“A smile is worth a thousand words,” said the printed greeting in Spanish on a brand new, bright yellow toy truck. The gift was one of dozens of Barbie dolls, plastic houses and toy guns handed out to children on January 6th—Mexico’s Three Kings Day—in the small pueblo of Totutla in the state of Veracruz.
But the gifts, on a day marking a national tradition that closely follows Christmas, weren’t delivered by the customary Three Wise Men. The greeting on the presents was signed CJNG: New Generation Jalisco Cartel.
Children in Totutla were not the only ones to be showered with gifts by one of Mexico’s most ruthless cartels across the humid, southeastern state of Veracruz. Local sources as well as press reports confirmed that some dozen municipalities received a visit from Jalisco cartel members, who arrived in low-key cars to hand out toys to waiting throngs of children.
"A car drove into the town [and started handing out gifts] without saying they were working for a cartel,” said Miguel Angel Leon Carmona, a journalist who works for Mexican media from the town of Jalapa, an hour’s drive from Totutla. Children stood in line, many of them with their parents or grandparents by their sides, to receive the gifts from the young men, who according to local media, were killers for the cartel.
In December, members of CJNG handed out Christmas lunches in the town of Tomatlán, Jalisco, on Mexico’s east coast, according to video and press reports. Footage showed a man knocking on someone’s door and handing out plastic bags of food, saying, “Ma’am, here’s some help courtesy of Señor Mencho.” The elusive leader of CJNG, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, a.k.a. “el Mencho,” has a $10 million USD reward on his head.
These handouts are a fundamental part of the battle for hearts and minds of those caught in the middle of the country’s violent drug war that after more than a decade seems to see no end. Last year was the most violent in Mexico’s history, with 35,588 murders registered. A government crackdown that began in 2007 has fragmented, but not dismantled, Mexico’s drug trafficking gangs and criminal syndicates.
Winning community support is crucial for rivals cartels vying for territorial control. Townsfolk are the best eyes and ears that the cartels can hope for; winning their support also offers drug trafficking gangs the intelligence and heads up that local people can provide about the plans and whereabouts of law enforcement.
“This is not altruistic behavior, but rather a way to buy the good will of populations where they operate,” said Cecilia Farfan, a Mexican crime researcher who heads up the Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S - Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego.
CJNG, like many other cartels, claims it's an organization that protects the public from the more violent cartels. “The gifts correspond to how this group operates,” said Leon, pointing to how the CJNG began life as las Matazetas (the Zeta Killers) and emerged around 2011, claiming to be dedicated to protecting the people and wiping out the hyper-violent Zetas cartel, which is credited with detonating an arms race in Mexico through its use of brutal tactics and high-caliber, sophisticated weaponry. But the Matazetas evolved and CJNG is now as violent as the group it claimed to want to eradicate. “[CJNG] want to legitimize themselves—they say they only sell drugs and don’t extort or kidnap,” Leon said.
The country’s drug cartels have for years used gifts, food and other social benefits to build their standing with local communities. What’s new is the blatancy of the packaging and delivery in this year’s handouts, and how gangs make sure photos of their generosity make the rounds on social media.
“The Sinaloa drug trafficking organization has been known to organize festivities but also pay for medical bills for their employees and their relatives,” Farfan said. Testimonies of cash giveaways for village parties, hospitals and roads as well as following natural disasters such as hurricanes date back decades in states across the republic.
In many parts of the country, kingpins such as Joaquin “el Chapo” Guzman (who was sentenced to life in an American prison in July 2019) are revered by locals as the most consistent providersof work, charity, and business for marijuana and poppy harvests.
One note left with the gifts in Veracruz in early January, also signed by the CJNG, according to local press reports, stated: “Seeing the happiness of these children, our future, motivates us to remain present and firm for those who most need it. Our job is to watch and defend the rights of working people and not allow supposed groups to harm society. We stand firm and at their disposal.”
Sweet words, but CJNG is now considered Mexico’s most violent criminal organization. Towards the end of last year, it ambushed and gunned down more than a dozen local policemen. Mexico’s record-high homicide rate coincides with the criminal syndicate’s aggressive expansion around the country and its attempt to wipe out its rivals.
“It's a way of building obedience in the population, and to pursue a relationship of domination. The people will receive the gifts, of course, but they don't really gain anything, they're still living under a criminal rule,” said Romain Le Cour Grandmaison, who has done years of research on criminal groups in Mexico with an emphasis on the troubled state of Michoacán.
Locals may feel like they’re winning, but the gifts and gains are short-term compared to those of the cartels.
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.