“Today is a special day,” said Alma Barragan with excitement in a video she shared with her supporters. The video extended an invitation to a campaign event in the city of Moroleon in central Mexico on Tuesday. It was to be the 61-year-old mayoral candidate’s last video. She was shot dead the same day, in broad daylight.
Legislative, gubernatorial and local elections are all taking place on June 6 in one of the biggest elections Mexico has witnessed. According to the consulting firm Etellekt, Barragan was the 88th candidate to have been murdered this electoral season.
On Wednesday, Mexican President Manuel Lopez Obrador expressed his condolences and blamed organized crime groups for her death, saying it was a tactic to frighten voters. Analysts agreed that organized crime had a history of getting involved in election campaigns in Mexico but pointed out that the situation had gotten worse. “It shows that this government is not managing to master the violence,” security expert Alejandro Hope told DW.
University professor and political consultant Ruben Aguilar agreed: “Violence against electoral candidates has increased, as has violence throughout the country. It has reached a new high, with 85,000 deaths in the past three years. This shows that the security strategy has failed.”
Barragan had not been considered a favorite at the beginning of her campaign but she had gained in popularity with her fresh, unconventional style. Though there were no known threats against her, the city whose mayor she had hoped to become is located in the state of Guanajuato, which is the site of a violent turf war between rival organized crime groups.
Organized criminals target mayors
On the same day, Jose Alberto Alonso, the mayoral candidate for the beach resort town of Acapulco in the state of Guerrero on the Pacific Coast, survived a gunshot attack on his car and Pedro Kumamoto, the mayoral candidate for Jalisco, was sent a severed pig’s head as a threat.
Alejandro Hope explained that organized crime groups were more likely to target mayoral candidates than other politicians because mayors played a crucial role: “First, control of the municipal police is strategically important. Then, mayor’s offices are sources of information about the economic situation of local residents, which in turn is important for protection rackets. Third, there’s the issue of extorting money from the municipality or getting public contracts.”
According to Etellekt, this is the second-most violent election campaign in Mexico since 2000. The 2018 campaign, when Lopez Obrador and his leftist National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) and its allies came to power in Mexico City, was even more brutal. In a report published earlier this month, Etellekt warned that political violence was an attack on democracy and compromised the integrity, independence and autonomy of the future authorities.
Democracy at stake?
Hope, who worked with CISEN, Mexico’s top intelligence agency between 2008 and 2011, had a different view. “The vast majority of districts are peaceful,” he said. “The violence is focused and often it does not originate from organized crime but from political opponents. Or it is rooted in social conflict.” Aguilar was also not so pessimistic: “There are 22,000 offices at stake, 88 deaths is a relatively small percentage, but it is nonetheless a tragedy for Mexican democracy.” He said that rival candidates and even rivals within the same party who felt threatened were driving forces of the violence as well as organized crime groups.
Hope said that the government had acknowledged the problem but had not found an effective strategy to put an end to the violence: “The protective mechanisms that politicians — like journalists and human rights activists who are threatened — can request are purely reactive rather than preventive.”
He said that the murders were only the tip of the iceberg and that organized crime groups also had a less visible method in election campaign funding: “The electoral authorities have come up with control mechanisms, but in my opinion, they are not adequate. An ocean of dirty money continues to flow into the campaigns.”
“There is a 98% impunity rate for murders,” he added. “Any perpetrator can therefore assume that he will not be prosecuted.” He said that the incompetence of law enforcement agencies was one reason for this, but also the lack of political will.
Election observers concerned
Election observers from the North American Delian Project were able to see how little importance seemed to be attached to the issue of political violence during their weeks-long mission to Mexico. Jean-Pierre Kingsley, the former chief of Elections Canada, said that he was concerned about the increased attempts on the part of criminal groups to “buy” candidates and votes, the growing involvement of cartels in the electoral process, the absence of government control in certain regions and the tensions between the government and the election authority. Though the participants in the mission spoke with the representatives of several institutions and parties, they were not received by anybody from MORENA nor by Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard.
The ruling party has not set a good example generally. In 2015, the current president’s brother Pio Lopez Obrador was filmed accepting an envelope with large amounts of cash, suspected of being contributions for the movement.
So far, the investigation has run cold. Various MORENA candidates are wanted in the US. Rogelio Portillo Jaramillo, who is running for mayor in Huetamo in the state of Michoacan, is on the US Drug Enforcement Administration’s most-wanted fugitive list. The father-in-law of Evelyn Salgado, who is running for governor in Guerrero, has been arrested and accused of being involved in organized crime. Her husband and father were also investigated but without results.