Mexico’s drug cartels have adapted quickly to the pandemic world.

By Steve Fischer and Kirk Semple

The Mexican Army set up a checkpoint in Celaya, Mexico, in August after an anti-drug operation.
The Mexican Army set up a checkpoint in Celaya, Mexico, in August after an anti-drug operation.Credit...EPA, via Shutterstock

Steve Fischer and

Like a lot of businesses, the Sinaloa Cartel was knocked back on its heels as the coronavirus swept the globe and travel ground to a near halt.

Government measures to contain the virus had fouled up its operations, interrupting the supply of chemicals for manufacturing synthetic drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine and cutting off trafficking routes across international borders.

But while many legitimate industries remain staggered by the pandemic, the cartel has adapted quickly, as have other organizations that dominate drug trafficking throughout the Americas, the source of nearly all of the world’s cocaine and most of the heroin consumed in the United States.

“The cartels have long demonstrated their resiliency,” said Scott Brown, the head of the Homeland Security Investigations office in Arizona. “They are going to continue to find new and innovative ways to try to move their product.”

The drug trafficking organizations have slashed payrolls and devised workarounds to traffic drugs and get them into the hands of consumers, according to interviews with sources close to the Sinaloa Cartel, law enforcement officials in the United States and Latin America, and security analysts.

During the year, some traffickers have increasingly relied on newer tools like drones and cryptocurrency and on creative uses of older approaches like underground tunnels and sea routes.

American officials have also detected a growing emphasis on the recruitment of impoverished or drug-addicted Americans to smuggle drugs in their body cavities.

The changes, sources said, have allowed the Sinaloa Cartel and the region’s other major drug trafficking groups to rebound quickly even as the pandemic continues to devastate economies.

And the challenges of getting drugs into the United States when travel routes shut down appears to have spurred the development of clandestine laboratories in the United States for the production of synthetic drugs, said Celina Realuyo, professor at the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies at the National Defense University in Washington.

Law enforcement agencies around the world have also detected an acceleration in the use of cryptocurrency and the so-called dark web for drug transactions and money laundering during the pandemic, she said.

“They’re adjusting,” Ms. Realuyo said of the drug trafficking groups. “They already had kind of a wherewithal, and what they’re doing is they’re just adapting quicker to their context.”