Mexico’s deadly elections: Crime groups target candidates in a fight for turf


TAXCO, Mexico — Mario Figueroa sat in his armored SUV, surrounded by bodyguards clutching semiautomatic rifles. The bulletproof vest was stashed behind the again seat.

Today, Figueroa not often travels with out his safety group. As a candidate for mayor of this Spanish colonial metropolis — as soon as common with American vacationers, now lashed by drug violence — the 53-year-old businessman has already taken a bullet within the chest.

“Now we have to be prepared for no matter occurs,” he mentioned. “We’re within the arms of God.”

Figueroa speaks throughout a marketing campaign rally this month in Tlamacazapa, on the outskirts of the town of Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)

Mexico is within the last days of one in all its most violent electoral campaigns in trendy occasions. Eighty-nine politicians have been killed since September, in keeping with the safety consulting agency Etellekt. Scores extra have been wounded or threatened. The marketing campaign has develop into a stark illustration of crime organizations’ quest to broaden their management of Mexico’s territory, a rising menace to this younger democracy.

Sunday’s midterm elections will decide the make-up of the decrease home of Mexico’s Congress and most state legislatures, in addition to almost half the 31 governorships. However the violence has centered largely on 1000’s of races for mayor and different native authorities posts.

“It is a wrestle for municipal energy,” mentioned Notre Dame political scientist Guillermo Trejo, who research political violence in Latin America. Crime teams “have found that gaining management over municipal governments and native economies and populations and territories is essential in the event that they need to survive within the very fierce struggles for drug-trafficking routes.”

A wood seller enters a church in Taxco el Viejo, part of the municipality that includes the city of Taxco.
A wooden vendor enters a church in Taxco el Viejo, a part of the municipality that features the town of Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)
Fátima Lechuga waits on a customer at her jewelry stand in Taxco while her 12-year-old daughter plays on her cellphone.
Fátima Lechuga waits on a buyer at her jewellery stand in Taxco whereas her 12-year-old daughter performs on her cellphone. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)
Wooden crosses are lashed together over a grave at the San Celso cemetery in Taxco.
Wood crosses are lashed collectively over a grave on the San Celso cemetery in Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)

TOP: A wooden vendor enters a church in Taxco el Viejo, a part of the municipality that features the town of Taxco. LEFT: Fátima Lechuga waits on a buyer at her jewellery stand in Taxco whereas her 12-year-old daughter performs on her cellphone. RIGHT: Wood crosses are lashed collectively over a grave on the San Celso cemetery in Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)

The battle for affect is advanced. There are politicians who resist crime teams and politicians who’re suspected of welcoming the gangs’ money or muscle. In some cities, a dominant trafficking group has imposed its favourite candidate. In others, rival armed teams again opposing events.

Then there’s Taxco, a picturesque silver-mining metropolis 100 miles south of Mexico Metropolis. Three of the 9 candidates for municipal president are protected by bodyguards. One other mayoral hopeful dropped out of the race after being kidnapped and crushed. Native branches of two main cartels — the Familia Michoacana and Jalisco New Era — are enjoying a murky position within the election.

[Violent criminal groups are claiming more territory and eroding the Mexican government’s control]

“We’ve reached an excessive,” mentioned Figueroa, a political novice who’s operating on the ticket of a small celebration, Fuerza por Mexico. He confessed to being nervous. “How might I not be?” he requested. “I’m not Superman. However somebody must deliver order to Taxco.”

Certainly, this once-peaceful metropolis has develop into an emblem of the social and financial toll of crime teams’ increasing presence in Mexico. Taxco stays an architectural jewel, with its 18th-century Baroque cathedral and a whole bunch of whitewashed, red-tile-roofed houses spilling down Atatzin Mountain. Vacationers nonetheless stroll its cobblestone alleys lined with silver jewellery outlets; they’re not often harmed. However homicides greater than tripled from 2007 to 2019, reaching 77, extortion is widespread and journalists self-censor for concern of being killed.

“Taxco was generally known as probably the most tranquil locations on the planet,” mentioned Roberto Hernández Mojica, a neighborhood chief of a miners union. “Now, at 10 p.m., there’s nobody exterior due to the violence. It’s affected us tremendously.”

Municipal police on patrol in Taxco.
Municipal police on patrol in Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)
A municipal police officer.
A municipal police officer. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)
A statue of Saint George slaying a dragon appears behind scaffolding in the Santa Prisca cathedral in the center of Taxco.
A statue of Saint George slaying a dragon seems behind scaffolding within the Santa Prisca cathedral within the middle of Taxco.
(Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)

TOP: Municipal police on patrol in Taxco. LEFT: A municipal police officer. RIGHT: A statue of Saint George slaying a dragon seems behind scaffolding within the Santa Prisca cathedral within the middle of Taxco.
(Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)

The mayoral marketing campaign right here received off to a bloody begin. Figueroa was getting out of his SUV close to his downtown residence on the night of Dec. 21 when a motorcyclist abruptly roared up, his face hidden by a helmet.

There was a crack; the bullet pierced the candidate’s lung. He was rushed to the hospital.

Final month, safety forces lastly arrested a suspect, the alleged native boss of the Familia Michoacana crime group. Figueroa mentioned he thinks the assault was a political hit. He recalled what the gunman had shouted earlier than opening hearth: “You’re not understanding the scenario with Parra.” Marcos Parra was the municipal president of Taxco, operating for reelection. Figueroa had accused his authorities of corruption in public works initiatives.

[The search for the disappeared points to Mexico’s darkest secrets]

“We’ve been very vital of the municipal president,” Figueroa mentioned. “So we expect that that’s the origin of the assaults towards me.”

In an interview, Parra scoffed on the allegations, saying his rival had no proof. “He’s in all probability going to accuse me of killing Kennedy, too,” he grumbled. If something, Parra mentioned, he’s the one being threatened. In current months, gunmen claiming to be from the Jalisco New Era cartel launched a video and hung banners on the town charging the mayor was a “rat” tied to the Familia Michoacana.

Marcos Parra, the National Action Party mayor of Taxco, is running for reelection.
Marcos Parra, the Nationwide Motion Social gathering mayor of Taxco, is operating for reelection. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)
A former state police officer, now Parra's personal bodyguard, holds a rifle as they return from a campaign rally in Taxco.
A former state police officer, now Parra’s private bodyguard, holds a rifle as they return from a marketing campaign rally in Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)

LEFT: Marcos Parra, the Nationwide Motion Social gathering mayor of Taxco, is operating for reelection. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up) RIGHT: A former state police officer, now Parra’s private bodyguard, holds a rifle as they return from a marketing campaign rally in Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)

Parra hardly seems like a gangster. The 67-year-old politician, with slicked-back hair and a meticulously pressed shirt, is the son of a former chief of the conservative Nationwide Motion Social gathering, a revered determine who was jailed within the 1960s for confronting Mexico’s authoritarian, one-party state. Parra mentioned he’d turned down invites from crime teams to satisfy. “I’ve by no means sat and negotiated with anyone” from the organizations, he declared. “Nor am I going to.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledged, operating Taxco has meant enduring fixed stress from the gangs, whose tentacles stretch into the police and justice system. When Parra moved again to the town to develop into mayor in 2018, it was so harmful he left his spouse and son in Acapulco, 150 miles away. Crime has declined since then, he mentioned, however there are nonetheless solely 40 municipal cops. He’d recruited 64 extra candidates, however they both flunked the take a look at or determined to not be a part of the pressure.

“Have been they threatened?” he mentioned. “I don’t know.”

[A Mexican mayor was jailed on drug charges. He continued to run his town. ]

Taxco’s challenges mirror these bedeviling many Mexican communities. Crime teams that after focused on exporting medicine to the USA have diversified into extortion, kidnapping and narcotics gross sales. A U.S.-backed effort to decapitate huge cartels induced them to splinter into competing bands. Heroin producers sought further routes, to reply to a rising American urge for food for the drug and to evade federal authorities.

Taxco at sunrise. A tourist destination known for its steep streets and silver jewelry, it has been racked by drug violence in recent years.
Taxco at dawn. A vacationer vacation spot identified for its steep streets and silver jewellery, it has been racked by drug violence in recent times. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)

A few of these roads in Guerrero state ran by this beautiful mountain metropolis, lengthy identified for its silver mines. Now it has a special geographical significance.

“The situation of Taxco is key for the passage of medicine and stolen vehicles,” Parra mentioned.

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The marketing campaign is shaping up as probably the most lethal in current Mexican historical past, surpassed solely by the run-up to the 2018 presidential election. Thirty-five candidates have been assassinated within the present contest, the overwhelming majority of them searching for municipal workplace, in keeping with Etellekt. (Fifty-four different politicians who weren’t searching for workplace this yr have additionally been killed).

The slain candidates got here from throughout the political spectrum, however Etellekt discovered that almost all had been attempting to oust the native governing celebration. The gangs have a lot at stake within the consequence of the races. “They need management of the police, management of public works initiatives, the price range, and illicit actions,” mentioned Marcial Rodríguez Saldaña, the state chief of Morena, the celebration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

As dramatic because the loss of life depend is, it doesn’t mirror the total scope of the gangs’ intimidation. In earlier election cycles, some candidates ignored the loss of life threats and carried on with their campaigns, mentioned Adrian Wences, state director of the small Residents’ Motion celebration. “Sadly, the threats had been carried out,” he mentioned. Now, “when they’re threatened, they drop out.”

A campaign poster for Figueroa hangs in the market where his family business is located.
A marketing campaign poster for Figueroa hangs out there the place his household enterprise is situated. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)

In current months, scores of candidates have both deserted their bids for workplace underneath stress or stopped campaigning. In a single high-profile case, a candidate for municipal president of Valle de Bravo, a resort city exterior Mexico Metropolis, gave up campaigning after she was kidnapped and threatened, in keeping with native information experiences. The candidate, Zudikey Rodríguez, who represents a coalition of events against Morena, subsequently insisted she was nonetheless within the race. “All through my life, I’ve by no means let concern maintain me again,” she mentioned in a video.

Whereas political events have denounced the violence, some may be benefiting from the cash and brute pressure of armed teams. “Actually what we’re seeing is a really dynamic sort of energy negotiation between either side,” mentioned Falko Ernst, senior analyst in Mexico for the Worldwide Disaster Group.

The electoral violence is concentrated in seven states, in keeping with the federal authorities, which has labored with native authorities to assign bodyguards for round 150 candidates. “We’re going to proceed offering safety,” López Obrador mentioned final week. He urged residents to not be afraid to vote on Sunday.

A photograph of Omar Jalil, right — along with pictures of other former Taxco municipal presidents — hangs at the entrance of the offices of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in the city.
{A photograph} of Omar Jalil, proper — together with footage of different former Taxco municipal presidents — hangs on the entrance of the workplaces of the Institutional Revolutionary Social gathering within the metropolis. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)
The newspaper founded by slain journalist Francisco Pacheco reports on the lack of progress in his case in a cover story this month.
The newspaper based by slain journalist Francisco Pacheco experiences on the shortage of progress in his case in a canopy story this month. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)
Pacheco's press card.
Pacheco’s press card. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)

TOP: {A photograph} of Omar Jalil, proper — together with footage of different former Taxco municipal presidents — hangs on the entrance of the workplaces of the Institutional Revolutionary Social gathering within the metropolis. LEFT: The newspaper based by slain journalist Francisco Pacheco experiences on the shortage of progress in his case in a canopy story this month. RIGHT: Pacheco’s press card. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Put up)

López Obrador boasts that Mexico’s murder price has stabilized after a number of years of explosive progress. However his insurance policies — which embody a brand new nationwide guard, and social applications to lure younger individuals from crime — haven’t considerably diminished the variety of murders.

The assaults on candidates mirror a broader effort by crime teams to exert management in Mexico. Tons of of reporters, human rights defenders, environmental activists and clergymen have been killed in recent times. In Taxco, journalist Francisco Pacheco was gunned down in 2016 after publishing stinging criticism of the federal government of then-Mayor Omar Jalil. The politician is searching for to return to metropolis corridor on this yr’s election. He has denied any wrongdoing and mentioned in an interview that Pacheco might need been focused as a result of he lined crime.

Like most murders in Mexico, Pacheco’s hasn’t been solved. His son, Ali, mentioned it served as a warning to others in a area the place crime gangs share energy with elected officers.

“The message was very clear,” he mentioned. “Stay silent.”





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