Trends in Narco-Charity

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January 14, 2014; Newsweek

Public relations has become meat and potatoes to big charitable givers, and so it seems to have evolved in Mexico with a unique charitable giver—the Gulf Cartel. One of the largest drug cartels in Mexico, the Gulf Cartel, has a video on YouTube showing its members visiting schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and neighborhoods in Tamaulipas state to give away cakes decorated in the colors of the Mexican flag. 

The Gulf Cartel’s charitable message is, according to a caption embedded in the video, “We take care of our people and always help.” Newsweek describes the video as “narco public relations,” but to us, it is a variant: narco-charity. It represents a new approach by the cartel for winning the hearts and minds of the population, a sharp change from murders, public hangings, and decapitations.  But it isn’t unique. Longtime Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar was known for paying for street lighting and reforestation projects and for building public housing and soccer fields, making him quite beloved in parts of Colombia. In Mexico, Gulf Cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas Guillén sent dolls, roller skates, and bicycles to Tamaulipas, with each toy tagged with a sticker advising the children, “Perseverance, discipline and effort are the basis for success. Keep studying to be a great example. Happy Children’s Day. With all my warmth for tomorrow’s triumphant one…your friend: Osiel Cárdenas Guillén.”

The idea of organized crime kingpins acting charitably is not new. In the U.S., some of the most infamous criminals in history used charitable giving much like the leaders of the Gulf Cartel or earlier like Colombia’s Escobar. Al Capone, for example, actually established some of the first soup kitchens in Chicago during the Great Depression. After World War II, Bugsy Siegel helped finance Holocaust survivors moving to the embryonic state of Israel. Across the Pacific, Yakuza criminal gangs sent dozens of trucks loaded with supplies to northeast Japan after the March 2011 earthquake. 

For the Gulf Cartel leadership, what is new is the use of social media to promote their charitable activities. The distinctive factor in much of the charity of organized crime, whether by Capone and Siegel, the Yakuza, or the cartels, is that it tends to flourish when there is an absence of official government presence. Capone during the Great Depression and the Yakuza coming from Kobe and Tokyo to the earthquake zone where 27,000 people died are examples of criminally based charity operating where the authorities were under-resourced. The same goes for the Gulf Cartel in Mexico, providing charitable gifts and publicizing the activity with impunity because of the weakness of governmental forces where it operates.—Rick Cohen