced threats, defamation, and intimidation against herself and her team.
But Barbosa has been determined to appoint state subsecretary for security Carla Morales as city security head. She is aligned with Adelio Vargas, close friends with Genaro Garcia Luna, who, according to the US government, worked with the Sinaloa Cartel. Vargas supported Barbosa during his election campaign, and prior to that was Puebla state security head, where his repression of farmers and activists and collusion with organised crime is well documented.
In a twist of pandemic abuse, former Puebla governor Mario Marín, wanted for torture and covering up the trafficking of children, has used the pandemic to get out of being arrested while he was in Puebla. Journalist Lydia Cacho, who Marín allegedly tortured, reported that his reason for appealing his arrest was “because the population is at risk of COVID-19”. She says his lawyers said he shouldn’t be arrested because he is 60 and at risk. When he was governor, Marín’s legal counsel was Ricardo Velázquez, who is now legal counsel for Barbosa.
In addition to trying to change the city security head during the pandemic, in March, Barbosa also mobilised all of the state police and tried to take over the municipal buildings, according to my sources. At the last minute, he called it off and sent the police to a local prison, instead. But the numbers of police — 2000 — were clearly excessive. As a show of power, he also took control of the city’s security and intelligence centre, called C5, kicking out city workers and taking over the technology and properties.
For locals, the lack of functional police and justice systems means that there is an ongoing state of fear, which the current pandemic can only add to.
“In the middle of such conflict (between the city and state governments), and with the pandemic measures as well, there is a lot that can’t be resolved," said one of my sources. "Paperwork for land and public works takes longer, and big issues are being overlooked.”
Drug cartels and organised criminals are using the pandemic to expand their territorial influence or reinforce areas they control, as well as to launder money. With faces covered and bearing guns, they are distributing food to poor communities and taking photos and videos of their intimidating generosity, posting them on social media. Their boxes are clearly marked with the names of their cartels so the public and rivals can see where they have influence.
For small businesses and informal workers who are struggling during the pandemic, cartels provide a cheaper loan option. When companies are unable to pay back loans, they are forced to become money launderers as well.
Big businesses are taking advantage of the cover of COVID-19 as well. Locals reported in April that water bottling company Bonafont was drilling five water wells in their area, right next to where a Bonafont plant is being built, and without permits. The move comes as around half of the city lacks any or adequate water access.
And while the national government claims it is focusing only on essential policy right now, it has managed to award a bid for a part of the Maya Train development to Carlos Slim, one of the richest people in the world.
The craziness continues, with a Puebla councillor denouncing the distribution of fake cards accompanied by letters asking people to deposit 300 pesos, to supposedly receive monthly pandemic payments from the federal government.
Police were also reported to be patrolling here and taking advantage of the climate of fear to demand fines (in other words, bribes) from motorists for not wearing face masks. Although face masks are now obligatory in public places, there is no sanction for not using them.
For those with economic or political power, the pandemic is nothing more than a carnival of crisis and possibilities, while it is mostly organised individuals who are networking to provide food donations and to support each other’s small businesses and the most vulnerable groups.
[Tamara Pearson is a long time journalist based in Latin America, and author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writings can be found at her blog, Resistance Words.]