Upcoming Mexico election could be nation's bloodiest

Anti-government demonstrators shout slogans against Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, during a march against recent reforms to the country's electoral law that they say threaten democracy, in Mexico City's main square on Feb 26, 2023. [AP Photo]

As Mexico prepares for the largest elections in its history, organized crime is once again preying on local candidates across swaths of the country where cartels dominate, raising concerns among experts that these could be Mexico's bloodiest elections ever.

Julián López, coordinator for the Citizen Movement party in the southern state of Guerrero, experienced it firsthand when rifle-toting gunmen abducted him and two colleagues while they were driving on February 7. The 43-year-old López was beaten, stripped of his possessions, made to kneel near a remote garbage dump and ultimately abandoned in the middle of the night.

Two mayoral hopefuls in the town of Maravatio in neighboring Michoacan state were not so fortunate. They were killed by gunmen within hours of each other Monday. One was from the governing Morena party of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the other from the conservative National Action Party.  A third mayoral hopeful from that town was abducted and found dead in November.

On February 10, a man running for Congress for the Morena party in the sprawling Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec was fatally shot in the street alongside his brother. He had allegedly received threats from a local union.

A month earlier, on January 5, the local leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party and candidate for mayor of Suchiate, Chiapas, was killed. The same day, in the northwestern state of Colima, a mayoral candidate of the Citizen Movement party in Armeria was shot by gunmen while in his vehicle.

López, the candidate in Guerrero, has refused to travel in armored vehicles with armed security since his abduction.

"How will it look to see a leader moving around the state of Guerrero with armed officials and in armored cars?" he asked. "I don't think that's the way to get closer to the people or promote citizen participation."

Thousands of local candidates find themselves in a similar quandary ahead of the June 2 elections, which will occur in all 32 jurisdictions, with more than 20,000 positions up for grabs, making it Mexico's largest election, according to the National Electoral Institute.

While federal authorities offer security details to national candidates, those running for local offices – the ones that drug cartels really want to control – are completely exposed and acutely aware of the optics of running from within a security bubble.

The group Data Civica had tallied 30 attacks on political hopefuls and party officials from September – when most started pre-campaign activities – through February 10. Its spokesperson, Itxaro Arteta, said they were "worried" after recording eight attacks on pre-candidates in January, more than double what they had seen before in that month since 2018.

Political scientist Manuel Pérez Aguirre coordinates the College of Mexico's Violence and Peace Seminar's research into electoral violence. Their investigation around the killings of 32 local candidates in the 2021 elections found that the lethal electoral violence is "predominantly local, because 85% of the victims were running for municipal posts."

"Local power is extremely important to organized crime," Pérez Aguirre said. "That's why they look to establish control at the municipal level."

Those local candidates have become more vulnerable under the security regime of the current president. López Obrador created the quasi-military National Guard, disbanded the federal police and what remains of local police forces can put up little resistance to heavily armed cartels.

"Local power has really been abandoned and municipal police haven't really been strengthened," Pérez Aguirre said.

López Obrador was dismissive of the concerns of growing electoral violence earlier this week following the killings in Maravatio. "The same tendency of declining crimes is going to continue, above all homicides," he said.

He said the federal government would protect candidates for president, governor and Congress, and he asked state and local governments to provide security for those running for local posts.

Guillermo Valencia, president of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Michoacan said Saturday, "Four candidates have already resigned on me and I'm struggling to find candidates in other [races]," he said. The party's candidate for Congress in the port of Lazaro Cardenas already asked for protection, he said.

In Maravatio where the three potential candidates from other parties were already killed, Valencia said he's trying to pact with two other opposition parties to present a common candidate.

"In Michoacan and Mexico democracy is threatened," he said.

Political risk firm Integralia Consultores published a report in February noting that some parts of the country faced higher risk of organized crime interfering in elections because of an accumulation of illegal markets, conflict among armed groups and weak rule of law.

Cartels have diversified beyond the drug trade. They extort protection payments from all sizes of businesses and even local government. They exert their will not only through political assassinations but also by financing the campaigns of candidates who will allow them to operate or even putting up their own candidates, according to Integralia's report.

Marko Cortés, national president of the National Action Party, demanded more federal security for those participating in the elections as he condemned the killing of his party's candidate in Maravatio this week.

"It can't be that they're killing candidates from different parties," he said. "No one is protecting them, there are no risk maps, there are no protocols or security mechanisms and the indifference of those governing now continues."

Because of the violence, at least two candidates from his party have dropped out of the June election race. He declined to say where out of concern for their safety.

But López, who survived his abduction, refused to back down.

"We absolutely cannot surrender, we can't give up," he said. "Those of us who believe things can get better have to continue working."


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