HomeNewsAnalysisWhy Mexico Drug Gangs Have Growing Stake in Elections

Why Mexico Drug Gangs Have Growing Stake in Elections


As Mexico's presidential campaign reaches its final weeks, one analyst argues that criminal groups have an growing incentive to interfere in the elections, as the gangs' increasingly localized focus makes collaboration with the authorities ever more important.

In a recent piece for Nexos, security analyst Eduardo Guerrero Gutierrez pointed out that while criminal groups have long had an interest in building links with the different levels of government, recent developments have made them focus on elections all the more. One is that gangs today earn more money from extortion and from retail drug trafficking, which is known in Mexico as "narcomenudeo." Unlike international drug trafficking, which can be carried out without much involvement from the authorities, the police are far more likely to be aware of extortion and retail drug sales. Government tolerance -- or better still, collusion -- is needed.

Another issue is the democratic opening in Mexico: unlike 20 years ago, when the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had ruled Mexico for six unbroken decades, today criminal groups have to deal with the three major parties contending for political posts. That means that profitable and long-standing relationships between a group and a political party in a given area can be rendered useless with a single election, which is a grave setback to a gang's interests.

In this sense, meddling in elections is a logical policy for gangs, not unlike private-sector campaign donations to candidates promising a lower corporate tax rate. And, just as large companies sometimes make contributions to more than one candidate in the same race, criminal groups also hedge their bets by donating cash or performing services for a variety of different candidates. That way, they have a measure of protection regardless of the outcome of the election.

As Guerrero noted, criminal groups’ increased interest in the electoral process has reached its apogee with the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), the Michoacan-based gang that broke off from the Familia Michoacana following the 2010 death of Nazario Moreno, alias "El Chayo." Having established itself as the leading gang in the state, the Caballeros were accused of playing a significant role in the outcome of the Michoacan gubernatorial elections in November.

The following is InSight Crime's translation of extracts from Guerrero's article, “El crimen organizado en las elecciones”:

Organized crime interferes in elections for various reasons. First off, there are cases in which criminals intimidate candidates to support their own interests -- generally with the purpose of having passive authorities that allow them to go about their business -- or work against the candidate or candidates whose profiles aren’t favorable. In other cases, the criminal organizations intervene in these processes as “electoral machinery,” selling their support to one candidate (whether with money, the mobilization of votes, or through attacks against the other candidates or their supporters). This second case -- which brings a deeper involvement of criminals in public life -- is a type of activity characteristic of mafias: protection against competition, which is offered to businesses and unions just as it is to candidates and political parties.

In recent years some of the Mexican cartels have fragmented and have evolved into a new business model. Some criminal organizations -- such as the Zetas and the Caballeros Templarios -- currently operate as mafias that, as well as transnational drug trafficking, get a good part of their income from illicit activities in the local arena, particularly extortion (in the form of charging a “cuota” or “derecho de piso”) and retail drug trafficking. Unlike the traditional cartels (which had only a tangential relationship with authorities in the zones of production and along the transit routes), for these new mafias it is crucial to maintain a deep collaborative relationship with the authorities. For example, the existence of sites for drug sales which operate in public places in the light of day, can only be explained in a context of deliberate omission, and even protection, by the police.

Disputes between mafias for control of criminal activities in a given area make the support of the government even more important. The criminal organizations that operate in an area under dispute generally try to make the government target their rivals (or try, at least, to avoid becoming the principal target of the authorities). “Narcomantas,” and messages accompanying the bodies of the dead, denouncing police commanders who work for a criminal group, reflect the role that the authorities play as potential allies in the conflicts between organizations.


In recent years we have observed the gradual growth of political participation in organized crime, culminating in the assassination of Rodolfo Torre Cantu, the leading candidate for governor of Tamaulipas, in June 2010. However, the 2011 elections in Michoacan have been the ones in which the qualitative change in the electoral intervention of organized crime has been most evident. During the campaign, there were various incidents in which the intervention of the Caballeros Templarios was suspected. First, recordings were leaked mentioning that the organization supported the leftist candidate, and had donated $2 million to his campaign. Nevertheless, according to PAN candidate Maria Luisa Cocoa Calderon, the PRI candidate -- who wound up winning -- was the one finally favored by “La Maña” (the name that is used in Michoacan to refer to the Caballeros Templarios). Among the irregularities that the candidate reported were intimidation to break up campaign activities (an armed group broke into her campaign headquarters); highway blockades to impede access to voting stations; the collusion of voting booth officials to systematically annul votes; and the selection of people that didn’t have “authorization” to vote.

The Caballeros Templarios' method of interfering in the Michoacan elections reflects precisely the capacities and interests of the mafia itself: an ample social base, that allows it to monitor and mobilize a wide range of sectors of the population; and the promotion of social leaders in the political arena who, in the event of winning the electoral process, will reinforce the organization’s capacity for social control from the highest levels of the government.

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