Not since Mexico’s transition to democracy in the late 1980s has the country witnessed the high levels of political violence that have characterized the build-up to the July 7 local elections.
Local politicians across the country have been the target of death threats, arson attacks and shootings. Although organized crime and drug-related violence in Mexico and the government’s efforts to curb it have garnered recent global headlines, political violence is nothing new in the Mexican political arena. The intimidation of rival party candidates and their retinues has been a feature of the electoral process in Mexico for time immemorial. What is new is the increasingly influential role organized crime groups are playing and the potential for them to undermine the democratic process.
Organized criminal groups across the 14 states where the elections are taking place are bribing, threatening and attacking candidates, whether because they do not want them to run—presumably because they have already successfully co-opted a rival—or to intimidate them into turning a blind eye should they get elected.
Those who ignore such threats are often kidnapped or—in the worst case—killed. This was more than likely the case with Jaime Orozco, the national ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional—PRI ) candidate for the mayoral elections in the remote municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo (Chihuahua), whose body was found dumped on the side of the road on June 12. Orozco had allegedly been kidnapped by a group of armed men two days earlier.
Candidates from across the political spectrum have withdrawn from mayoral elections in droves, citing alleged death threats and a lack of guarantees of their safety. The majority have hailed from the so-called “Golden Triangle,” an important region for drug cultivation and trafficking, which spans the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango.More broadly, organized criminal groups are known to wield significant influence over local political figures to ensure that they—or the security officials they appoint—do not interfere in their operations. This was brought into the public domain when, in October 2012, a video of the mayor of Teloloapan (Guerrero), Jesús Valladares Salgado, of the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (Party of the Democratic Revolution—PRD), was uploaded to YouTube. The video showed him making an illicit agreement with members of La Familia Michoacana—a preeminent organized criminal group—to designate a “neutral” individual as chief of police in the area, adding to the public’s concern that organized crime has infiltrated municipal forces.
Family members of candidates are equally vulnerable. Nineteen-year-old Jesús Antonio Loaiza Zamora was found dead on June 30 on a dirt road outside Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state. The details surrounding Loaiza Zamora’s death remain unclear, but it is likely to have been politically motivated—his uncle, Amado Loaiza Perales, is the Transformemos Sinaloa (Let’s Transform Sinaloa) party candidate for the mayoral elections in San Ignacio municipality. Zamora’s father is Perales’ campaign manager. Only a day before, armed men ambushed a car in the vicinity of Tepescolula municipality in the southern state of Oaxaca, in which Rosalía Palma, a PRI–Ecological Green Party coalition candidate for the Oaxaca state legislature, was travelling. Her husband and daughter were killed in the attack.
Although political violence has implications for governance at a local level, it does not pose a direct threat to national political stability. Nevertheless, it does raise concerns over the federal government’s capacity to safeguard politicians at a local level, particularly in the build-up to elections.
Significantly, 10 of the 14 Mexican states where elections are taking place are governed by the PRI. Despite repeated calls from both the political opposition—including National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional—PAN) President Gustavo Madero—and members of his own party, President Enrique Peña Nieto has refused to intervene for fear of being accused of meddling in electoral processes. While his pre-election reticence is understandable, if the violence continues, sooner rather than later he will be forced to address another aspect of Mexico’s increasingly complicated security environment.