MEXICO CITY — It has been a brutal electoral season, even by Mexico’s violent standards.
At least 113 candidates, pre-candidates, and current and former politicians have been killed and 300 more have suffered some form of aggression since September, according to Etellekt, a Mexico City–based public policy consultancy. Even the government’s tally — 34, which considers only candidates — pushes this particular death toll to nearly four per month.
Astonishing as these numbers are, they only tell part of the story: There are hundreds of candidates who have backed out of their races out of fear for their safety, and many others who have curbed their campaign activities. This poses a significant challenge to Mexico’s relatively young democracy, already crippled by systemic corruption and widespread impunity.
“Violence is altering the profile of candidates,” Alejandro Hope, a security analyst, told BuzzFeed News. “Who sticks around? The reckless and those who collude [with criminals].”
The attacks have been brazen. Last month, several commandos went around Ignacio Zaragoza, a town of less than 7,000 people about 200 miles southwest of El Paso, Texas, burning houses and cars belonging to several local candidates. They killed Liliana García, who was running for town councilor. In a video circulating on social media, a large plume of smoke is seen coming out of a building in broad daylight while a woman weeps in the background. In another, rapid gunfire is heard on an empty street.
Less than three weeks ago, Paula Gutiérrez Morales, a local leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in a tiny community in Guerrero State, was shot inside a public bus in front of other passengers.
On Friday, Fernando Purón, a candidate for local congress, was shot while posing for a selfie in Piedras Negras, just west of Eagle Pass, Texas, after an election debate.
Representatives for two of the main political parties confirmed to BuzzFeed News that some of their strongest candidates have chosen to step away, leaving a vacuum that has been difficult to fill. About 600 people in total from the different parties have backed out of their races in recent months, according to Carlos Figueroa Ibarra, head of human rights at Morena, the political party leading presidential polls.
“We’ve had to register comrades that are perhaps less well-known,” said Ángel Ávila, spokesperson for the “For Mexico to the Front” coalition, whose presidential candidate, Ricardo Anaya, is second in most polls.
The Interior Ministry announced in April that it would again provide the presidential candidates with secret service and federal police agents, as it has in the last two elections. But the concern goes beyond the top tier. Last month, Interior Minister Alfonso Navarrete Prida said that the federal government is providing security to more than 30 candidates — six of them local.
Despite this, politicians feel more vulnerable than ever.
“This is evidence of Mexico’s decay,” said Figueroa, adding that volunteers couldn’t enter a handful of neighborhoods in Durango State, in northern Mexico, to hand out flyers, because it was simply too dangerous.
“One cannot carry out a normal campaign,” said Ávila. He said that one of the parties in the coalition, the Party of the Democratic Revolution, did not present candidates in at least three municipalities in Sinaloa State because “the necessary security conditions” did not exist.
Homicides reached a record high in 2017, a foreseeable outcome after several years marked by mass disappearances and massacres committed by state forces alongside ubiquitous drug violence. Despite this, the ruling PRI said no corner of Mexico has become off-limits.
The PRI’s candidates are “visiting every house, every street, every neighborhood of the country,” said César Castillejos, the party’s spokesperson. The PRI is in third place in most polls.
Candidates, skeptical about having police escort them since local forces are often in cahoots with criminal groups, have instead adhered to guidelines often followed by the general population: Stay away from highways and deserted towns after 7 p.m., and travel in groups whenever possible.
Election season in Mexico is usually a violent affair, but this year violence may hit an all-time high, says Rubén Salazar, director of Etellekt. One of the reasons may be that there have never been so many positions up for grabs during one electoral period in the country’s history: 3,408, including local lawmakers, mayors, and the federal congress.
Adding to the chaos, the state’s 12-year-long offensive against cartels has led to their fragmentation and the proliferation of hundreds of tiny local offshoots. Whereas before the cartels operated on the sidelines — with the state’s tacit acceptance — the smaller groups are looking to gain official power.
“Many years ago, crime used to be controlled, or administered, by the state,” Supreme Court Judge José Ramón Cossío told BuzzFeed News. Now, “in some cases, it seems like crime is beginning to gain territory in the governing bodies.”
One of the most egregious examples of this growing trend was José Luis Abarca, the mayor of Iguala, where 43 students were taken by municipal police agents in 2014, never to be seen again. Abarca was arrested shortly after on murder, kidnapping, and organized crime–related charges. (His wife was also arrested for alleged organized crime connections.)
Figueroa said that Morena staffers have had to ask some pre-candidates and candidates to back down from the race after getting tips from locals about potential ties to organized crime.
“We cannot see a line between organized crime and legal politics,” said Figueroa.
Virtually every political party has had a candidate, pre-candidate, or affiliated politician killed, though the ruling party leads the list with 40 homicides, according to Etellekt’s latest report. Nearly all of the 32 states in the country have also been affected, with Guerrero and Oaxaca States, on Mexico’s Pacific coast, accumulating the bulk of the homicides. Analysts say organized crime and local criminal groups are behind many of the murders, though some appear to have been committed by political rivals.
The effects of this onslaught will be felt for a long time, analysts warn. If elected officials are discovered to have links to organized crime, they will first have to be stripped of their official immunity and then tried in a criminal court — an unlikely outcome in the country topping the Americas list within the 2017 Global Impunity Index.
And yet, people are focused on election day, as if “the entire country will end on July 1 and the entire country will be reborn on July 1,” said Cossío, the Supreme Court judge, who called the current state in Mexico an electoral fog.
“I’m worried about July 2.”