Behind Mexico’s July 4th Election Crisis

While the United States prepares its annual July 4 celebration, Mexico
will hold its own date with history on the same day.
In a dozen states, voters will go to the polls to elect local and state
officials. Coming one year after mid-term Congressional elections that
delivered a stinging defeat to President Calderon’s National Action Party
(PAN) and two years before the presidential election of 2012, when some
analysts predict a victory of the former ruling Institutional
Revolutionary Party (PRI), this year’s contests represent an important
highway marker in Mexico’s political roadmap.
More importantly, the 2010 elections are an important gauge in the health
of Mexico’s official transition from an authoritarian state to a plural
democracy in which human rights, transparency and the rule of law are
upheld. But if this year’s campaigns are any indication of the country’s
political direction, the compass is fast spinning backwards.
The June 28 assassination of Rodolfo Torre Cantu, the front-running
gubernatorial candidate for the PRI and two smaller allied parties in the
border state of Tamaulipas, plunged the electoral process into a new
crisis, prompting President Felipe Calderon to cancel scheduled events and
convene an urgent meeting of his national security cabinet.
On Sunday, June 27, a bus load of sympathizers of an electoral coalition
including the PAN was shot up in the violence-torn state of Sinaloa, but
no injuries were reported. Sergio Ocampo Brito, a PAN leader and mayoral
candidate in a Guerrero mountain community notorious for its colorful
crops of opium poppy, was not so fortunate. Dragged from his home June 25
by armed men, Ocampo’s bullet-riddled body was found over the weekend.
Widespread violence and threats against candidates, party militants,
election officials and the press have been registered. In Aguascalientes,
unidentified assailants tossed a grenade at a warehouse used by the
state’s election commission, while in Sinaloa, firebombs were tossed at
offices of the PRD, PAN and PRI political parties.
On June 23, a group of 15 armed men wearing t-shirts promoting Rafael
Moreno Valles, the PAN candidate for governor of Puebla, allegedly
threatened, beat and robbed Ismael Maldonado Flores, a distributor for the
Contralinea news magazine. According to the Mexico City-based press
defense organization CEPET, the assailants took money, a lap top and 2,500
copies of Contralinea.
Nationally, the ongoing disappearance and presumed kidnapping of 1994 PAN
presidential candidate and leader Diego Fernandez de Cevallos also shrouds
the political scene.
Emilio Alvarez Icaza, president of the official human rights commission of
Mexico City and a veteran of the civic action organization Alianza Civica,
characterized the electoral map as practically on fire. “The alarming
thing is that we are returning to those practices of the 1980s and before
against which so much was fought,” Alvarez wrote in a recent column.
In addition to violent incidents, reports of old-fashioned vote-buying,
systematic political spying, Watergate-style break-ins, illegal use of
official positions and programs to promote candidates and other electoral
violations and irregularities have flowed in the press.
The campaigns have drawn some international scrutiny. A representative of
the UN Development Program in Mexico told reporters five of the 12 state
governments holding elections had declined to turn over information on the
operation of social programs in their respective jurisdictions. According
to Magdy Martinez-Solman, the state governments of Quintana Roo,
Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Veracruz and Tamaulipas did not disclose information
pertaining to the functioning and auditing of the relevant programs.
“When there is no information or when there are no restrictions, there is
reason for concern,” Martinez-Solman said. “Above all, serious reasons
exist to be on the alert for the use of social programs in those states
right before election times.”
Accompanying the election process is one nagging question: To what degree
are the elections compromised by the involvement of organized crime? In
the most dramatic instance of possible criminal infiltration, the expected
gubernatorial candidate of a center-left coalition in the key tourist
state of Quintana Roo, Gregorio Sanchez, was arrested by federal police
on the eve of launching his campaign and accused of protecting drug
“We have come to the possibility that organized crime will exercise its
political force in the upcoming state elections,” editorialized the weekly
publication of Mexico’s still-powerful Roman Catholic Church, “not only by
imposing candidates, assuring markets and negotiating financing, but also
impeding the realization of them and the right of the people to elect the
project and candidate they consider ideal.”
The cover of the current edition of Mexico’s Proceso newsweekly displays a
map with the title “July 4: Narco Elections.”
Although the US press has been jammed with stories about June 2010 as
being the most violent month in Mexico since the ascension of President
Felipe Calderon to power in December 2006, it has largely failed to draw
any connection between the surge in violence and the timing of the July 4
Many of the places where politically-tainted violence has occurred-Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Tamaulipas, Durango and others-are precisely the front lines of the so-called drug war.
In the final stretch of the campaigns, political news was overshadowed by
soccer’s 2010 World Cup in South Africa. .
Two northern border states, Tamaulipas and Chihuahua, provide important
snapshots of the 2010 electoral process. Engulfed in a war between the
Gulf and Zetas cartels, Tamaulipas has been in turmoil throughout the
election campaign. In a big sense, the Torre assassination, occurring
right after the candidate closed his campaign with big rallies, merely
marked the tragic culmination of an electoral process defined by violence.
In May, the PAN candidate for mayor of the border town of Valle Hermoso,
Jose Mario Guajardo, was shot dead along with his son and another man.
On more than one occasion, other candidates have been trapped in
shoot-outs, and on-ground campaigning has proven impossible in some areas.
In the violent “Little Border” across from Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the
center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) declared conditions
did not exist for it to even field candidates, while the center-right PAN
announced its candidates would appear on the ballot but refrain from
public appearances.
A similar situation prevails in Chihuahua, where the PRD did not postulate
candidates in 18 rural municipalities plagued by drug-fueled violence. In
areas of the Chihuahua mountains, criminal gangs were even reported to be
giving permission for candidates to enter or not enter.
In the Juarez Valley south of the border city, election officials have
reportedly resigned and Oscar Vianez, the brother of the PRI candidate for
mayor of Praxedis Guerrero, Octavio Vianez, was kidnapped in the closing
days of the campaign.
Earlier, on June 19, Jesus Manuel Lara Rodriguez, the mayor of another
Juarez Valley town, Guadalupe Distrito Bravo, was shot dead while “hiding
out” in Ciudad Juarez. In February 2009, two members of the Guadalupe town
council were also murdered.
Allegations of narco corruption have enveloped the mayor’s race for
Ciudad Juarez Last week, the PAN announced it would file legal charges
with the federal attorney generals’ office, headed by longtime Panista
Arturo Chavez Chavez, against PRI mayoral candidate Hector “Teto” Murguia
for alleged collusion with drug traffickers.
The border city’s mayor from 2004 to 2007, Murguia has long fended off
accusations that his first campaign and administration were infiltrated by
Late in this year’s campaign, the issue of corruption also surfaced in the
Chihuahua gubernatorial contest. Even as it repeated long-standing
allegations against Murguia, who has denied wrong-doing, the PAN raised
new questions about the supposed relationship between Chihuahua Governor
Jose Reyes Baeza and PRI gubernatorial candidate Cesar Duarte with
dairyman Jaime Galvan, detained in Las Vegas earlier this month.
Reportedly a grandson of former Mexican Defense Secretary Felix Galvan,
the Chihuahua businessman faces US charges of defrauding the Export-Import
Bank of at least four million dollars.
In early June, the impartiality of Chihuahua state officials entrusted
with organizing the election was questioned when the federal attorney
general’s office detained Ramon Serna, a functionary of the Chihuahua
State Electoral Institute for possessing 100 packets of information
trashing PAN gubernatorial candidate Carlos Borruel.
Considering the historically centralized nature of much of Mexico’s
political and economic power, the commotion surrounding the 2010 elections
might at first glance seem surprising. But historical rivalries of capital
city versus provincial power combined with more recent free market and
political reforms have made state and municipal offices more important
than ever.
In recent years, governors such as Enrique Pena Nieto in Mexico state or
Ulises Ruiz in Oaxaca have emerged as important political actors, capable
of negotiating with or defying the sitting president who, in the old days
of one-party PRI rule, could simply appoint and sack governors in a whim.
In addition to controlling the distribution of federal resources allocated
to the states, a strategic resource in electoral times, modern governors
also maintain ties to the huge Mexican diaspora in the US, establish trade
and investment offices abroad, deal directly with transnational
corporations, strike up relationships with foreign politicians and
project a distinct identity for their states via the mass media to a world
In the realm of law enforcement, governors oversee the state prosecutors
and police chiefs who are responsible for investigating serious crimes
like murder and theoretically filling in the public safety gap between
municipalities and the federation.
Municipalities remain the low man on the political totem pole, but mayors
and the officials serving under them still wield considerable power,
especially in the wake of political and legal reforms that upheld the
autonomy of municipal authority and, in the case of Chihuahua, gave local
police the power to arrest (or ignore) drug offenders.
Locally, municipal governments are responsible for maintaining public
order, registering and taxing properties, expending business permits,
approving construction projects and running public works such as
wastewater treatment. Routinely, municipalities and states outsource
roadbuilding and other key services to private individuals who stand to
gain from politcal connections.
If the allegations of Mexican federal prosecutors are true, the power of
the municipality is illustrated in recent investigations of high-ranking
federal policemen and Gregorio Sanchez, the former PRD mayor of Cancun,
arrested on charges of protecting organized crime.
Reputedly controlled by the Zetas and Beltran Leyva organizations,
tourist-driven Cancun and the adjacent Riviera Maya, long promoted as the
“safe” destination in Mexico, were and still are lucrative profit centers
hosting at least 180 illegal drug retail outlets, money exchange houses
and other businesses tailored for money laundering. With its international
sea and air lanes, Cancun also provides a conduit for smuggling immigrants
from Cuba into the United States.
The Cancun experience shows how state-mafia collusion is a dynamic
process, marked by complex negotiations, shifting actors and changing
Prior to the dissolution of one-party rule, such under-the-table
transactions were easily accomplished through the PRI. Nowadays, however,
backroom negotiations must be reached with a variety of political forces
and frequently changing police chiefs. It’s small wonder, then, that
murder and mayhem has touched practically all the political parties,
especially the Big Three of the PRI, PAN and PRD, and visited law
enforcement agencies on virtually a daily basis.
Mounting tensions surround the July 4 elections. On June 25, the PAN, PRD,
PT and Convergencia parties asked the Federal Electoral Institute to step
out of its usual mold and monitor the state contests, a job which is
normally the responsibility of the state institutes. In several states,
the parties have formed an unusual and controversial right-left coalition
against the PRI.
Prior to the Torre murder in Tamaulipas, Federal Interior Minister
Fernando Gomez Mont declared his agency had reached agreements with a
number of states to monitor the voting. Pledging state protection, he
urged citizens to exercise their civic duty on July 4.
“Today, more than ever, the act of suffrage constitutes citizenship and
patriotism,” Gomez Mont said.
The Calderon administration official’s positive spin was shared by Fernando
Herrera, president of the Chihuahua State Electoral Institute, who
projected a better-than-normal turnout at the polls in his state next
Others were not so upbeat about July 4 or the longer-term prospects for
Mexican democracy. Beatriz Claudia Zavala, president of the Mexico City
Electoral Institute, recently told local legislators that only two in 10
Mexicans believe in the electoral process.
Predicting a “historic abstentionism” due to fear or skepticism, an
outgoing PRD lawmaker from Chihuahua criticized this year’s election
campaign as so devoid of debate around real issues and so full of promises
of special favors it resembled a “multi-colored pinata.” Whether a new
political force will emerge from the wreckage of 2010 is an urgent
question, wrote Victor Quintana.
“Will the winners elected by the biggest minority be the ones who
re-launch democracy, where they are majorities, and not the elites who
make the fundamental decisions?” Quintana wrote. “And if we cannot expect
anything, or hardly anything, from the ruling class, will it then be the
citizenry from below which has the capacity to create actors who could
begin reconstructing the public space?”
© 2010 Frontera NorteSur

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