Mexican democracy stained with blood

“It is the first time that violence and narcotrafficking has affected the electoral process,” stated Luis Carlos Ugalde ex-president of the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) last Sunday. The same day, voters in 14 of Mexico’s 31 states went to the polls to choose state governors, mayors and local deputies. But many Mexicans did not vote and the states most plagued by drug violence recorded low levels of voter turnout. In both Tamaulipas and Chihuahua – two geographically large states that border the United States - less than 40% of registered voters went to the polls. Both states have seen fierce violence over the last months due to drug cartels fighting for control over the trafficking routes to the US.

Mr Ugalde further commented that drug trafficking has been happening in Mexico for the last 20 years however this is the first time that it has interfered in the elections, the first time that ballot boxes have been prevented in going to their designated locations and the first time that the IFE has been prevented from doing its job.

The main incident that has marked the violence of the 2010 Mexican elections was the execution of Rodolfo Torre Cantu on the 29th of June. The candidate from the main opposition PRI party was running for governor of Tamaulipas before he was ambushed and executed alongside several members of his entourage (photos above) while travelling to the airport. Tamaulipas had previously been the seen of fierce battles between Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel and citizens have expressed concern over the impunity with which these criminal elements acted within the state. The daily newspaper La Reforma later reported that the men who killed Torre where dressed in uniforms similar to Mexican Marines and had cloned military vehicles. Despite Rodolfo’s death the PRI still won the Tamaulipas governorship as his brother Egidio took up the candidacy and won a landslide victory - he wore a bulletproof vest while casting his own vote.

In Chihuahua it is unsurprising that many people did not vote because of the fear of violence. In the state, where the murder-plagued city of Ciudad Juarez is located, there were 24 people executed throughout the election day, four of which were found hanging from bridges around the state. However that figure is not particularly high for the state as Ciudad Juarez accounts for one in four of drug related murders in the whole of Mexico.

In Durango, another state that has seen increasing violence linked to drug trafficking, there were reports that in small towns armed men drove voters away from polling stations. On Sunday there were also executions linked to the elections in the states of Chiapas, Hidalgo and Sinaloa.

Torre has not been the only political victim of this years bloody election campaign and since March many officials working on election campaigns for all three main parties have been executed. Many more have received death threats from elements of organised crime determined to influence the outcome of these local elections. Many election observers, whose presence is meant to deter fraudulent activities, where not able to oversee activities. An estimated 550 polling officials did not turn up to their posts because of the fear of violence, meaning that some citizens who braved the heavily armed gunmen in support of democracy found their polling stations unmanned. The Mexican press has reported that a mixture of fear and political disenchantment was responsible for the low voter turn out despite the large-scale federal operation to try and provide a secure voting environment. The 27,000 deaths linked to the drug war since 2006 has meant that many Mexicans have lost faith in the authorities ability to protect them. The risks of running for election have been so great that this year there has been a shortage of candidates. The brave candidates who do run are under constant armed guard and never make their daily schedules public. They do not hold rallies at nighttime and are in a constant game of cat and mouse with the armed men trying to kill them. They announce they will have a rally in one location and turn up in another. For many Mexicans this is proof of how drug trafficking has permeated into their democratic system and another reason to become disenchanted.

Many suspect that if a governor survives the election campaign it is because he is protected by one of the cartels. Last week a newspaper article the day before the election accused the then current governor of Tamaulipas Eugenio Hernandez Flores of using a man with links to Los Zetas as a bodyguard. Ismael Marino Ortega Galicia, who is wanted by the US authorities for links with drug trafficking, has been pictured beside the governor at public events. According to protected witnesses who have testified about illegal activity during the last election it is commonplace for drug cartels to offer their favoured mayoral candidate an initial fee and then if they are elected they receive a monthly stipend. The candidate’s chances of success are increased by the fact that his financial supporters are also trying to murder his political opposition. Mexican citizens are so accustomed to such malpractice that many seem to ignore allegations of links with drug trafficking. Last week a Juarez citizen was asked by the El Paso Times for his opinion on the new mayor Héctor "Teto" Murguía who has been accused of having “narco ties.” The man replied "Mejor diablo conocido que diablo a conocer," which translates to "better the devil you know than the devil you don't."

A leading Catholic Bishop has also made strong statements about the damage that illegal drugs trade is having on the Mexican democratic system. Bishop Vera Lopez commented on the influence that the drug cartels have on government institutions and the electoral process, he said that local governors give the cartels the “green light” to do what they want. He also mentioned that journalists are on the cartel payroll and do not report many of the drug cartel operations. By having the power to influence the local elections the drug cartels can enter at the root of the democratic system.

Politically the drug cartels motives are complex. It would seem that the obvious goal universally for all the different drug cartels would be to use their influence to usher in a PRI government. The PRI ruled Mexico for more than 80 years before being ousted by the PAN in 2000, they were well known for corruption especially at a local level and many critics believe that they turned a blind eye to drug trafficking. To many Mexicans it might also be favourable to oust the current ruling PAN party because violence has increased significantly since Calderon started his war against drug trafficking. The current government has also lost support because of its use of the military against the drug cartels. Many people say that the soldiers are no better than the gunmen and have accused them of robbery, rape and assault. The current situation has also provided an incentive for drug cartels to increase the violence hoping that Mexicans will realise that they were safer under the PRI. This has lead to an increase in indiscriminate attacks where innocent civilians have been targeted. However there does not seem to be a distinct pattern amongst the recent political executions and candidates or officials from all main parties have been murdered. These elections have demonstrated the destructive rivalries between the cartels, which is the main cause of the increase in violence. The government attempts to take on the cartels head on has largely fuelled these rivalries as arrests of high profile kingpins only create power vacuums which are fought over.

Although the PRI seemed to have the gained the most victories in the elections the framework of the democratic system has been heavily eroded. In many cases it might not matter if the governor, mayor or local deputy is PRI, PAN or PRD his decisions will still be heavily influenced by the interests of organised crime which in many cases will override the official party line. The main irony is that what is increasingly turning into a “narco-democracy” only lies at America’s back door and forms the third art in the North American Free Trade Agreement. While US foreign policy has been focused on importing western style democracy to the Middle East what has been happening south of the border has in many ways been neglected. The drug cartels that have heavily influenced these elections are still funded by US cocaine consumers and are armed with high-powered assault rifles freely available on the US side of the border. It is time that the big men in the White House took some responsibility for this bloodshed and made some sensible steps to address this very serious situation.

Select newsletters to receive