A spate of attacks against politicians ahead of the July presidential elections in Mexico has once again turned attention to the influence of criminal organizations in the country’s politics, with experts warning that these crimes have historically had negative effects on citizens’ participation on polling day.

More than a dozen political figures have been murdered in Mexico since the start of this year — an average of more than one per week. On March 27, gunmen opened fire on a congressional candidate in the state of San Luis Potosí, leaving him gravely wounded.

Incidents like these have further heightened concerns about rising levels of violence among citizens gearing up to choose a new president. But evidence suggests insecurity could discourage potential voters from showing up at the polls.

According to a recent study by Sandra Ley, a professor at Mexico City’s Economic Investigation and Teaching Center (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas CIDE), elevated levels of violence have increased voting abstention rates in past elections in Mexico.

Looking at data including evidence of attacks against politicians and government officials, personal surveys Ley compiled from voters and voting rates from the 2012 electoral season, Ley concluded that “criminal-electoral violence has a strong depressing effect on turnout.”

More than a dozen political figures have been murdered in Mexico since the start of this year — an average of about one per week.

According to her research, a single act of violence against a campaign government authorities correlated to a 1 percent drop in turnout in municipal elections. For federal elections, such attacks correspond to a drop of 2 percent.

While at first glance this may not sound like much, elections often hinge on narrow margins, and the cumulative effect of many such attacks across the country can be dramatic.

The same study also looked at individual voting decisions. The author found that in the 2012 elections, residents of municipalities that had registered attacks against candidates or public authorities were 19 percent less likely to vote.

Ley found that voters might respond to political violence by staying at home on election day because violence reduces the chances that there will be a suitable candidate. And with criminal groups exercising their own influence, violence also reduces the likelihood that the result of the campaign will produce any meaningful change.

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Ley also co-authored a second study published in 2017 with University of Houston professor Francisco Cantú that shows another danger organized crime presents to electoral processes in Mexico.

Mexico’s poll workers — who are randomly selected by the National Electoral Institute — perform an essential function in the nation’s democracy, but criminal violence dramatically reduces citizens’ willingness to accept an invitation to serve.

According to Ley and Cantú, in cities that registered no homicides linked to organized crime, 84 percent of citizens responded positively to requests to work at polls. In municipalities where the homicide rate was higher than 100 per 100,000 inhabitants, the predicted rate of acceptance dropped to 66 percent.

The authors pointed to the city of Vallecillo, in the northern state of Nuevo León, which has been on both sides of this divide. During the tranquil 2000s, the rate of positive responses to work at poll stations averaged 88 percent. But in 2011, after a wave of violence engulfed the state, the rate dropped by nearly half, to 44.5 percent.

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As these two studies demonstrate, the capacity of criminal groups in Mexico to undermine electoral processes takes various forms.

While killings of public figures are the most spectacular reflection of criminal influence in Mexican politics, Ley’s and Cantu’s work shows there are other more insidious mechanisms through which criminal groups bend the nation’s democracy to their ends, or weaken it as a byproduct of their criminal objectives.

Although criminal influence in Mexico’s elections is of increased concern given the upcoming presidential vote, it is not a new phenomenon.

One of the most famous cases was the killing of Rodolfo Torré, the gubernatorial candidate in the state of Tamaulipas for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI) who was murdered during the 2010 campaign. Torré’s killing, which was allegedly carried out by the Gulf Cartel, received international attention, but murders of candidates for lower office are exceedingly common, and receive far less media coverage. Just last week, a PRI mayoral candidate in Puebla was killed by an unknown assailant.

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The logic behind such violence is obvious: criminal groups rely on government protection for their ongoing existence, and elections by their very nature threaten to upend the foundations of these profitable relationships. Because they often promise a change in the political regime, elections also tend to invite challenges from rival groups. Attacking candidates is therefore a way for incumbent criminal gangs to protect existing relationships, while they serve as a path to upend the status quo for upstart rivals.

Such a dynamic is all the more dangerous in Mexico, where truly competitive elections are a relatively recent development, and popular discontent with the governments that come to power through these contests is growing. The more civilians “become vulnerable to the criminals’ will,” as Ley and Cantú phrase it, the more it becomes rational for them to lose interest in democracy and civil society.

Taken together, these studies cry out for redoubled efforts to understand precisely how organized crime can affect political campaigns, and further actions to safeguard Mexico’s elections from criminal influence.

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