Demonstrators place missing persons posters for 43 students whose disappearance was later linked to José Luis de Abarca, mayor of the Mexican city of Iguala. AP

Crime syndicates have caught on to the power of mayors—for their own ends. What can be done to affect real change?

Apatzingán’s newly elected council members were met with a rude surprise on their first day in office a few years back: The mayor of the Mexican city, Uriel Chávez Mendoza, explained that a third of their monthly salaries would be taken by the powerful Knights Templar cartel. In an interview after the mayor himself was arrested in 2014 for extortion and ties to organized crime, the terrified council members recounted constant threats and pressure to tailor their decisions to the cartel’s needs. Mendoza even drafted legislation that would have handed over a third of the city’s budget to a cartel shell company.

Organized crime continues to spread throughout some countries in Latin America, and mayors’ offices are becoming prime targets. More and more criminal gangs are setting up shop in city hall, blackmailing for protection and resources, or swiftly doing away with those who threaten their illicit activities.

In an era where the position of mayor is being elevated to one of ever-increasing importance, well-connected criminals have taken notice of the same facts that policy wonks have: City hall is strategically important in controlling local policies that affect residents’ daily lives.

It is also an important revenue hub. Municipal governments provide a great avenue to launder illicit funds, skim cash from contracts, extort hapless underlings, hand out jobs to supporters, usurp local security forces’ muscle, and cover illegal activities such as drug smuggling.

Some of the most egregious examples lately have happened in Mexico, where systemic mayoral vulnerability to organized crime is well documented. In one of the most high-profile cases in recent years, Mayor José Luis de Abarca, the former mayor of the Mexican city of Iguala, and his wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, were arrested in 2014 in connection with the disappearance of 43 student protesters. They are suspected of ordering attacks on the students, and of ruling the town in collusion with a local gang, Guerreros Unidos.

On the other end of the spectrum is Gisela Mota, who was killed on Jan. 2, 2016, just a day after assuming office as mayor of the Mexican city of Temixco. Authorities said the murder was part of a regional campaign by another local gang, Los Rojos, aimed at controlling municipal governments and related public resources.

Other reports from around Latin America highlight the ways in which organized crime groups are targeting regional governments. In Honduras, the mayor of the town of Sulaco was arrested last year on charges of multiple homicide. In Guatemala, the mayor of the city of Antigua was arrested in January for alleged illicit association, extortion, and embezzlement. Also earlier this year, the mayor of the town of San Francisco Gotera in El Salvador was sentenced to 13 years in prison for drug trafficking.

Last year, Honduran national authorities said 35 mayors and deputy mayors were under investigation for connections to organized crime. At least six were suspected of collaborating with drug trafficking. In 2014, more than 90 percent of Peru’s mayors were under investigation for corruption—and nearly half of those were running for reelection.

Federico Gutiérrez, the new mayor of Medellín, Colombia, who has promised to pursue an aggressive security strategy for the city, has received death threats from major crime bosses and drug trafficking organizations in response, according to InSight Crime, a foundation tracking organized crime in Latin America. (Full disclosure: This group receives funding from the Open Society Foundations, for which I work as a consultant.) Though Medellín has come a long way since its days as the world’s murder capital.

This phenomenon is nothing new, according to Jeremy McDermott, a co-director and co-founder of InSight Crime. Criminals traditionally seek power through corruption of local police and through forging connections with the judiciary, municipal, and national governments, McDermott tells CityLab. “You always see an interaction between organized crime and key government institutions.”

“We’re seeing cases of these appearing, perhaps, more widely than we have before,” McDermott continues. He pins the increase in government infiltration on the spread of organized crime itself through the region. “Everywhere that drugs pass through, it’s like a cancer and it infects the transit nations,” he says. He sees a direct link between an increase in nations’ trafficking and corrupted mayors. “All of this organized crime has a knock-on effect. The development of national organized crime inevitably results in corruption, not only of security forces, but also politicians.”

Each country has its own specific criminal organizations and dynamics, however. McDermott notes that these are influenced by the power that municipal governments have. In Colombia, the police force is national, so mayors—unless they’re from major cities like Medellín—have traditionally had little influence over police when they fall in with gangs or other types of criminal influence.

In Mexico, on the other hand, municipal police forces answer to mayors. “So if you corrupt the mayor, then you can usually get the police force in line,” McDermott says.

Violence against mayors in Mexico is a major problem. Over the past decade, 37 mayors, seven mayors-elect, and 31 former mayors have been assassinated, according to the Mexican National Mayor’s Association. That organization estimates that there have been nearly 500 attacks by drug cartels and other organized crime groups on municipal figures over the past 20 years.

Alejandro Hope, the security editor for El Daily Post, emphasized the changing scale of organized crime in Mexico in an interview with CityLab. It makes targeting local government more relevant as gangs diversify their incomes to include extortion and robbery in addition to drug trafficking, he says.

Large-scale drug cartels have fragmented under a Mexican government policy of pursuing drug kingpins, which has, in turn, led to bloody turf wars. Splinter gangs are now focusing on local politics as a lucrative source of contracts and gang-supported appointments, such as that of police chiefs, explains author Ioan Grillo in a recent New York Times op-ed.

In some cases, criminal groups are forcing mayors to tithe 10 percent of their annual budgets to illegal activities, says Grillo. “With more than 2,000 mayors in Mexico, most of whom have little protection, the cartels have a big market to tap,” according to Grillo. “The combined booty is potentially worth billions of dollars a year.”

Douglas Farah, an American journalist focused on organized crime in Central America, found that, in recent years, drug smugglers have started running for—and winning—political office in rural areas of Central America’s Northern Triangle: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. He refers to the trend as a new “narco-municipality paradigm.”

There is “a trend where narcos have figured out that municipal power is a really good thing to have,” Farah tells CityLab. “They directly seek that, as opposed to power at a national level.” In many cases, these are major drug traffickers who grew up in small towns—and within smuggling families.

These criminals seek to be elected in their hometowns, as this allows them to more easily use city hall perks as a reward for local loyalty and as a cover for illicit activity and funds. Those in the most rural areas tend to be ignored by national authorities, according to Farah, “because they’re not really bothering anybody else. If anything, they’re giving back to the community more than they take out.”

Throughout the region, the issue boils down to how municipal governments can be strengthened in the face of an increasing onslaught from organized crime. But few solutions have been put forward. In Mexico, some politicians have proposed a “unified command” state police force, effectively removing mayors as a nexus for police corruption. But the results of such a policy are far from clear, Hope notes in a column for El Daily Post.

One promising option could come from Guatemala, where CICIG, the highly respected independent corruption commission backed by the United Nations, announced that it will be targeting municipal corruption this year, focusing on hubs of criminal activity enabled by local officials.

But perhaps it’s also time for national governments to take the same interest in mayors that the narcos already have. Who’s to say what kind of an impact mayors could have on the front lines against organized crime if they were reasonably protected from danger or death?

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