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Political Violence Surrounding Mexico’s Local Elections

A police officer stands guard at a polling station in San Bartolome Quialana, in the outskirts of Oaxaca, July 7, 2013

On Sunday, July 7, Mexicans voted for mayors and councilmen in 900 municipalities, as well as one governor. The electoral campaign was marred by violence. Twelve electoral candidates, family members and campaign workers were assassinated. One was kidnapped and later released. Election Sunday was relatively peaceful, but the weeks leading up to the vote raised the specter that violence in Mexico was not on the wane. Was the electoral violence an exception, or was it reflective of enduring socio-political problems in the country?

On June 24, one of Mexico’s leading experts in violence and security policy, Dr. Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez shared his analysis with a public audience at the Brookings Institution. In his opinion, the principal reason for the 100 percent rise in homicides in the years 2009 and 2010 was the government’s arrest or killing of drug cartel leaders, or capos. According to Guerrero, there was no selection of the more dangerous targets; instead the Ministry of Public Security ordered the federal police and military to target all capos with the same intensity, heedless of whether their organization engaged in violence and predatory crimes, or not. Consequently, these nonselective law enforcement operations fostered uncertainty and instability within criminal organizations which relied principally on the capo’s personal reputation. Decapitated organizations splintered with lieutenants assuming part of the drug trade, while others moved into other profitable enterprises, such as extortion. In the same two year period between 2009 and mid-2011, and according to both official and victimization surveys, the rate of extortions in Mexico doubled.

Most high-profile captures were carried out on the basis of information provided by the U.S. government. Consequently, the Ministry of Public Security had a limited ability to employ strategies more suited to domestic and local interests. Communities with significant local security problems were often left out of U.S. surveillance. As a result, these vulnerable local communities protected themselves through the creation of vigilante groups; many of which acted as mafia-style operations, hiring large groups of gunmen and informants. In several cases, they even enjoyed the support from broad sectors of the population. In Michoacán and Guerrero, the mafias continue to contest the local law enforcement authorities for the loyalty of the population, and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between the criminal mafia and the legitimate local police.

In mid-2011, the federal government ended nonselective targeting of capos and began to select the capos of the more violent criminal organizations, principally the Zetas. This shift in strategy may have induced the leaders of less violent gangs to employ less violent methods; certainly a moderate, but steady decline in homicides can be noted. Guerrero notes a 9.2 percent reduction in drug related homicides in the first six months of the Peña Nieto administration, compared to the last six months of the Calderon administration.

While states near the U.S. border have registered larger reductions in violence, states in the center of Mexico have registered increases. The implication of the shift in violence from former high-intensity areas on the northern border and along the drug trafficking routes to previously low-intensity areas is attributable to a change in the nature of illicit trades. There is now more kidnapping, robbery and extortion; all intended to maintain revenue flows for the criminal organizations. To facilitate these operations political patrons and acquiescent police chiefs are needed. This has led to competition between mafias and criminal organizations for friendly politicians and pliant police officers. In other words, crime has metastasized from drug trafficking into less profitable, but more pervasive criminal pursuits.

Of the dozen assassinations of political candidates since February 2013, only two occurred in states on the northern border. David Carrasco, the PAN candidate for mayor of the municipality of Julimes, and Jaime Orozco, candidate for mayor of Guadalupe y Calvo, were murdered in the northern state of Chihuahua. In both municipalities, the mayor exercised considerable authority over their respective small populations and was well positioned to influence cartel activity along drug routes. The 10 other political murders occurred in the center of Mexico, some distance from the course of traditional drug cartels. This suggests that the majority of political murders in the recent local elections were not related to drug trafficking, but to criminal activities that pitted one cartel against another in the North and one mafia against another in central and southern Mexico. Rosalía Palma, the PRI candidate for the municipal council in Oaxaca survived the assassination attempt, but she lost both her husband and her nephew in the fatal attack by a competing mafia family.

Sergio Aguayo, author and the voice for multiple social justice movements, estimates that 20 percent of those who voted in the July 7 elections voted under the threat of violence. This is three times higher than in the local elections of 2009. Aguayo asks: How many political officials were elected by a vote and how many were placed in their position by organized crime? We shall never know the answer, but the troubling fact is that the lines between politicians, policemen and criminals become harder to distinguish. The governing party, the PRI, contested all 900 municipal elections, but the opposition parties -- center-right PAN and leftist PRD -- registered no candidate in multiple municipalities in the northern states of Chihuahua, Durango and Tamaulipas due to insecurity. We shall continue to research both the failure to register candidates for mayors, as well as the withdrawal of candidates due to threats of violence.

Based on the growth of social movements dedicated to stopping the violence and three other factors, Guerrero expressed hope in his Brookings speech that Mexico’s landscape of insecurity can improve. He applauds the government strategy of focusing on the most violent criminal organizations, but warns that if law enforcement is otherwise absent, local citizens will create vigilante groups to protect themselves. Second, Guerrero notes that local gangs who previously worked for criminal organizations have shied away from collaborating with the cartels. Aware of the dangers and risks involved, recruitment is down. Finally, Guerrero recognizes and applauds the fact that both the federal government and some state governments have become more effective in containing the violence. To continue this effort, local intelligence sharing must improve and less reliance placed on U.S. sources.

The optimism of Guerrero and the pessimism of Aguayo are not necessarily contradictory. The changes in criminal behavior noted by Guerrero have resulted in the spread of violence throughout Mexico. When the officials considered necessary to facilitate criminal enterprises are up for the vote, political parties, local mafias and drug traffickers all compete to ensure the victory of their favorite. We may expect a reduction in political homicides in the months following these elections, but the manipulation of political parties to ensure that decisions comply with the will of local mafias and criminal cartels will not go away. This is a dangerous sport. Sicilians suffered the mafias’ control of politicians and elections for close to 30 years before its citizens rose up and demanded a cleansing of the political system. Guerrero emphasizes the importance of citizen protest through social movements to root out corruption. Indeed, Mexicans in the hundreds have begun to protest, but the movements will have to be better organized, demonstrate independence from ideology and sustain their demand for change before consistent results can be demonstrated. In Mexico, a decade of sustained citizen effort is needed.

Editor’s note: To read more from Dr. Eduardo Guerrero Gutiérrez, read The End of Nostalgia: Mexico Confronts the Challenges of Global Competition.

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