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The Guardian

‘Huge incentives to kill’: Mexico crime groups target election candidates

At least 34 candidates have been murdered since campaigning began in April, with the assassination clear-up rate close to zero Friends and family mourn during the wake of mayoral candidate Alma Barragan.She was killed while campaigning for the mayorship of the city of Moroleon, in violence-plagued Guanajuato state. Photograph: Armando Solis/AP Tuesday started off like any other day on the campaign trail for José Alberto Alonso, a union leader running for mayor in the Mexican beach resort of Acapulco: he kissed his family goodbye, boarded his Nissan Extreme SUV and headed off to start knocking on doors. But barely 200m from his home, a motorcycle closed in and the pillion passenger pulled a handgun, peppering the car with bullets. Alonso’s bodyguard returned fire, and the attackers fled. The candidate had escaped injury, but was later sent to hospital suffering from stress. “When you get into politics, you know there could be repercussions, but never to this degree” said Alonso, 36, from his sickbed. The Fuerza por Mexico candidate for mayor of Acapulco, Jose Alberto Alonso Gutierrez, speaks from the hospital where he is recovering from the attack. Photograph: David Guzmán/EPA Mexico has suffered an especially bloody and violent campaign season ahead of midterm elections on 6 June when the country will renew its 500-seat lower house of congress, pick governors in 15 of its 32 states and elect hundreds of mayors and local legislators. At least 34 candidates have been murdered since campaigning started on 6 April, while dozens more have been targeted and attacked. Mexican authorities have logged 398 threats or attacks on candidates. Much of the violence occurs in states like Guerrero, south of Mexico City, where numerous crime factions battle over the opium poppy trade and run extortion rackets and kidnapping rings in Acapulco. Few cases are ever solved, though the federal government has been providing protection to candidates in rough corners of the country. Forensic investigators work at a scene where assailants left a package and a threat message taped to the gate of the house of Leticia Castillo, a candidate of the Social Encounter party (PES) in Ciudad Juárez earlier this month. Photograph: José Luis González/Reuters “Criminal groups have learned their lesson over the past few years that no matter what they do – including killing candidates or attacking public institutions – there are no consequences,” said Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group. “If we look at the performance of Mexican judicial institutions in actually solving the murders of politicians, it’s pretty much zero. That creates huge incentives to kill candidates and get away with it.” Many of the attacks target candidates for local government as criminal groups seek to increase their territorial control. “The point of gaining control over the next mayor is to assure that this mayor guarantees access to two prize resources: public money and the police,” said Gema Kloppe-Santamaría, a Mexican crime investigator at Loyola University Chicago. Campaigning has been suspended in dozens of municipalities around the country due to violence. The ruling Morena party stopped campaigning in the southern part of the state of Mexico – the country’s most populous region, which wraps around Mexico City – after an ambush in March killed 13 state and federal police officers. Morena’s party president Mario Delgado tweeted on Friday that he and two other politicians were intercepted by gunmen with assault weapons in the state of Tamaulipas, a hotbed of organised crime, but released unharmed. “There are some municipalities where you campaign, but can’t talk about municipal matters, others where you can bring in a campaign team, but can’t hold rallies,” said Isaac Monroy, the Morena delegate in state of Mexico. The attacks have been brazen. Earlier in May, a former state prosecutor was gunned down on a street while campaigning for mayor in northern Sonora. On Tuesday, Alma Barragán was killed while holding a rally in the conflict-riven state of Guanajuato. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador says his government is providing protection for candidates. But he also accused the media of sensationalising the murders to make his government look bad. Criminal groups often offer public servants the choice of “silver or lead” – take their bribes or face death. “There’s a lot of blackmail, and those who say no end up like this,” said Ramón Bernal García, a former detective running with the small Fuerza por México party near Mexico City. Some violence and intimidation is also down to rival political parties, Bernal said. A bodyguard for Institutional Revolutionary Party mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia takes his assault rifle from the back of the armoured SUV they travel in, during one of Valencia’s campaign stops in Morelia, Michoacan state. Photograph: Marco Ugarte/AP Alonso never received any threats, although he says in retrospect there were signs of trouble. Campaign signs bearing his boyish face were stolen and vandalised. Some campaign staff received veiled warnings to stop their work. He was still unable to say what motivated the assassination attempt – especially as Fuerza por México, the party he helped found, is contesting its first election and polling in the low single digits nationally. But he said he was determined to stay in the race. “I’ve received a lot of kind messages from people who are fed up with crime,” he said. “It hit me today because I’m a candidate, but I’ll be a spokesman for all those suffering violence here in Acapulco.”