They might be taking their cues from legendary Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, who was famous for helping out numerous communities in Colombia and donating parks and recreation centers to unprivileged communities. Or maybe they’re inspired by the legend of Jesús Malverde, the so-called narco-saint folk hero from Sinaloa, sometimes seen as a Mexican version of Robin Hood. On the other hand, they may feel threatened by the “self-defense” groups spawning in Michoacán and Colima—civil vigilante groups that have taken up arms against the cartels after declaring that local authorities are unable or unwilling to tackle organized crime battles head-on.
For whatever reason, drug cartels in different parts of Mexico took to the streets this holiday season in order to “give back,” and—ironic as it may sound— spread holiday cheer.
In the southern state of Oaxaca the impoverished communities of Viguera, Bugambilia and Calicanto were surprised on Three Kings Day (January 6) with bundles of toys, which mysteriously appeared in different points of the city, some with signs explaining that they were left there “so that people can see that the Zetas support humble people. ” Not surprisingly, these images did not make it into mainstream national media but were shared via Twitter.
The eerie irony behind these charitable acts is that the Zetas are known for being one of the most cold-blooded criminal groups of the country, often resorting to torture and public displays of their victims.
On the other side of the country, in Tampico in the northern state of Tamaulipas, the Cártel del Golfo (Gulf Cartel—CDG) took to the streets on Christmas Eve and handed out gifts, food and money. The CDG had the gall to parade in pickup trucks and set up different distribution points throughout the city, never fearing an attack from the authorities. In what would seem like a well-thought-out, below the line marketing strategy, they recorded, edited and uploaded videos that later went viral on YouTube.
One of the videos shows pickup trucks outside of hospitals, the main bus station and other parts of the city, distributing food bags and giftwrapped boxes. The crowds gather around and some of the cartel members try to organize the distribution as if they are conducting an aid campaign. The clip then transitions to another part of the city, outside of a public clinic, where members of the CDG deliver dozens of pizza boxes to people who not only thank them for the gift, but even organize to yell out a “hip, hip, hooray”-style cheer: “A la bio, a la bao, a la bim bom ba, ¡el Cártel del Golfo, ra, ra, ra!”
The video shows how children run to these criminals with smiles on their faces and exchange a thank you for a plastic toy trinket. Unbeknownst to them, the toy was bought with blood and drug money. The fact that parents would let their kids get close to the cartel members is the perfect illustration of how engrained organized crime has become in underprivileged communities in parts of Mexico.
The larger problem is not that the cartels have the audacity to do these charity runs. The real and critical situation is that, given their lack of opportunities to survive otherwise, abandoned communities have embraced the cartels and come to regard them as semi-gods and role models. Mexico has become a place where, inside a posh shopping mall in Mexico City, a soccer mom can tell her kids to take a picture with Santa Claus, while a less privileged mother might invite her own children to ask the nice drug dealer for a handout.
What an unfair situation to put a kid in. What a terrible way to sentence our children’s futures.