The hardest thing about running for local office in some parts of the country isn’t putting up the yard signs and knocking on doors.
Antonia Jaimes Moctezuma was in her restaurant, El Toreo, in Chilapa, Guerrero on February 21 when two men on motorbikes pulled up to the restaurant and started firing shots. She was hit four times and killed.
Jaimes Moctezuma was running for a seat in the state assembly to represent the 25th district of Guerrero for the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). Four days later, the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) candidate for the same assembly seat, Dulce Nayeli Rebaja, was also killed. Neither murder has been solved.
On July 1, Mexico holds federal, state and local elections: 1,600 towns and cities will elect new mayors, out of more than 3,000 posts up for election. While presidential front-runner Andres Manuel López Obrador has inspired hope in many Mexicans and taken a strong lead in the polls, at the local level, many campaigns are trailed by fears of deadly violence.
Running for local office here takes more than yard signs and door-knocking. In the shadow of a heated presidential race, local politicians across the country are facing threats from organized crime. Since the electoral cycle began in September, 26 politicians, public servants, and candidates have been killed in Guerrero alone. Nationwide, the statistics are staggering: during this campaign season, 48 candidates and pre-candidates have killed, out of a total of 132 politicians killed (including politicians in office, campaign staff and public servants) according to the Etellekt consulting firm.
A group of nonprofit organizations released the “Atlas of Political-Electoral Risk” on June 7, which includes data going back to 2006. They found that most violence against politicians took place in Guerrero and Oaxaca, followed by Chihuahua. Members of the PRI suffered the most aggressions, followed by the PRD and the National Action Party (PAN). The centrist PRI held the Mexican presidency for seven decades, up to 2000, when the right-wing PAN came into power. The left-leaning PRD, which fielded López Obrador in his first two presidential runs, has faltered in recent years, and is now in coalition with the PAN at the national level. López Obrador split with the PRD after the 2012 election, and founded Morena.
According to Mexico’s National Mayors Association (ANAC), which contributed to the Atlas, at least 131 mayors, ex-mayors, and mayors-elect have been murdered since 2006. Most attacks are attributed to organized crime—gunmen sent by a local cartel leader to discourage votes for an opposition party or punish a candidate who resisted bribes.
Yolanda Tellería, mayor of the mid-sized city of Pachuca and president of ANAC, says that municipalities—equivalent to U.S. counties—face the most pressure from organized crime.
“We’re in the eye of the hurricane [as mayors],” said Tellería, referring to the presence of organized crime in many municipalities that have small public security budgets. Her city, Pachuca, is the capital of Hidalgo, north of Mexico City. “The municipality is the entity that has the most contact with citizens, but we are the least protected, because our resources are limited.”
ANAC has proposed a security protocol for local politicians, who unlike federal or state officials, do not receive protective services from the government. Some towns, like Ignacio Zaragoza in Chihuahua, have called for their elections to be postponed after a spate of killings.
The wave of violence towards local politicians is just one side effect of Mexico’s decade-long war on drugs, which has dragged on since 2007. While outgoing PRI president Enrique Peña Nieto promised to bring down violence, the murder rate has gone up during his presidency: 2017 was the deadliest year of the drug war so far, with the murder rate inching up to 20.51 per 100,000 people (the U.S. was at 5.35 in 2016). The military has patrolled the streets of some Mexican cities during the drug war, and their right to do so was extended this January, when legislators passed the Internal Security Law, which indefinitely grants policing responsibilities to the Armed Forces.
“This isn’t a new phenomenon,” said Amalia Pulido, a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of North Texas. “What is new is the magnitude, and the numbers of candidates being killed.”
Pulido, who is from Mexico, researches how organized crime influences the electoral process at the municipal and state levels. “Since the democratic transition,” she says, referring to 2000, when the PRI lost the presidency for the first time, “the local level became an important space for illegal activities and organized crime. In terms of cost, it’s much cheaper to try and influence officials [locally].”
The degree of political corruption and collusion between narco-criminals and officials is a matter of some dispute. Some politicians are targeted because they refuse to cooperate with organized crime, but media reports often criminalize all murdered politicians, Pulido says, by implying that they were killed because they broke “pacts” with organized crime. “Not all the killings fit into a logic of collusion,” Pulido says. “We have to go beyond those explanations.”
Researchers Guillermo Trejo of Notre Dame University and Sandra Ley of the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City found that since 2011, organized crime adopted a strategy to pressure municipal governments. Their 2015 study found that violence against politicians was most likely in municipalities that fit two criteria: where there is violent competition between cartels, and in municipalities with the most fiscal autonomy. When the municipal government has more control over its budget, criminal groups resort to extortions to finance their activities.
Few politicians are willing to go on the record on the matter, but Mexican news outlet Sin Embargo spoke to the mayor of one Michoacan town in 2014, who said that the Caballeros Templarios cartel threatened him with violence if he did not give them 10 percent of the municipality’s public works budget.
Most of the murders this electoral cycle remains unsolved, and countless candidates have withdrawn due to the threat of violence. Pulido voices the concern of many Mexicans when she wonders, “How can we exercise our democratic rights if we are going through this wave of targeted violence?”
The political violence is having a profound effect on how services are delivered. In the municipality of Chilapa, Guerrero, an hour east of the state capital Chilpancingo, the local government is in the crosshairs of two criminal organizations battling to control the region. In 2016 alone, seven municipal bureaucrats were killed. “Practically all aspects of local government have been impacted,” says Manuel Olivares Hernández, president of the Morelos Regional Human Rights Center, based in Chilapa. “The streets are full of potholes, public lighting doesn’t get repaired. We had a crisis for two months without water in the county seat. … All of this is a consequence of organized crime.”
It’s impacting public transportation, too. Criminal groups try to control the local bus companies, which receive permits from the government to operate. In the fall of 2017, service was suspended for more than two weeks, he says. “From Chilapa to Chilpancingo there are three bus lines, but at one point none of them were operating.” He says that drivers feared being killed while on the job.
The military now patrols the streets of Chilapa, where Jaimes Moctezuma was gunned down in February. But Olivares thinks that’s not a long-term solution to the problem. “We need to professionalize the police, train them, improve salaries, and have a citizen council to monitor them,” he says.
Perhaps most troublingly, violence against elected officials has had a chilling effect on the political lives of ordinary citizens in the region: As this year’s campaigns come to a close, Chilapa residents avoid discussing their political affiliations, and campaign events for local politicians are sparsely attended, says Olivares.
“In Guerrero,” he said, “campaigns are carried out under conditions of fear—for both the political parties, the candidates, and the general population.”