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In Mexico Running for office can be a 'death sentence'

Running for office in Mexico is "practically a death sentence," says mayoral candidate Mario Alberto Chavez, who was eating dinner at a restaurant when a gunman opened fire on his table.

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A vigilante stands guard during a meeting held by senate candidate Nestora Salgado in San Luis Acatlan, Mexico on May 20, 2018 play

A vigilante stands guard during a meeting held by senate candidate Nestora Salgado in San Luis Acatlan, Mexico on May 20, 2018

(AFP)

Running for office in Mexico is "practically a death sentence," says mayoral candidate Mario Alberto Chavez, who was eating dinner at a restaurant when a gunman opened fire on his table.

Somehow, Chavez survived the April 18 attack that wounded three staff members. But more than 100 other politicians have been killed in the country's blood-stained electoral campaign.

"I've asked (the authorities) to give me bodyguards many times, but they just keep ignoring me," says Chavez, a 35-year-old father of one, who is running for the New Alliance party in his hometown of Zumpango.

New Alliance is a splinter from President Enrique Pena Nieto's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Chavez won't speculate about who tried to kill him, saying he once considered quitting the race after receiving threatening phone calls from people who warned him they would leave dead bodies at his campaign rallies.

Rather than holding rallies, he now campaigns door-to-door in the city of 25,000 people in the violent western state of Guerrero.

"I decided it was worth it, to try to pull my community out of poverty and violent crime," he says.

Political violence

Jacko Badillo is a mayoral candidate in Acapulco play

Jacko Badillo is a mayoral candidate in Acapulco

(AFP)

Violent crime is a top issue on Mexicans' minds as they prepare to elect a new president and thousands of other federal, state and local officials on July 1.

Racked by violence linked to the multibillion-dollar narcotics trade, Mexico counted a record 25,339 homicides last year.

It was the bloodiest in a string of very bloody years since the government deployed the army to fight drug trafficking in 2006.

The unofficial war has unleashed a wave of killing that has killed more than 200,000 people -- though it's unclear how many of the cases were linked to organized crime.

Another 30,000 people are missing.

As the elections approach, politicians have seen more than their share of the violence.

At least 114 politicians have been murdered since September, according to consulting firm Etellekt.

It says at least 50 politicians' relatives have been killed and 417 attacks carried out against politicians in the same period.

With more than 18,000 posts up for grabs, the violence sweeping the country was almost destined to turn political.

"Mexico has had an unprecedented security problem for the past decade, and today we are holding the largest elections in our history," says National Electoral Institute chief Lorenzo Cordova.

"Has that violent context burst into politics? The answer is yes, gravely so."

Campaigning in fear

Salgado is pictured next to a wall with photos of Mexican guerrilla Genaro Vazquez play

Salgado is pictured next to a wall with photos of Mexican guerrilla Genaro Vazquez

(AFP)

Sometimes the motives for the killings seem clear.

On June 8, a former mayor running for the legislature in the northern border state of Coahuila, Fernando Puron Johnston, was slain as he left a debate where he had vowed to relentlessly fight the Los Zetas cartel.

In other cases, murdered candidates appeared to be involved with the cartels themselves.

Such suspicions hover over the case of Juchitan, Oaxaca city council candidate Pamela Teran, who was shot dead on June 2. She was the daughter of alleged cartel capo Juan Teran.

Most cases, however, remain murky -- and many candidates are campaigning in fear.

In Guerrero alone, 496 have opted to quit.

The authorities are supposed to provide bodyguards for candidates whose lives are at risk. But many candidates say their requests go nowhere.

Of the 49 requests so far this campaign at the federal level, just 12 have been granted, five have been rejected and 32 remain pending, National Security Commission head Renato Sales said last week.

Fighting back

Some candidates take security into their own hands.

Such is the case for Nestora Salgado, a controversial Senate candidate in Guerrero for Morena, the leftist party of fiery presidential frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Salgado is the former commander of a "community police" force -- vigilantes who took up arms to do the job they accused the real police of failing to do: protecting their communities from criminals.

Today, dozens of such vigilantes act as her bodyguards, toting an arsenal of aging shotguns and rifles.

Her request for official bodyguards was rejected, even though Salgado says she has received threats and found severed dogs' heads outside her house.

"I hold the government responsible for what continues happening to us candidates," she says.

In Acapulco, a Guerrero beach resort turned battleground in the cartel turf wars, mayoral candidate Joaquin Badillo, of the coalition led by the conservative National Action Party, has also brought in his own bodyguards.

Badillo, who owns a security firm with some 3,000 heavily armed guards, opted to use his own employees rather than government bodyguards.

"I have my family, my kids to think about," he says.

"But as I've said publicly, we're not going to fear the criminals. They're the ones who should fear us."

'Blood offerings'

Etellekt chief Ruben Salazar links the violence to the fragmentation of the cartels since the drug war began.

"The new cells that emerge... are seeking support from many of these candidates. And they get rid of the ones they don't manage to strike a deal with," he says.

Salazar says a "polarized" environment in which many candidates have vowed to jail their predecessors for corruption is also fueling the violence in a country where voters are exasperated to see more than 90 percent of crimes go unpunished.

"That can generate revenge attacks," he adds.

"In these elections, calls for justice are being turned into blood offerings to voters."

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