Gangs are playing a bloody role in shaping the future of Mexico by assassinating dozens of politicians ahead of country-wide elections on July 1.
At least 120 politicians have been murdered since September, including 18 mayoral candidates, according to the risk consultancy firm Etellekt. The majority of the victims were assassinated on the campaign trail or gunned down before they could officially register as political candidates.
The killings have impacted all political parties and have happened largely in far-flung regions of the country, experts say. A majority of the victims were shot and most of the cases remain unsolved.
Most of the politicians have been targeted by drug cartels, according to Vincente Sanchez, a professor of public administration at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte in Tijuana.
“Criminal gangs want to be sure that in the next government, they can maintain their power networks, which is why they are increasing their attacks,” Sanchez said.
He told Reuters in April that crime bosses are looking to install friendly lawmakers in positions of power, and scare off tough-on-crime candidates who might threaten their business.
Some 3,400 political posts are up for grabs at the local, state and federal levels in this election, which is still expected to go forward on Sunday.
Security expert Alejandro Hope says a number of gangs are using the election campaign to take their criminal empires to the next level.
“With the evolution of crime, it becomes much more important to gain control over territory, over local governments,” Hope said.
Drug cartels are targeting political candidates whom they don’t trust, or whom they believe pose a threat to existing arrangements with corrupt government officials, Hope said.
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Gangs have been targeting politicians, journalists and priests in Mexico for years, but the surge in political killings has taken authorities by surprise, according to Monica Serrano, a professor of international relations at the Colegio de Mexico.
“This is something that is affecting certain parts of the country but not the whole territory, and not in a way that threatens the election itself,” Serrano said.
Serrano adds that the death toll of politicians does not include loved ones and supporters who may have also been targeted by organized crime.
“It’s not only candidates themselves. It’s also their families,” she said.
Two mayoral candidates were killed within 24 hours in the weekend before the election, with one case leading to the arrest of an entire police force.
Businessman Fernando Angeles Juarez, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, was shot to death outside his hotel in the rural township of Ocampo on June 21, where he had been running for mayor. The rural township is approximately 150 kilometres west of Mexico City, and has been plagued by illegal logging and gangs.
The murder drew the attention of Michoacan state law enforcement, who turned up in Ocampo to arrest the director of public security in connection with the incident.
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Local police stepped in and blocked the arrest, prompting state police to return with more troops over the weekend. All 28 local officers, including the chief of police, were taken into custody.
“All the officers of the Ocampo municipal police force were detained for [an] internal affairs investigation,” Michoacan state police said.
Serrano says a number of police in certain states have been “found to be in bed with organized crime and [are] becoming either the perpetrators or accomplices in these cases.”
Angeles Juarez was killed less than 24 hours after another mayoral candidate was gunned down in Aguililla, another town in Michoacan.
Omar Gomez Lucatero, who was running as an independent, was shot dead in the rural community on June 20.
Aguililla is an extensive but sparsely populated mountain township where drug gangs and vigilantes have been active.
Hope says gang-related disputes have started to boil over more frequently in rural parts of Mexico, where turf wars are leaving the government over-extended and less able to intervene.
“There has been a breakdown in the management of disputes,” he said.
The violence against politicians has been at its highest in states such as Michoacan, Guerrero and Oaxaca, along Mexico’s Pacific coast.
Some of the killings have also occurred in Puebla, a state bordering on Guerrero and south of Mexico City.
Mexico’s election campaign has been peppered with stories of gruesome or bizarre killings.
Congressional candidate Fernando Puron was shot in the head while posing for a selfie earlier this month in Piedras Negras, a community near the U.S.-Mexico border. The killing was captured on surveillance video.
Puron had taken a strong stance against organized crime, which may have made him a target, Serrano said.
“He was killed in cold blood in a very tragic manner,” she said.
Three female candidates, Juana Irais Maldonado, Pamela Teran and Erika Cazares, were killed within 24 hours at the beginning of June. The women were found dead in two separate incidents after campaign events.
Some of the politicians have been murdered for standing up to crime, while others have been targeted for simply being in league with the non-dominant local gang, Serrano said.
But with Mexico’s political parties reluctant to refuse candidates with gang ties, she says it’s hard to keep organized crime from getting involved in the election.
“The problem is the risk of some of the candidates, in effect, representing the interests of organized crime being elected,” Serrano said.
Local results in the July 1 election will help decide the presidency, governorships and seats in Mexico’s Congress, amid escalating tensions with the United States.
Whoever takes over from current President Enrique Pena Nieto will also inherit a country fraught with crime, with the highest murder rate on record.
Leftist, anti-establishment candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is widely expected to win the presidency on Saturday. The former mayor of Mexico City enjoyed a healthy lead in the polls in the final week of the campaign.
“We’re the only ones that can put an end to corruption in Mexico,” Lopez Obrador told supporters earlier this year in Cintalapa, a town in the impoverished south of the country.
Commonly known as AMLO, Lopez Obrador has bounced back from two presidential election defeats, two gubernatorial losses and a 2013 heart attack to position himself as the favoured choice to solve Mexico’s problems.
The blunt-talking, headstrong 64-year-old has often been compared to U.S. President Donald Trump, with whom he may wind up sparring over border issues and a new North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
“There’s going to be a clash of vanities, a clash of egos, and who knows where it will end,” said Juan Jose Rodriguez Prats, a former party colleague, friend and later adversary of Lopez Obrador who has known him for 40 years.
Lopez Obrador caused a major stir in Mexico City after his first presidential defeat, when he lost by a narrow margin in 2006. “AMLO” claimed he had been robbed, and declared himself the “legitimate” president in a weeks-long protest that brought parts of Mexico City to a standstill.
Lopez Obrador’s chief rival is Ricard Anaya, who leads a coalition of right- and left-leaning parties.
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— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press
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