The run-up to Mexico's June 5 gubernatorial elections has been beset with reports linking candidates to organized crime, and voters could knock President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional - PRI) out of historical strongholds for the first time in states long infected by criminal gangs.
Ballots in 14 of Mexico’s 32 states and the capital will open on Sunday morning in a contest seen by many as a sign of who might win power in the 2018 presidential elections.
The popularity of Peña Nieto and his party is currently at an all-time low as Mexicans are unimpressed with how he has handled the country's economy and tackled its corruption problems. Voters will elect new governors in twelve states, of which the PRI currently controls nine. One study suggests that in a worst-case scenario, the party could lose half of those.
Of the states with high levels of organized crime that will be electing new governors, the PRI fortresses of Veracruz and Tamaulipas promise to be the closest races. The PRI has never lost a gubernatorial election in either of those states.
The political-criminal nexus in the northern state of Tamaulipas, which shares a border with Texas, is Mexico’s most opaque. Collusion between public servants and criminal networks are part of the culture, experts argue. There are even streets named after drug lords in some cities. Fierce battles between organized crime and Mexico’s armed forces are common, and the state has the worst rate of reported kidnapping in the country. It is home to the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, who often clash in their fight for control. Tamaulipas was recently described as having two governments; an official one and a criminal one.
The leading candidate in the race for governor is Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca, who is running on the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional - PAN) ticket. He has been accused of enjoying the protection of gang bosses, and of using that power to pressure other candidates to drop out of the race to support him.
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Last month, three PRI mayoral candidates were expelled by the party chief Manlio Fabio Beltrones, who himself has been accused of colluding with organized crime in the past. Beltrones said that all of candidates had been bought off by organized crime after they came out in support of Cabeza de Vaca.
Despite the allegations against him, coverage of Cabeza de Vaca’s campaign reports he is vowing to fight “the system that’s colluded with organized crime,” and a recent poll put him about three points ahead of PRI candidate Baltazar Hinojosa, his closest contender.
Hinojosa Ochoa has also been accused of working with local crime networks, in his case taking money from the Gulf Cartel, and he is currently under investigation by the US Treasury for money laundering, according to Mexican news weekly Proceso.
But so far, the campaign season in Tamaulipas has been free of the violence that has characterized other years -- PRI political candidate Rodolfo Torre Cantú was assassinated by suspected cartel gunmen during the run-up to gubernatorial elections in 2010 that he was projected to win. That could suggest that the leading candidate in Sunday’s election will, in fact, maintain the status quo if he wins.
Accusations of links between political candidates and organized crime haven’t been limited to Tamaulipas during this election campaign. Carlos Joaquín González, a candidate for governor in the southern state Quintana Roo, was recently fingered.
The race in Veracruz, a state which has become synonymous with the Zetas cartel, has been referred to by local media as the dirtiest in the run-up to these elections. There has been much public sparring between the two frontrunners -- who are also cousins -- Miguel Ángel Yunes Linares (running for a PAN-PRD coalition) and Héctor Yunes Landa (PRI), including accusations of vote-buying and pedophilia. Landa is currently leading in the polls, but with an uncomfortably small advantage of five points.
Crucially, the oil-producing state on the Gulf Coast has the highest number of voters in Sunday’s poll. Criminal gangs, mainly the Zetas but also the Jalisco Cartel - New Generation, operate there and violence, disappearances, extortion and kidnapping are major problems.
The administration of PRI governor Javier Duarte recently appealed to the Federal Government to send security reinforcements to parts of the state where violence is widespread. There have been some brutal drug-related incidents there over the years, the most memorable being the dumping of 35 dead bodies on a public highway in 2011.
But Duarte himself has garnered a reputation for corruption and dirty-dealing. The governor has been accused of siphoning off money to ghost companies, and denies links to the murder of a prominent journalist last year. Veracruz is the most dangerous state in Mexico for journalists.
InSight Crime Analysis
As many of Mexico's criminal groups fragment structurally and diversify into revenue streams other than drug trafficking such as kidnapping and extortion, access to local political power becomes increasingly important.
Governors and other high-ranking local officials are valuable sources of information for organized crime, and buying off politicians affords them a measure of territorial control.
Politicians hold the key to security forces such as state and municipal police bodies. In some cases police forces have been revealed to form nothing less than the armed wing of criminal groups, with the most public demonstration of this being the mass kidnapping of 43 college students in Iguala, Guerrero in 2014.
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Political influence in Tamaulipas holds obvious appeal for the Gulf Cartel and Zetas gang because of its shared border with the United States, the major gateway for moving illicit drugs north. In the case of Veracruz, it’s long coast and port is also a major appeal to organized crime for moving product.
Political control in both states is therefore well worth fighting for, and paying for. But if new parties take power, it remains to be seen whether they will continue the traditions of their PRI predecessors in their dealings with criminal bosses. Arguably, if the PRI loses power in Tamaulipas there could be a spike in already high rates of violence as allegiances are broken with the old guard and renegotiated with the incoming administration.