Around 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning earlier this month, a convoy of trucks carrying heavily armed men entered the small, rural town of Ignacio Zaragoza, about 200 miles south of El Paso in the Mexican border state of Chihuahua.
A half-hour later, a dozen buildings were ablaze and eight people were dead. The extreme violence was targeted against candidates and officials with a left-leaning political party hoping to gain seats in upcoming municipal elections. Liliana García, a city council candidate with the Revolutionary Democratic Party, known as the PRD, was among those assassinated. Mayoral candidate Felipe Mendoza, also a PRD member, disappeared, his businesses burned to the ground and three of his campaign workers killed.
The May 7 Ignacio Zaragoza massacre was the latest in a series of killings that have claimed the lives of a record number of Mexican political candidates ahead of July 1 elections, when citizens will choose not just a new president, but thousands of state and local officeholders.
According to the Mexico City-based risk analysis firm Etellekt, at least 35 political candidates have been killed since the campaign season started in September. An additional 60 sitting officeholders were killed over the same time period. The firm has counted more than 300 “aggressions,” which include threats and assaults, against candidates and elected officials in 222 municipalities, a staggering 9 percent of the Mexican political landscape.
Some experts say the violence threatens to topple democratic norms in wide swaths of the country.
As a result of the violence, candidates have dropped out of local races by the hundreds, leaving electoral vacuums in parts of Mexico. In the state of Chihuahua alone, more than 80 candidates have withdrawn from their races, according to the state election secretary. The Excelsior newspaper has counted more than 1,000 resignations across the country.
“It’s a troubling phenomenon, but what’s troubling is not just the violence, but the underlying causes of the violence,” said Michael Lettieri, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs, in an interview.
As powerful drug trafficking cartels have fractured into smaller crime groups in recent years, they have branched into peripheral activities like oil theft, extortion of local businesses and kidnapping, activities that bring them into more conflict with local authorities.
To some extent, the violence is aimed at installing friendly politicians or ensuring local police won’t interfere. But Lettieri said some groups now view municipal governments themselves as money-making opportunities. In the state of Michoacán, crime groups have demanded a percentage of municipal budgets. In other parts of the country, they have demanded lucrative construction contracts or forced local officials to put cartel members on municipal payrolls.
That means elected officials and government workers have become “unavoidable targets,” according to Lettieri.
“The central problem is not necessarily the potential for corruption of elected officials,” he wrote in a January analysis. “But the risk that local politics become a sort of plaza, disputed by competing groups.”
Presidential candidate not running scared
Against that backdrop, some analysts and supporters have expressed alarm about the lack of personal security for presidential front-runner Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who famously campaigns around the country without a noticeable presence of bodyguards. In April, he generated headlines when he attended a campaign rally with no apparent security detail in the tumultuous border city of Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen and suffering from a protracted battle between cartels.
López Obrador, a left-leaning populist making his third run for the presidency, leads most polls by double digits, and analysts say the race is his to win. A López Obrador presidency would mark a dramatic shift from the current administration of Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolution Party, known as the PRI, and some experts believe he would challenge the United States on issues like Central American migration and security.
On the campaign trail, López Obrador has signaled he might step back from the strategy of direct military confrontation against the cartels and has floated the idea of providing amnesty in exchange for the laying down of weapons.
The candidate, who left the PRD six years ago to form a new party called MORENA, has remained unconcerned about his personal safety during the campaign.
“My conscience is very clear; he who fights for justice has nothing to fear,” he told the newspaper Tabasco Hoy. “I don’t bring protection, and I’m going to keep acting the same way. Nothing is going to happen.”
His campaign manager has said the candidate is more worried about “espionage” than his personal security.
But Mexico is just 25 years removed from its most notorious campaign trail assassination. In 1994, another presidential front-runner, Luis Donaldo Colosio, was killed in Tijuana during a rally. Colosio had vowed to reform the PRI, which at the time was in the midst of what some scholars call the party’s “perfect dictatorship,” a 71-year run of uninterrupted rule based on deep electoral corruption. Though Colosio’s killing remains unsolved, many believe his political enemies sought to prevent the reforms he advocated.
López Obrador supporter Alejandro Solalinde, a well-known human rights activist and priest, has said he worries about political violence in the current climate, with a bitterly divided electorate and more traditional candidates aligned with entrenched interests trailing badly in polls.
“If they killed Colosio … my worry is that the same thing could happen to Andrés Manuel López Obrador,” he said earlier this year at a press conference in Oaxaca. “If they have taken out members of the opposition in a violent way, what says they won’t do the same with Andrés Manuel?”
Recently, a well-known Mexican columnist was fired from several outlets after appearing to float the idea of a López Obrador assassination on Twitter.
The statements by the journalist, Ricardo Alemán, have echoed the dark language used against López Obrador for more than a decade. During his ill-fated 2006 presidential run, López Obrador’s opponents labeled him a “danger to Mexico,” a strategy that some analysts credit with both Felipe Calderón’s razor-thin victory and an ever-increasing polarization of Mexico’s political life at the national level.
PRI members targeted most often
Yet the vast majority of violence this election season has not stemmed from clear political or ideological differences. The Etellekt firm’s analysis shows assassinations have been spread throughout the country’s major parties, with 32 assassinations of candidates and officeholders with the ruling PRI, 17 with leftist PRD, 10 with the conservative National Action Party, known as PAN and six with López Obrador’s MORENA. The PRI has the largest footprint at the local level.
Laura Calderón, an analyst with the Justice in Mexico project at the University of California-San Diego, likewise found little correlation between political parties and the slayings of Mexican mayors between 2002 and 2017.
“There is enough evidence as to say that corruption is not exclusive to a single political party,” she found in a January study. “(T)here is no substantial basis to target one political party over the other under the assumption that they tend to be more corruptible and bought by organized crime groups.”
The bulk of recent assassinations have taken place in the center of the country, the scene of fights between crime groups over drug-producing areas, as well as the profitable practice of theft from pipelines belonging to the national oil company Pemex. Chihuahua and fellow border state Tamaulipas have seen a combined seven assassinations, according to Etellekt.
In Ignacio Zaragoza, rival bands connected to the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels have been fighting an extended battle for control that has consistently targeted political officials. In March, the municipality’s treasurer, a PAN member, was taken from his government office by armed men. His body was later found in a neighboring town. According to El Heraldo de Chihuahua, politicians in the town have long been linked to the warring cartels.
State officials with the PRD, to which the kidnapped mayoral candidate and slain city council aspirant in Ignacio Zaragoza belonged, have called on the federal election commission to suspend elections in the region.
Lettieri said the violence represents a fundamental threat to democracy in Mexican towns and cities, a sad irony given that political action at the municipal level helped bring the PRI’s uninterrupted rule of the country to an end in 2000, when Vicente Fox of the PAN won the presidency.
“Local elections is where you saw democratic culture take root, where democracy started in its embryonic form,” he said. “The risk is that if you have a withdrawal from local politics because of fear, you could have a rollback of democracy at the local level.”
Despite the grim panorama, Lettieri believes there is reason for hope. He points to the state of Sinaloa, home to one of the country’s most powerful cartels, where there has been a rebirth of civic activism in some cities, as citizens struggle to reclaim public spaces.
“We have to pay attention locally,” he said. “That’s where there are risks, but also possibilities.”
High stakes for Texas in Mexican elections
This story is part of the American-Statesman’s in-depth coverage of the July 1 Mexican presidential election, which will have significant consequences for the evolving relationship between Mexico and the U.S.
The stakes for the U.S. and Texas are high: Mexico’s next president will shape issues including the flow of Central American migrants to the Texas border, the cooperation with the U.S. in Mexico’s drug war and the future of commerce with Texas’ top trading partner.
A record number of Mexican immigrants living in the United States and Central Texas are expected to vote, potentially playing a crucial role in determining Mexico’s next leader.