It is not the first time that such groups have attempted to fulfill the role of government. But few crises in modern times have tested the limits of the nation states of the world like the coronavirus, offering armed groups the opportunity to intervene where presidents, police forces and parliaments have failed.
Some groups have attempted to incorporate the failure of governments to control the virus into their own propaganda stories. In Somalia, al-Shabab fighters linked to Al-Qaeda say the pandemic was spread “by the cross forces that invaded the country”. ISIS has told supporters to prepare to exploit their enemies when they are overwhelmed by epidemics. In Yemen, Houthi rebels have accused Saudi Arabia of dropping masks infected with Covid-19.
In eastern Afghanistan, where the Afghan government and the Taliban have clashed for nearly two decades, rivalry over which group has a more effective health policy is now fully visible.
Esmatullah Asim, a member of the Wardak province provincial council, observed the arrival of Taliban forces in medical equipment this month and was impressed. Asim said the government only quarantines those who show symptoms at the border, but the Taliban quarantine anyone who has recently returned from Iran.
“The quarantine of the Taliban is much better than that of the government,” he said. The group is also raising awareness of the virus in the territory it controls, he said. “They stop the vehicles, telling passengers how to stop the virus from spreading.”
Even the US State Department has sent congratulations.
“We join the Afghan Ministry of Public Health in welcoming the Taliban’s efforts to raise awareness against # COVID19 and offering them safe passage to health workers and international organizations working to prevent the spread of the virus, “the department said. wrote in a tweet.
Analysts studying the organizational structure of armed groups have now documented dozens of rebels and bandits who have made inroads into public health policy.
“In some cases, the government simply does not come to help, so this is a chance for non-state armed groups to appear as the responsible and responsible actor,” said Sarah Parkinson, assistant professor of political science and of international studies at Johns. Hopkins University. “In other cases, this is a concern for their own members. And in others, it is an attempt to use evidence in their own propaganda war. ”
Some governments have recognized that armed groups can exploit their weaknesses after the virus has disappeared, taking advantage of the consequences of economic dislocation.
The mayor of the Italian city of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, warned this month that a “den of mafia jackals” is ready to “exploit the desperation of the new poor from the coronavirus.” Other Italian officials have suggested that the mafia could provide its own loans or cash payments to undermine the government.
In Mexico, at least two drug cartels have started providing aid packages to residents in locations partially controlled by armed groups. In Michoacan, a video was released last week of the Los Viagras cartel distributing plastic bags of food to hundreds of people. In Tamaulipas, a Mexican state bordering south Texas, photos have circulated of boxes full of sugar, oil and other staples distributed in large piles. On the top of each box was the name of the donor: “Gulf Cartel”, they said, “in support of Ciudad Victoria”, the state capital.
Falko Ernst, an analyst at the International Crisis Group in Mexico, said there was “obvious tension” in the effort.
“These groups are trying to be seen as providing material restoration and providing a sense of security in places where they also directly attack the population through extortion, kidnapping and violence,” he said. -he declares. “But in many places, these groups are the least bad solution for people who have nowhere to turn. “
In Brazil’s favelas, messages pass through WhatsApp.
“Anyone caught on the street will learn to respect the measure,” warned a gang in a slum in Rio de Janeiro. “We want the best for the people. If the government is unable to manage, organized crime disappears. “
Last month, while the Salvadoran government applied one of the oldest and severest entry bans in Latin America, MS-13 leaders decided to establish their own curfew. It was a rare overlap of gang-government policies that had been fighting for years.
But it also reflected a reality in much of El Salvador: police have limited access to areas under criminal control, and in these areas only a gang-imposed curfew would be observed. MS-13 explained his reasoning to the newspaper El Salvador de San Salvador: The policy was to protect its own members, who would likely not have access to medical care if they were infected.
“If there are no more respirators and one of us is seriously ill, all tattooed, and an old woman appears in serious condition, they will disconnect the gang member and they will let him die Said one member. .
A similar political overlap has occurred in Afghanistan, where the Taliban have dispatched teams to distribute gloves, soap and masks to areas under its control.
But while the insurgents and the government agree on the need to fight the virus, they continue to fight.
“We cannot completely stop our attacks,” said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid. He criticized the government for “forcing” them.
Defense groups have encouraged greater coordination between the Taliban and the Afghan government to fight the coronavirus. Human Rights Watch offered videoconferences with “representatives from the Ministry of Public Health, the Taliban Health Commission, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and major international humanitarian agencies”.
In many countries, police have been redeployed from rural to urban areas, which has given criminal groups more space to operate with impunity – and to enforce their own health policy as the pandemic spreads. .
In some cases, “criminal groups will act as monitors with full agreement and even at the request of the state,” wrote Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution. “Such agreements in which governments subcontract the rule of urban and rural peripheries to criminal groups have long preceded covid-19.”
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the militant group which dominates the province of Idlib, in the north of Syria, used the virus to restore its powers as a legitimate governing body, by issuing orders restricting rallies and distributing health information to the public.
No cases have been reported in the province. Public health officials and aid workers say the spread of the virus in overcrowded Idlib refugee camps, among a population with little access to health care, would be catastrophic.
“The large number of our people gathered in a small geographic space and the monumental population density in the camps, predict disastrous results if the epidemic spreads,” said Ayman Jibis, Minister of Health of the government of salvation created by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. .
Sieff reported from Mexico City. George reported from London. Fahim reported from Istanbul. Sharif Hassan in Kabul; Haq Nawaz Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan; and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.