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Threats and bullets: Mexico’s candidates risk lives to compete

Mexican soldiers patrol the streets of Morelia in violence-torn Michoacan state
Mexican soldiers patrol the streets of Morelia in violence-torn Michoacan state - Copyright AFP ALFREDO ESTRELLA
Mexican soldiers patrol the streets of Morelia in violence-torn Michoacan state - Copyright AFP ALFREDO ESTRELLA
Alexander Martinez

The warning left Margarita Galan with no choice but to abandon her mayoral bid in a Mexican town where three candidates have already been murdered ahead of June elections.

“You stop. That’s it,” said the message to the 27-year-old chef, she told AFP in her home in Michoacan, one of Mexico’s most violent states.

Criminals in the town of Maravatio, like other areas across Mexico, are using threats and bullets to ensure their favored candidate is elected on June 2, when the country will also choose a new president.

Across the country, 28 politicians seeking office have been killed since the electoral process began on September 23, according to the non-governmental organization Data Civica.

Maravatio, an agricultural town of 80,000 inhabitants, tops the list.

On February 26, two aspiring mayors — Miguel Reyes and Armando Perez, both 58 — were gunned down in attacks just hours apart.

In November, Dagoberto Garcia, who also aspired to be mayor, was found dead.

Reyes and Garcia belonged to President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s ruling Morena party, Perez  to the conservative National Action Party, and Galan to the small opposition Citizens’ Movement party.

Five candidates remain in the race.

– Reign of terror – 

The spate of killings has left residents of Maravatio living in fear.

Two men in a car have been hanging around for hours at the rallies of the new Morena candidate, Mario Perez.

At night they stop the vehicle, roll down the window and stare at the meeting, without a single police officer in sight.

“That car’s not normal,” a member of the campaign team said. “Those things make us nervous.” 

At the end of a recent rally, Perez surrounded himself with supporters for photos, and the two men slipped away into the darkness.

Perez, a 34-year-old dentist who hopes to end the Party of the Democratic Revolution’s almost quarter-century control of the district, avoids talking about insecurity in public.

He has not requested official security protection, unlike 96 other candidates in Michoacan.

Perez told AFP his goal is to offer young people opportunities so they have alternatives to darker paths.

During a political gathering on a dusty street, one of his supporters, 45-year-old teacher Liz Monroy, admitted she was “afraid to participate” because she feels politics is synonymous with insecurity.

It’s no exaggeration: on May 10, near Galan’s house, a shootout erupted between the bodyguards of two mayoral candidates from a nearby district who crossed paths, apparently due to a misunderstanding.

– Drug trafficking, extorsion –


Michoacan state, Mexico’s main avocado-producing region, is the scene of constant fighting between organized crime groups, including the powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel.

Without a single dominant cartel, more than a dozen gangs are battling for control of activities such as methamphetamine trafficking and extortion.

They are increasingly seeking to “impose candidates” in the region, said electoral crimes state prosecutor Victor Serrato, who has received 39 complaints from candidates, mostly for threats and extortion.

“The criminals choose a candidate” and tell the others “you don’t have permission” to run for office, said Antonio Plaza, a 47-year-old aspiring state lawmaker in Michoacan.

He said in one municipality, “a gang summoned all the parties, except one, and let them know: this person is going to win here.”

– ‘Defending my people’ –

Spiraling criminal violence has seen more than 450,000 people murdered since the government of then-president Felipe Calderon launched a controversial military offensive against drug cartels in 2006.

The homicide rate has almost tripled to 23 cases per 100,000 inhabitants since then.

As well as drug trafficking and extortion of avocado farmers, criminal gangs in Michoacan are involved in myriad other activities including illegal logging.

In the Tierra Caliente region, where hundreds of soldiers have been sent to monitor the elections, one cartel even set up stolen antennas to charge for internet services, according to the state prosecutor’s office.

Despite the real dangers, candidate Maria Salud Valencia refuses to abandon her bid to be a local mayor in Michoacan.

The 60-year-old teacher, who has official protection, said she has “fear, but also courage” to keep her going.

“If they’re going to kill me, let it be for defending my people,” she said.

Written By

With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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