Running for office in Mexico means risking one's life. Days away from local elections on June 6, at least 89 political candidates had been killed during the current campaign.
The 2021 election cycle has been the most dangerous in recent years, with 782 acts of violence against incumbents and challengers alike, edging out the 774 violent acts recorded in 2018, according to a regularly updated report on political violence in Mexico by risk analysis group, Etellekt.
The eastern state of Veracruz has been at the center of attacks on politicians. Since September, it has seen 117 acts of violence, including 16 politicians murdered, about one-fifth of the total killings nationwide, despite only being the country's eighth-most violent state in terms of overall homicides. Oaxaca had the second-highest number of attacks at 68, just over half the amount in Veracruz.
In this article, InSight Crime breaks down why Veracruz has been particularly vulnerable to attempts to intimidate or kill politicians, whether by organized crime or by other interests.
The Invisible Hand of the CJNG
Gutiérrez had been campaigning to become mayor of Misantla, a town of around 30,000 people in central Veracruz. The town is also a strategic location for drug trafficking and production, just a short drive from the state capital Xalapa, and close to highways heading north towards Tampico and the US border.
The town is controlled by the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG), which has a production facility there for manufacturing methamphetamine, according to an investigation by Televisa.
From there, the drugs are sent either to the Port of Veracruz to be sold abroad or to the United States.
The CJNG appears to care deeply about keeping hold of Misantla. After three of its members were reportedly killed there by police in March 2019, the group organized blockades along the important Córdoba-Veracruz highway, burning trucks and opening fire on police, killing at least one.
While nobody has claimed responsibility for the murder of Gutiérrez, a number of murders of politicians this year have taken place in towns the group controls.
In March, mayoral candidate José Melquiades Vázquez Lucas was killed outside a municipal building in La Perla. The state governor blamed the murder on organized crime. The CJNG has a comfortable grip on La Perla, even distributing food parcels there during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In February, former Cosoleacaque mayor Gladys Merlín and her daughter, Carla Enríquez Merlín, who was planning to run for office in the town, were shot dead at their home. Again, the area has been a regular operating base for the CJNG.
And there is little fear of retribution. Much of the violence has involved surprise attacks by masked gunmen driving cars and motorcycles, who shoot the politicians in broad daylight.
It is difficult to blame the CJNG alone for these actions. Veracruz has been a battleground state in recent years, with Mexico's most powerful cartel being challenged by the Zetas Vieja Escuela (Old School Zetas), a splinter group of the Zetas trying to reclaim their former territory.
Central and southern Veracruz, where the CJNG and Zetas Vieja Escuela have been fighting for control, account for the overwhelming majority of political murders. InSight Crime found that, of the political candidates and incumbents killed in Veracruz since 2019, all were murdered in towns with either a direct recorded presence of the CJNG or close to areas they control.
Better Cooperative than Dead
Of course, as shown by the Etellekt report, most candidates are not killed but threatened. One candidate, Onán Hernández López, said he received messages telling him to get out of the race. In other municipalities, masked men have shot up candidates’ houses.
“Organized crime has had a decisive influence on the electoral process through violence and threats, to the extent that many candidates have stopped campaigning or dropped out,” the Democratic Revolution Party (Partido de la Revolución Democrática – PRD) said in a May statement.
And for those that do stay in the race, there are clear benefits to cooperating with criminal groups instead of opposing them. Authorities have long warned about the political influence the CJNG and other criminal groups wield in Veracruz.
"Today, the large part [of Veracruz] is under the control of the CJNG. ... They have all the police commanders at their disposal and obviously, this structure is going to finance candidates," said crime researcher Ricardo Ravelo in an interview with Mexican media last April.
While not naming any specific officials, human rights groups and journalists have pointed to the local governments in Coatzacoalcos, Papantla, Poza Rica, Las Choapas, Tezonapa and Córdoba as having ties to the CJNG and groups linked to the Zetas.
State governor Cuitláhuac García said steps are being taken to improve security, including the beefing up of surveillance in jurisdictions holding elections. But there are 212 mayoral seats up for grabs in Veracruz this midterm, in addition to 50 deputies, and it is proving nearly impossible to protect everyone.
Indeed, less than a week after García Jiménez spoke out about the violence, masked men in Chalma ambushed mayoral candidate Fernando Argüelles, beating him so badly that he and his driver had to be sent to the hospital.
All Roads Lead to Veracruz
When Mexican criminal groups target political candidates, they are usually trying to bully them into working together or, if that fails, remove them from the race. Although this is happening to some extent in every state across the country, Veracruz is particularly conducive to it for a few different reasons.
First, the state is an especially attractive place geographically to set up a criminal operation. It touches seven other states, connecting southern Mexico with Tamaulipas, the final stopping point before drugs, contraband and migrants enter the United States. And its seaports bring in international shipments of legal goods, as well as precursor chemicals for synthetic drug production.
Second, criminal groups and politicians often make backdoor agreements in order to operate. The problem dates back to at least the early 2000s, when then-Governor Fidel Herrera’s administration allowed a criminal group that would eventually become the Zetas to enter the state if it agreed to contribute to certain candidates' campaigns.
His successor, Javier Duarte, helped strike further deals with the Zetas and obstructed numerous investigations into homicides and kidnappings. Duarte, who would go onto become a notorious fugitive, oversaw a systematic teardown of Veracruz's government, turning it into a criminal operation that embezzled millions of dollars.
Subsequent governors have tried to get a handle on corruption, even creating a "Truth Commission" to document the crimes committed during the Herrera and Duarte eras, while also increasing accountability for future governments. But it has failed to root out the problem at the local level, which continues to see municipal police and other officials working closely with criminal groups. That might explain why most of the political violence has involved municipal candidates. Criminal groups need to make sure that the person who wins office will be willing to uphold the status quo.
Third, years of corruption have helped fuel political fragmentation, making it easier for criminal groups to prey on weak governments, and for governments to solicit the help of criminal groups.
Veracruz was long a stronghold for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI). But since Duarte’s ouster in 2016, the state governor’s office has cycled from PRI to the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional – PAN) to Morena. The parties have become increasingly unwilling to work across the aisle, which means different parts of the government have become fragmented and aren’t always coordinating their efforts against organized crime.
In 2016, even though the state was suffering from a budget crisis partly caused by Duarte’s embezzlement, the federal government declined to provide it a bailout, saying that the state was responsible for its own financial situation. A lot of that money could have replaced the millions of dollars that Duarte stole from municipal governments that criminal groups are trying to intimidate today.
Worse, this political in-fighting is likely leading to more attacks on candidates.
Too Easy to Always Blame Narcos
However, while the analysis of political murders in Veracruz points to the strong involvement of the CJNG, that does not tell the whole story.
Of the 16 murders in Veracruz registered by Etellekt, 11 were from opposition parties to the state government. Eight were challengers, not incumbents, and did not hold any political office when they were killed.
In a new project launched in June 2021, entitled "Elections & Violence in Mexico," Noria Research seeks to better understand the motives behind political violence. The project introduction states that most studies explain electoral and political violence only "through a criminal incentive model," leaving aside "the active or passive participation, protection, collaboration or patronage from politicians, ... armed forces, as well as from other private or public actors."
It is difficult to pinpoint which Veracruz murders were committed exclusively by criminal groups or which may have had the involvement of local officials.
But some of those killed had deep family connections with Veracruz politics, spanning over different decades, administrations and political parties. Numerous theories have emerged concerning the murders last February of Gladys Merlín Castro, former mayor of Cosoleacaque, and her daughter, Carla Enríquez Merlín, who was considering entering the local mayoral race.
The Merlín Alor family had held power and influence over Cosoleacaque in southern Veracruz for decades, holding key political positions, running the local ranchers' union and owning key businesses. Heliodoro Merlín Alor, the father and grandfather of the two victims, was described as a cacique (chieftain) who ran a group known as “La Banda de los Merlín" (The Merlín Gang). The family has withstood a series of attempted murders and kidnappings in the past.
Historically, "the main actors in electoral violence were the professionals, the street-fighters, policemen [above all the municipal ones], union thugs, pistoleros [gunmen] and soldiers. Their role was to guarantee the victory of the favored candidate," wrote Paul Gillingham in a recent Noria Research summary of political violence in Mexico.