Cartels, crime rings exploit supply shortages during COVID-19 pandemic, authorities say

“They exploit the fear of the public,” said Sergio Tirrò, a member of Europol.

When you think of the name El Chapo, chances are you're not thinking about a volunteer group handing out food to those in need.

Yet, as the novel coronavirus pandemic reaches Mexico, a volunteer group working with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's family is handing out essentials to those who are poor in the city with the country's second-largest population, Guadalajara City.

The group calls the items "Chapo Provisions," and they're courtesy of a company run by the former Sinaloa Cartel leader's daughter, Alejandrina Guzman. The company markets clothing and liquor, sometimes with his image. Chapo's Provisions also come with the drug lord's image.

Experts believe that through charity efforts like these, the Sinaloa Cartel could gain more support from locals. Authorities have said a number of cartels are taking this charitable route.

"They want social support to make a social shield," said Gerardo Rodríguez, professor of national security at the University of the Americas Puebla.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has warned drug rings not to hand out charity and to stop trying to gain the support of locals who are desperate for supplies.

"There are other cartels. ... They are doing the same thing," said Rodríguez. "It's quite dangerous because the support, the force of the state, is diminished because of the social support."

The donations are an unlikely sign of hope for many as Mexico braces for a surge in COVID-19 deaths.

Organized crime rings, the underbelly of society, thrive in bad situations. These moments give them opportunities to win over the hearts and minds of those in need. And it's not just the cartels -- authorities say other crime rings are jumping at the opportunity, too.

"They exploit the fear of the public," said Sergio Tirrò, a member of Europol, the European Union's law enforcement arm.

As the EU shut down entire economies to slow the spread of the virus and Italy fought to keep its older population alive, Tirrò says organized crime groups were manufacturing counterfeit medical equipment and supplies.

"Those people are very well organized," said Tirrò, noting that organized crime groups that operate on an international scale tend to be well-structured. "They split the roles and responsibilities and are based in more than one country."

Tirrò said these groups have made "substantial profits" off the products they're selling online, which include masks, COVID-19 tests and gloves.

"They also cause a false sense of security in citizens and consumers because they believe that they are buying genuine products to protect themselves," Tirrò said.

With shortages in medical supplies around the world, Tirrò believes organized crime groups will continue to try to fill the vacuum left behind, even as authorities make arrests.

"We suspect that in the near future, as soon as a genuine vaccine is developed, criminals will be ready to offer counterfeit vaccines over the web," he said.

The situation, however, isn't helpless. Consumers, Tirrò said, can take steps to avoid falling into these traps.

"Consumers have to rely on genuine and official websites of the brand owner, and information coming from health officials," he said.

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