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