Mexican Cartel Strategic Note No. 25: Mexico’s Presidential Election Challenged by Murders/Assassinations of Politicians
John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker
Mexico’s General Election will be held on 1 July 2018. This year’s election will include the Presidential election for the new Sexenio as well as for 128 members of the Senate and 500 members of the Chamber of Deputies. State and local elections are also being held for 8 governors, the head of government for Mexico City, and a variety of municipal officials, including mayors, municipal judges, and council members. A significant number of politicians and candidates have been killed in election-related attacks from organized crime groups in the build up to the election.
Key Information: Kevin Sieff, “36 local candidates have been assassinated in Mexico. And the election is still 2 months away.” Washington Post, 20 May 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/05/20/36-local-candidates-have-been-assassinated-in-mexico-and-the-election-is-still-2-months-away/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.cc7e7a0ce666:
MEXICO CITY — This election season has been the most violent in Mexico’s recent history, with 36 candidates killed since September, and dozens of other politicians and campaign officials slaughtered.
That macabre statistic has created a fresh challenge for the country’s political parties: They are now trying to fill dozens of candidacies left open by the assassinations…
Criminal groups are using violence to try to influence candidates, analysts say, and establish their power over local and state politics. In some cases, they might be targeting politicians who have refused to show them deference or pay them off. In other cases, candidates might have formed alliances with one criminal group, and later been targeted by a rival group.
“The old model was that criminal organizations had to pay rent to politicians for protection from government authorities,” said Chris Kyle, an anthropologist and expert on Guerrero at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Now, the relationship is the other way around. If you want to occupy office, you have to pay the criminal organizations.”
Key Information: Jorge Valencia, “Dismantling Democracy: Nearly 100 Politicians In Small-Town Mexico Murdered Since September.” Fronteras, 18 May 2018, https://fronterasdesk.org/content/641308/dismantling-democracy-nearly-100-politicians-small-town-mexico-murdered-september:
[M]ore than 90 candidates or public office holders who have been killed in small towns across Mexico since the beginning of the country’s campaign season last September, according to a tally by the Mexico City-based risk analysis firm Etellekt.
That means about one candidate or public official has been killed every three days since the country’s campaign season began last year, as organized crime is threatening to interrupt the electoral process in dozens of small-town elections across the country.
Rivera’s home state of Guerrero has seen the worst of it, with 21 homicides, according to Etellekt’s tally. Even Bishop Salvador Rangel, who oversees Tierra Caliente for the Catholic church, has tried to intercede with local cartel leaders to not kill candidates for public office, with little success.
For Rangel, one thing is clear: “Democracy is spiraling backwards in Mexico,” he said…
Organized crime’s use of violence to influence local elections date to at least the 1990s, but are more noticeable in this year’s elections because many local elections are coinciding with the presidential elections, Ley said.
Cartels use local elections to access, for example, the police chief or the warden of the local jail, Ley said.
“This is a way in which they can begin to influence local appointments that are crucial for their own activity, so there’s a logic behind it,” Ley said.
Key Information: Kent Paterson, “Murder and other violence plague Mexico’s elections.” NMPolitics.net, 10 May 2018, http://nmpolitics.net/index/2018/05/murder-and-other-violence-plague-mexicos-elections/:
[A] recent report by the private security consulting firm Etelleket chalked up 173 aggressions against politically-associated individuals between Sept. 8 of last year and April 8 of this year, plus aggressions against 30 family members. The casualty list included 77 murders, a number representing a sharp increase from the 2015 mid-term elections when 70 aggressions (including 21 murders) were counted by Etellekt.
Recent violence directed against politically active individuals and/or family members has occurred in many regions of Mexico, but is most marked in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla, Veracruz and Mexico, according to Etelleket.
While Etelleket’s findings bore the quality of a loud wake up call, politically tainted violence has only increased since the report was released.
A review of Mexican media accounts tallies 14 additional relevant slayings since April 8, boosting the murder roll to 91.
Key Information: “Narcos seek to control elections of mayors, Congress: governor.” Mexico News Daily, 11 May 2018, https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/narcos-seek-to-control-elections-of-mayors-congress-governor/:
Criminal gangs want to control municipal governments, state lawmakers
The governor of Guerrero warned yesterday [10 May 2018] that organized crime is seeking to influence the electoral process in the state in order to gain control of the next generation of mayors and members of state Congress and the regions they will represent.
Héctor Astudillo explained in a radio interview that “criminal groups don’t only try to extort money [from politicians] but also to control territory through the authorities.”
The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governor cited the state’s notoriously-dangerous Tierra Caliente region as a prime example.
“This region suffers from this serious problem. The interference [comes from] these groups who are not satisfied with controlling the transport of drugs from the high parts [of the state] but are also interested in controlling the municipal governments and those who are going to be representatives in the state Congress,” he added.
Key Information: “La lista de políticos asesinados en México en las últimas semanas.” Excelsior, 13 March 2018, http://www.excelsior.com.mx/nacional/2018/03/13/1226009:
Así, el proceso electoral que inició el 8 de septiembre de 2017 se ha teñido de rojo, por el asesinato de 63 candidatos a puestos de elección, así como alcaldes, exalcaldes, regidores e integrantes de partidos políticos en diferentes entidades del país.
Los políticos fueron asesinados con armas de fuego, calcinados, o incluso sus cuerpos fueron encontrados desmembrados, como fue el caso de Jaime Rodríguez González, regidor de Jolalpa, Puebla, en octubre de 2017.
El registro de los homicidios contra candidatos, políticos y expolíticos, así como militantes que lleva a cabo Excélsior, indica que el mayor número se registró en Guerrero, donde a poco más de seis meses de iniciar el proceso, suman 11 muertes.
Key Information: Sandra Weiss, “Narco cartels target politicians as Mexico’s elections near.” Deutsche Welle, 22 April 2018, http://p.dw.com/p/2wTV6:
In recent months, about 80 Mexican politicians have been shot, knifed, beaten or burned to death; some have even been dismembered. Last year was the country’s deadliest overall in decades, and in most cases the killers remain at large — some statistics put the unsolved rate at 97 percent of Mexico’s staggering murder tally — but officials largely blame organized crime for the politicians’ deaths. The investigative journalist Jose Reveles said motives included voter intimidation and revenge on leaders who ally with rival criminal organizations or even stand up to cartels. Though the killings of politicians in such large numbers is a relatively new phenomenon, journalists, activists and other noncombatants have long been targeted by cartels…
Edgardo Buscaglia, the president of the Institute for Citizens Action in Mexico (IAC) and a research scholar of law and economics at Columbia University in the United States, speaks of an “electoral farce” following the killings. And the national mayors association, the ANAC, has reminded authorities that, unlike national lawmakers in Mexico City — who are protected by bodyguards and go to work in the relatively secure Saint Lazarus Legislative Palace — local leaders find themselves in consistent mortal danger. One hundred and seventy-two have been killed since 2006, when Mexico launched its war on drugs, Reveles said. Just last year, Mayor Robell Uriostegui had to be evacuated by military helicopter from Teloloapan after he was surrounded by members of an organized crime group.
“Narcopolitics isn’t some vague threat,” Reveles said. “It’s a reality.” He estimates that about 45 percent of all municipalities in Mexico are controlled by organized crime and that the numbers will only get worse.
Mexico has a “weak state, co-opted by the mafia,” Buscaglia said. Citing a report by Global Financial Integrity, he added that the country has “the third largest underground economy — after China and Russia.”
Mexico’s 2018 General elections are scheduled for 1 July 2018. This year’s elections will include the Presidential election as well as over 3,000 elections for members of the national Senate and Chamber of Deputies, 8 governors (in Chiapas, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Morelos, Puebla, Tabasco, Veracruz, and Yucatán), the head of government for Mexico City (CDMX), and numerous municipal officials (mayors, municipal judges, and council members). Over 90 politicians have been killed in the build up to these elections. Guerrero, with 21 candidates killed thus far, is a significant hot spot.
The intensity of the pre-election violence was recounted by long-time Border Zone journalist Kent Paterson: “On Sunday, the bullet-ridden body of Eduardo Aragón Caraveo, Chihuahua City leader of the PES [Partido Encuentro Social] who went missing May 4, was recovered in the trunk of his vehicle. The PES is one of three parties that form López Obrador’s Together We Will Make History electoral coalition.” Patterson continued: “In a separate attack on Sunday, an estimated 250-300 gunmen descended on the community of Ignacio Zaragoza, Chihuahua, leaving in their wake at least four dead, including PRD [Partido de la Revolución Democrática] city council candidate and campaign coordinator Liliana Garcia, who was kidnapped and then murdered.” In addition, Patterson noted that: “According to El Diario de Juárez, gunmen also burned properties belonging to PRD politician Felipe Mendoza and Octavio Chaparro, head of the PRD in Ignacio Zaragoza.”
In Guerrero, for example, Abel Montúfar—a PRI (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) candidate with law enforcement connections for the state’s legislature—was murdered on Tuesday (8 May 2018) and, that same evening, “a Mexican military patrol was ambushed near a ranch linked to the slain politician’s family. According to a Mexican military communique posted on Aristegui Noticias, three soldiers were killed and three wounded. No arrests were immediately announced.”
The direct confrontation between organized crime and the state is a continuing feature of Mexico’s drug war and ‘criminal insurgency’ which, in this case, is triggering a concerted governmental response. According to Guerrero’s governor, “To combat the continuing violence and prevent criminal groups from gaining political power, a joint state and federal security operation is being prepared for Tierra Caliente.” Governor Astudillo continued, “It’s time to go in with greater authority in Tierra Caliente because unfortunately in some cases politics is mixing with crime . . . we can’t allow there to be mayors and [state Congress] representatives that are controlled by criminal groups.”
In the past, violence against politicians has largely been a feature at the state and municipal level, with criminal power struggles connected to gaining political influence over co-opted officials (elected officials like mayors, municipal judges, and police). Kent Patterson observed that: “In Guerrero and Chihuahua, for instance, violent disputes between drug gangs frame the local context,” while in Puebla, Veracruz and Hidalgo, organized bands of petroleum thieves known as huachicoleros who “rob gasoline from Pemex pipelines for a brisk black market, stand as important factors.”
Patterson also noted that “In Guerrero, crime and violence are likewise raising serious concerns among staff and representatives of the National Electoral Institute [Instituto Nacional Electoral] (INE), the official agency charged with organizing the July 1 elections. At an INE session in the state capital of Chilpancingo last week, INE personnel denounced that their trainers [poll worker] had suffered robberies of cell phones and money, warnings to not walk streets at certain hours and other incidences of intimidation.” This fear was realized when an INE worker was murdered by unknown gunmen while driving home from work Sunday night (20 May 2018) in Alpoyeca, Gurerro.
As David Shirk of the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego has noted, “What is clear is that local authorities have taken the brunt of violent attacks against public officials since the start of a decade-long, nationwide surge in homicides.” In addition, as Shirk assessed, “many local politicians are assassinated for complex reasons seemingly unrelated to organized crime, including political rivalries, inter-personal conflicts, and intra-familial violence. Also, as Calderón’s study reveals by including former-mayors in her analysis, a large number of former government officials are also targeted for violence, presumably well after they are of strategic value to criminal organizations.”
It is clear that organized crime (gangs and criminal cartels) in Mexico is confronting the state during this election season. As a recent Los Angeles Times report concluded: “The slain candidates represented a range of political affiliations and movements, suggesting that the killings are more about local power grabs and gang rivalries than national conflicts among parties.”
The complex rationales behind this violence likely has several dimensions, some of them related to criminal competition with the state and battles for control of political processes that require state-criminal collusion (co-option) in order to ensure freedom of movement and profit from the illicit economies. Similar concerns about gang influence in Brazil’s upcoming elections also exist.
Contextually, increased incidence of assassinations in Mexico during the 2005 and 2015 time period have been linked to “increases in political pluralization and criminal fragmentation.” Specifically, we are seeing that “Mexican politicians are now targeted for accepting illicit money as well as for standing up to criminals. Moreover, this violence is evidence of an alarming and persistent pattern in Mexico of politicians enlisting criminal organizations to eliminate their political competition.” Hence, local, regional, and national level criminal organizations are co-opting the democratic political process while at the same time political candidates—and to varying extent the political parties they represent—are actively utilizing and allying with criminal organizations for their own benefit.
The wide scale use of political assassinations in the promotion of criminal impunity and enclave narco-state emergence, as well as furthering the agenda of disenfranchised, marginalized, and even dominant, political parties in Mexican politics is reminiscent of political insurgency and emergent civil war behaviors. Contemporary political assassinations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, and historical ones perpetrated in Vietnam, are illustrative of this insurgent technique. While criminal insurgency behaviors and motivators are initially different than classical (e.g. Maoist), and even radical Islamist insurgent forms, at the more advanced and metastasized levels de facto politicization takes place. That is to say, once a cartel plaza boss controls the mayor’s office, the courts, the police, and the local media then the decisions and policies they enact are inherently political in nature and a usurpation of democratic governance and sovereign prerogative.
Further study of the dynamic between criminal and political competition leading to micro and macro narco-democratic, authoritarian, and even warlordist, futures within states is necessary. This strategic note focusing on recent political assassinations in Mexico—as an expression of this dynamic—is a contribution to that exploration.
 “Mexico 2018 Election Overview,” Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy (n.d.), https://www.bakerinstitute.org/mexico-2018-election-overview/. In addition, analysis of threat potentials related to the election can also be found (behind a pay wall) at Etellekt. Their most recent analysis in Spanish: Etellekt, Cuarto Informe de Violencia Política en México 2018, 10 May 2018, http://www.etellekt.com/reporte/cuarto-informe-de-violencia-politica-en-mexico.html is mentioned in several recent news reports, including those referenced here.
 See ‘Key Information’ entries, especially Jorge Valencia, “Dismantling Democracy: Nearly 100 Politicians In Small-Town Mexico Murdered Since September.” Fronteras, 18 May 2018, https://fronterasdesk.org/content/641308/dismantling-democracy-nearly-100-politicians-small-town-mexico-murdered-september.
 Kent Patterson, “Murder and other violence plague Mexico’s elections.” NMPolitics.net, 10 May 2018, http://nmpolitics.net/index/2018/05/murder-and-other-violence-plague-mexicos-elections/.
 Ibid. Also see “Candidato asesinado en Guerrero denunció amenazas al inicio de la campaña (Video).” Aristegui Noticias, 9 May 2018, https://aristeguinoticias.com/0905/mexico/numeralia-del-terror-en-tierra-caliente-guerrero-video/ and “Cae uno por asesinato de tres militares en Guerrero.” Aristegui Noticias, 13 May 2018, https://aristeguinoticias.com/1305/mexico/cae-uno-por-asesinato-de-tres-militares-en-guerrero/.
 “Narcos seek to control elections of mayors, Congress: governor.” Mexico News Daily, 11 May 2018, https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/narcos-seek-to-control-elections-of-mayors-congress-governor/ and Rogelio Agustín, “Narco ‘quieren controlar a los diputados y alcaldes’: Astudillo.” Milenio, 11 May 2018, http://www.milenio.com/estados/narcos-control-diputados-alcaldes-hector_astudillo-guerrero-crimen_organizado-milenio_0_1173482650.html.
 Kent Patterson, “Murder and other violence plague Mexico’s elections.” NMPolitics.net, 10 May 2018.
 “Asesinan en Guerrero a capacitador del INE.” Aristegui Noticias, 21 May 2018, https://aristeguinoticias.com/2105/mexico/asesinan-en-guerrero-a-capacitador-del-ine/.
 David Shirk, “New Justice in Mexico Working Paper: Assassinations Target Local Candidates and Officials in Lead Up to 2018 Mexican Elections.” Justice in Mexico, 7 January 2018, https://justiceinmexico.org/mayors-killed-mexico-2000-2017/.
 Patrick J. McDonnell, “Widespread killings of candidates cast shadow over Mexican elections.” Los Angeles Times, 10 April 2018, http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-mexico-elect-violence-20180410-story.html.
 John P. Sullivan, José de Arimatéia da Cruz and Robert J. Bunker, “Third Generation Gangs Strategic Note No. 9: Concerns About Potential Gang (PCC-Primeiro Comando da Capital & CV-Comando Vermelho) Influence on Upcoming Brazilian Elections.” Small Wars Journal, 25 January 2018, http://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/third-generation-gangs-strategic-note-no-9.
 Laura Ross Blume, “The Old Rules No Longer Apply: Explaining Narco-Assassinations of Mexican Politicians.” Journal of Politics in Latin America. 1/2017, p. 59, https://journals.sub.uni-hamburg.de/giga/jpla/article/download/1036/1043. For additional information, see Mike LaSusa, “More than 80 Mexico Mayors Murdered Since 2006.” InSight Crime. 11 August 2016, https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/more-than-80-mexico-mayors-murdered-since-2006/.
 Laura Ross Blume, “The Old Rules No Longer Apply: Explaining Narco-Assassinations of Mexican Politicians,” p. 59.
 See Nils Gilman, “The Twin Insurgency.” The American Interest, Vol. 9, No. 6, 15 June 2014, https://www.the-american-interest.com/2014/06/15/the-twin-insurgency/ for a discussion of the interaction between criminal and plutocratic insurgencies and John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, “Drug Cartels, Street Gangs, and Warlords.” Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 13, Issue 2, 2002, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09592310208559180?journalCode=fswi20 for a discussion of the influence of armed (criminal) non-state groups on the solvency of nation-state institutions,
 See, for instance, Rod Nordland, “Taliban Aim at Officials in a Wave of Killings.” New York Times. 9 June 2010, https://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/10/world/asia/10taliban.html. For a general introduction to the logic behind the use of such assassinations, see Arie Perliger, The Rationale of Political Assassinations. West Point: Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, 12 February 2015, https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2015/02/CTC_The-Rationale-Of-Political-Assassinations-February20151.pdf.
 A precondition of such futures—at least in the case of Mexico derived from PRD (Partido de la Revolucion Democratica) assassination focused research—is “the failure of the legal system to function as a system of restraint for killings.” See Sara Schatz, Murder and Politics in Mexico: Political Killings in the Partido de la Revolucion Democratica and its Consequences. New York: Springer, 2011.
Rogelio Agustín, “Narco ‘quieren controlar a los diputados y alcaldes’: Astudillo.” Milenio, 11 May 2018, http://www.milenio.com/estados/narcos-control-diputados-alcaldes-hector_astudillo-guerrero-crimen_organizado-milenio_0_1173482650.html.
Patrick J. McDonnell, “Widespread killings of candidates cast shadow over Mexican elections.” Los Angeles Times, 10 April 2018, http://www.latimes.com/world/mexico-americas/la-fg-mexico-elect-violence-20180410-story.html.
“Narcos seek to control elections of mayors, Congress: governor.” Mexico News Daily, 11 May 2018, https://mexiconewsdaily.com/news/narcos-seek-to-control-elections-of-mayors-congress-governor/.
Kent Paterson, “Murder and other violence plague Mexico’s elections.” NMPolitics.net, 10 May 2018, http://nmpolitics.net/index/2018/05/murder-and-other-violence-plague-mexicos-elections/.
David Shirk, “New Justice in Mexico Working Paper: Assassinations Target Local Candidates and Officials in Lead Up to 2018 Mexican Elections.” Justice in Mexico, 7 January 2018, https://justiceinmexico.org/mayors-killed-mexico-2000-2017/.
Kevin Sieff, “36 local candidates have been assassinated in Mexico. And the election is still 2 months away.” Washington Post, 20 May 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/05/20/36-local-candidates-have-been-assassinated-in-mexico-and-the-election-is-still-2-months-away/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.cc7e7a0ce666.
Jorge Valencia, “Dismantling Democracy: Nearly 100 Politicians In Small-Town Mexico Murdered Since September.” Fronteras, 18 May 2018, https://fronterasdesk.org/content/641308/dismantling-democracy-nearly-100-politicians-small-town-mexico-murdered-september.
Sandra Weiss, “Narco cartels target politicians as Mexico's elections near.” Deutsche Welle, 22 April 2018, http://p.dw.com/p/2wTV6.
For Additional Reading
Laura Y. Calderón, An Analysis of Mayoral Assassinations in Mexico, 2000-17. San Diego: University of San Diego, Justice in Mexico Project, 2018.
Luis Jorge Garay-Salamanca and Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, Drug Trafficking, Corruption and States (A Small Wars Journal—El Centro and Vortex Foundation Book). Bloomington: iUniverse, 2015.
John P. Sullivan and Robert J. Bunker, Mexico’s Criminal Insurgency: A Small Wars Journal-El Centro Anthology. Bloomington: iUniverse, 2012.