Courage re­quired for can­di­dates in Mex­ico

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News - BY PAULINA VIL­LE­GAS AND KIRK SEM­PLE New York Times

Vot­ers will fill more than 3,400 lo­cal, state and fed­eral posts Sun­day, in Mex­ico’s largest gen­eral elec­tion ever. It is also per­haps the most vi­o­lent elec­toral sea­son in mod­ern Mex­i­can his­tory.

At least 136 politi­cians and po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives have been as­sas­si­nated in Mex­ico since last fall, ac­cord­ing to Etellekt, a risk anal­y­sis firm in Mex­ico. More than a third were can­di­dates or po­ten­tial can­di­dates – most of them run­ning for lo­cal of­fices. Oth­ers in­cluded elected of­fi­cials, party mem­bers and cam­paign work­ers.

In the long run-up to the vote, much of the na­tional and in­ter­na­tional fo­cus has been on the pres­i­den­tial con­test. Yet for the mil­lions of peo­ple liv­ing in the most vi­o­lent parts of the coun­try, elec­tions for lo­cal of­fice may have the big­gest im­pact on their daily lives.

And or­ga­nized crime groups have all but de­cided many of those out­comes al­ready.

“No one has been more ac­tive dur­ing these cam­paigns” than these crim­i­nal groups, said Ale­jan­dro Martínez, a top of­fi­cial for the cen­ter-right Na­tional Ac­tion Party in the Pa­cific Coast state of Guer­rero, one of Mex­ico’s poor­est and most vi­o­lent.

Scores, if not hun­dreds, have aban­doned their can­di­da­cies out of fear for their lives. Some par­ties have not been able to field nom­i­nees will­ing to con­test cer­tain posts.

Some can­di­dates have been forced to travel in ar­mored cars flanked by body­guards and to wear body ar­mor in pub­lic. In parts of the most vi­o­lent states, threats have made cam­paign­ing im­pos­si­ble.

“You have to be a lit­tle crazy to run for of­fice here,” Martínez said.

Col­lu­sion be­tween politi­cians and crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tions in Mex­ico is not new. But over the past decade, crim­i­nals have in­creas­ingly sought to co-opt lo­cal pol­i­tics by try­ing to in­flu­ence the elec­toral process, us­ing vi­o­lence to ef­fec­tively hand­pick slates of can­di­dates.

With co­op­er­a­tive of­fi­cials in key lo­cal of­fices, crim­i­nal groups have been able to bet­ter pro­tect and grow their il­le­gal en­ter­prises by ex­ert­ing con­trol over lo­cal po­lice forces, se­cur­ing lu­cra­tive govern­ment con­tracts and de­mand­ing hefty per­cent­ages of mu­nic­i­pal bud­gets.

This trend has been no more ev­i­dent than in the lead-up to Sun­day’s elec­tions.

In ad­di­tion to the killings, more than 400 other cases of ag­gres­sion against politi­cians and po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives have been re­ported this sea­son, in­clud­ing as­sas­si­na­tion at­tempts, threats, acts of in­tim­i­da­tion and kid­nap­pings, ac­cord­ing to Etellekt, which col­lated in­for­ma­tion from govern­ment, aca­demic, civil­so­ci­ety and news me­dia re­ports.

Cases have been re­ported in at least 346 mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties across the coun­try.

This shadow cam­paign by or­ga­nized crime, al­most en­tirely un­fet­tered by the na­tion’s weak and cor­rupt law en­force­ment and ju­di­cial sys­tems, has come amid record vi­o­lence in the coun­try, which, in turn, has been a cen­tral theme in the pres­i­den­tial con­test.

“If the Mex­i­can state is not able to guar­an­tee that the will of the peo­ple is re­spected, then you don’t have democ­racy,” said An­to­nio Orozco Guadar­rama, sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the left­ist Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Demo­cratic Party in Guer­rero. “This puts our en­tire democ­racy in great dan­ger.”

The prob­lem has wors­ened amid seis­mic shifts in both the crim­i­nal econ­omy and Mex­i­can pol­i­tics.

The govern­ment has had a long-stand­ing strat­egy of at­tack­ing or­ga­nized crime groups by tak­ing down king­pins. The ap­proach was based on the be­lief that by cut­ting off the head of a crim­i­nal or­ga­ni­za­tion, the body would wither.

But the tac­tic has, in­stead, served to frag­ment large, crim­i­nal en­ter­prises into smaller groups that are more vi­o­lent and more lo­cal. Be­fore, the large groups were mostly fo­cused on drug pro­duc­tion and smug­gling, but the smaller, more volatile groups have branched out into a wider ar­ray of crimes such as ex­tor­tion, kid­nap­ping, pros­ti­tu­tion, il­le­gal gam­bling and fuel theft.

With their busi­nesses fo­cused on more lo­cal con­cerns, the newer crim­i­nal groups have an in­creas­ing need for col­lab­o­ra­tion with lo­cal of­fi­cials.

“For the older car­tels that were mostly about smug­gling drugs in the U.S., they couldn’t care less who was the mayor as long as the mayor did not get in­volved or try to im­pede the busi­ness,” said Ale­jan­dro Hope, a se­cu­rity an­a­lyst in Mex­ico City. “But in this new world of more lo­cal gangs, con­trol­ling lo­cal gov­ern­ments is a cru­cial as­set.”

The frac­tur­ing of the crim­i­nal land­scape has come along­side the frac­tur­ing of Mex­ico’s po­lit­i­cal land­scape. For 71 years, un­til 2000, the na­tion’s pol­i­tics were a one-party mo­nop­oly.

Both the party and or­ga­nized crime were mono­lithic and rigidly hi­er­ar­chi­cal, and col­lu­sion be­tween the two of­ten oc­curred at the up­per lev­els. But as the one-party, top-down po­lit­i­cal sys­tem frac­tured into a plu­ral­is­tic sys­tem, with more com­pe­ti­tion within and be­tween po­lit­i­cal par­ties, more power and in­flu­ence flowed to the lo­cal level.

“For so long, those lo­cal au­thor­i­ties were tak­ing or­ders from above, so the in­ter­locu­tors were at the fed­eral level for crimi- nals,” said Steven Dud­ley, co-di­rec­tor of In­Sight Crime, a foun­da­tion that stud­ies or­ga­nized crime in the Amer­i­cas. “But when you started cre­at­ing demo­cratic sys­tems with mul­ti­ple pow­ers, the real power gets trans­ferred to lo­cal hands.”

Se­cur­ing lever­age over the mech­a­nisms of lo­cal gov­er­nance and pol­i­tics be­came cru­cial to the new, lo­cally fo­cused crim­i­nal groups, and they started to seek con­trol over the elec­toral process.

“The groups are not just look­ing to link up with can­di­dates, but they’re look­ing to nom­i­nate can­di­dates,” said Ed­uardo Guer­rero Gu­tiér­rez, a se­cu­rity an­a­lyst at Lan­tia Con­sul­tores in Mex­ico City.

So, even as Mex­i­can democ­racy on the na­tional level has con­tin­ued to evolve, room at the lo­cal level for free and open elec­tions has seemed to shrink.

GARY CORONADO TNS

At least 136 politi­cians and po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives have been as­sas­si­nated in Mex­ico since last fall, ac­cord­ing to Etellekt, a risk anal­y­sis firm in Mex­ico.

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