- Mexico is gearing up for a nationwide election this summer.
- Politicians and party officials are increasingly finding themselves at risk around the country.
- The government has promised to provide protection — and so have some narcos.
Mexico saw record violence in 2017, when its 25,339 homicide cases were the most in a year since the government began releasing data in 1997.
The homicide rate also rose to 20.51 per 100,000 people in 2017 from 16.8 per 100,000 in 2016 — higher than the 19.37 per 100,000 in 2011, the drug war’s peak.
Newly released data underscores the growing insecurity in the country, but for politicians, particularly those at the local level, the final months in 2017 and first months of this year were especially deadly.
Those politicians are preparing for general elections in July, when more than 3,400 positions — including the presidency, hundreds of federal legislature seats, and eight state governorships — will be up for grabs.
There are varying estimates of the toll this violence has taken.
Mexican news site Nacion321 reported last month that between September 2017 and the beginning of March, 58 political figures, including mayors, deputies, and candidates, were killed. Excelsior reported in mid-March that since September, 62 political figures, including candidates, mayors, former mayors, city councilors, and party members, were slain around the country. At the beginning of April, El Universal reported that 42 political figures, including mayors, former mayors, councilors, activists, and party functionaries, had been killed since September.
According to El Universal’s report, the most recent, killings took place in 16 states — the most in Guerrero, which had 12, eight in Oaxaca, and three each in Jalisco and Veracruz. Thirteen members of the governing center-right Institutional Revolutionary Party were slain, 10 from the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, and five from the conservative National Action Party. Morena and Movimiento Ciudadano, both leftist parties, had three members killed.
Historically, the trend is a new one.
“In the past, back in the ’80s and early ’90s, that was a rare occasion, but starting the early 2000s, especially when the cartels just became super-size, if you will, and especially when [President Felipe] Calderon went after them with a vengeance starting in 2007, then the cartels wanted protection,” Mike Vigil, former director of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration, told Business Insider in March
“At that point in time, there were so many cartels,” Vigil said. “They were all vying for power. They were all vying for territory, and they knew that in order to operate, they needed protection. So they would kill political candidates if they felt that they were not going to protect their interests.”
This year ‘has been bad’
The uptick has been attributed to Mexico’s political opening in the 1990s and 2000s, when the devolution of authority from the federal level to municipal authorities gave local officials more resources and a bigger role in dealing with criminal actors. Freer and fairer elections — and the resulting shifts in the balance of political power — also interrupted standing agreements between politicians and criminals.
As a consequence of those fragmented agreements, “drug-trafficking organizations started targeting locally elected authorities to deter unfriendly candidates, blackmail non-cooperative officials, buy-in collaboration, and ultimately show the reach of their power,” according to a report by the University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico program.
The first known case in recent decades of an aspiring, current, or former mayor being killed was in 2002, according to the report. “Since then, at least 150 mayors, mayoral candidates, and former mayors were killed through 2017, with an average of 10 victims per year and a peak of 20 assassinations in 2010,” the report states.
That violence has remained elevated. In 2016, when six of the country’s 2,435 mayors were slain, the likelihood a member of that group would be killed was 12 times higher than for a member of the general population and three times higher than for journalists, who have faced considerable danger in recent years.
“In every election cycle in Mexico, there’s an increase in violence against local politicians,” James Bosworth, founder of Hxagon, a political-risk analysis firm, told Business Insider.
“It tends not to be happening in Mexico City or Guadalajara or Monterrey … it tends to happen in more rural towns, but there is an increase, and this year it has been bad,” said Bosworth, whose work has focused on Latin America. “I don’t know exact numbers, but a significant number of local politicians have been threatened, have been shot at, [or] have been killed.”
The dynamics of the criminal underworld appear to have increased these dangers. Major criminal groups have weakened and fragmented, in part because of the government’s kingpin strategy, which targets organized-crime leaders. That pressure pushed criminals out of major metro areas into regions with limited government presence, Vigil said, and the remaining factions tend to have smaller territorial reach.
Alejandro Hope, a former official for Mexico’s civilian intelligence agency, said in January that fragmentation has made criminals more concerned about politics. “Organized crime has become more politicized because it’s become more local,” he said.
Smaller groups have also become more assertive, Bosworth told Business Insider.
“It’s not just big groups becoming smaller. There’s a lot of smaller groups that have increased their influence,” he said. “These sort of second- and third-tier criminal groups that are out there in Mexico, at the neighborhood level, they clearly have an interest in affecting local politics.”
“This is a local gang in charge of this city or even this neighborhood, deciding to go after local politicians, and in many ways that’s a much tougher problem for the Mexican government to solve,” he added.
Trying to guarantee candidates’ safety
Mexico’s Interior Ministry has offered a limited solution, presenting a protection plan for presidential candidates who request it. Candidates for the federal legislature can also request security.
But federal authorities aren’t the only ones making guarantees about candidates’ safety.
The bishop of the Chilpancingo-Chilapa dioceses in Guerrero state, Salvador Rangel Mendoza, said this week that narcos there promised not to kill political candidates or party figures, on the condition that those running for office not try to buy votes and fulfill their promises if elected.
“What they ask for is a free, just, and secret vote, nothing more,” said Rangel, a proponent of dialogue with criminal groups. He made the announcement after visiting a rural area in central Guerrero where two groups were fighting for control. He wouldn’t identify with whom he spoke.
That guarantee is almost certainly geographically limited and likely contingent on the whims of the criminals involved. And the government’s ability to protect candidates and challenge criminal groups remains limited, particularly in remote areas.
“The Mexican government too often just sort of lumps it in as, ‘Hey, that’s just crime. It happens,'” Bosworth said of attacks on political figures.
“When this many local politicians are targeted and killed, there’s clearly some political motivation behind some of these killings, and they need to be more thoroughly investigated,” he added. “The intellectual authors of the murders need to be brought to justice.”