Mexican drug cartels are distributing food and hand sanitiser as residents struggle because of the pandemic, while in Italy Mafia gangs are offering loans to the poor.

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads and lockdowns are enforced, countries across the world are struggling to ensure those most vulnerable have their needs met.

Help is coming from strange places for some with criminal underworld groups stepping in to enforce curfews and provide food and sanitary products to residents in places where they are active.

In some towns in Mexico, cartels have stepped in to distribute help to those most in need, as the local government struggles.

The aid is notable given the history of atrocities against civilians associated with many cartels with more than 200,000 people killed in the country’s 13-year-old drug war.

Examples of human rights violations include regular beheadings of civilians and rivals, and widespread rape.

Recent images put up on social media show members of the Gulf Cartel and Jalisco New Generation Cartel distributing aid to the poor, who have been hit hard as they are told to stay home due to the crisis.

The Jalisco New Generation Cartel, one of the most feared groups in Mexico, distributed aid to eight municipalities in the state of San Luis Potosí.

Labeling on the aid boxes read: “From your friends, Covid-19 contingency support.”

The head of the gang is Nemesio 'El Mencho' Oseguera Cervantes, who is at the top of the most wanted list of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

The agency is offering a $10m reward for his arrest.

On April 5, El Blog del Narco reported that the Gulf Cartel, which is active in the northeastern and western states of Mexico, also reportedly delivered aid to 200 poor families in these regions.

The Gulf Cartel is the oldest criminal organisation in Mexico and began by smuggling alcohol to the US during the 1930s.

According to Johns Hopkins University data, 449 people have died from coronavirus in Mexico and there are 5,847 positive cases.

Italian Mafias

The Italian Mafia is also taking advantage of the crisis by offering food and cash loans to those in need, in what officials describe as a recruiting strategy.

Mafia groups have delivered food to locals in southern regions, such as Campania, Calabria, Sicily and Puglia.

Italy, which is one of the worst affected countries in the world, is struggling to provide its citizens with the help they need during the crisis.

After years on the backfoot because of government anti-corruption efforts, experts say the pandemic is giving the criminal underworld a new lease of life.

“We know that ‘families of friends’, all of them loan sharks, are making themselves available to give money to the people in difficulty,” said Amedeo Scaramella, using a euphemism by which the clans of the Camorra criminal syndicate are known. 

Scaramella, a lawyer by training, heads the San Giuseppe Moscato Foundation, a Catholic group in Naples that fights loan sharking, in part by guaranteeing bank loans to people normally considered credit risks. 

He told Reuters the sharks start by offering loans at rates that compete with banks and later entrap borrowers by driving them up to 300 percent. 

Federico Cafiero De Raho, Italy’s national anti-mafia prosecutor, said his agents had noticed suspicious activity in Naples including the Camorra clans’ distribution of free food to families left short on cash by the national lockdown. 

“We have evidence,” De Raho told Reuters, declining to give details because investigations are ongoing. 

Past experience suggests the mob could seek repayment for such largesse in the future by asking recipients to take on activities such as transporting drugs, he said. 

“The Camorra knows this is the right time to invest.”