With a few months before Mexico‘s presidential election campaigns kick off, President Felipe Calderon has warned that criminal groups could try to meddle with the outcome.

In an address to the nation this weekend, Calderon stated that:

Crime, as I have said, now also constitutes an open threat to democracy. The criminals’ obvious and clear intervention in electoral processes is a new and worrying fact; a fact before which no political party can remain silent or compliant. It’s a threat for everyone and one which we must counteract together, and without hesitation.

There is evidence to support Calderon’s words. Last month, following an election for the governor of Michoacan, in which Calderon’s sister Luisa Maria was among the candidates, audiotapes emerged of an alleged member of the Familia Michoacana gang threatening voters who didn’t opt for Fausto Vallejo, candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Vallejo went on to win the election.

Vallejo’s narrow victory, by less than three points, went against a wide range of opinion polls that had forecast Calderon as the victor, and showed her level of support increasing heading into the election. Instead, she came in second place.

The events in Michoacan follow a pair of gubernatorial elections in 2010 in which the drug trade played a key role. In Tamaulipas, PRI candidate Rodolfo Torre Cantu was murdered just weeks before the vote. The murder was blamed on his refusal to collude with either the Zetas or the Gulf Cartel, the two dominant gangs in the region.

In Sinaloa, a close race for governorship swung in favor of Mario Lopez Valdez after photos surfaced of his opponent, Jesus Vizcarra, also of the PRI, with his arm around Ismael Zambada, alias “El Mayo,” one of the most notorious capos in the country.

Clearly, then, drug traffickers are both willing and able to interfere in Mexico’s elections. This is particularly worrying given the fast-approaching presidential contest of July 2012 — the stakes are far higher than in local elections, and criminal groups have a deep interest in influencing the outcome.

However, there is reason to doubt that the presidential vote will be marred by criminal influence to the same extent as the local elections described above.

One fundamental reason is that in the three states in question, the influence of criminal groups arguably runs more deeply than anywhere else in the country. Each of them have spawned their own trafficking groups — the Sinaloa Cartel in Sinaloa state, the Gulf Cartel (and the Zetas) in Tamaulipas, and the Familia and Caballeros Templarios in Michoacan — which have deep ties to local business and politics. Crime hasn’t been imported from outside, but is an organic part of public life in each state, which makes it much more difficult to isolate politics from crime.

Vizcarra’s explanation for the photo with Sinaloa capo Zambada was illustrative: he didn’t deny it was real, but said it didn’t show collusion of any kind. As a rancher with ties to powerful business interests in Sinaloa, it was only natural that Vizcarra would have become acquainted with the longtime kingpin.

In some other states, even those which suffer high levels of violence, the links between drug trafficking and politics are not so inevitable, because organized crime is a comparably recent arrival. It is far less likely for criminals in, say, Queretaro or San Luis Potosi to be willing or able to exert influence over an election in the same way the Familia attempted to do in Michoacan.

For similar reasons, it is unlikely that there are photos floating around of the leading presidential candidates –Mexico State’s Enrique Peña Nieto or Tabasco’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador — arm-in-arm with a wanted man.

Furthermore, the presidency is chosen by a nationwide, winner-take-all election in which some 40 million people will cast a ballot. Even in the unprecedentedly close 2006 presidential elections, the difference between Calderon and runner-up Lopez Obrador approached 250,000 votes. Against that backdrop, any drive to redirect votes from one candidate to another, even by the most powerful gangs, would almost certainly be futile.

Governor’s races, in contrast, are much smaller affairs, in which local capos shifting votes from one side to another could have a real impact. In Michoacan, for instance, the proportional margin was five times larger than Calderon’s victory in 2006, yet the number of votes separating the top two candidates barely exceeded 40,000.

That’s not to suggest that the organized crime won’t play a role on July 1. In addition to the presidential contest, there are, after all, dozens of state and local elections that offer easier targets for Mexico’s drug gangs.

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