Ruling party candidate’s killing stokes fear that Mexico drug cartels will control elections

By Alexandra Olson, AP
Saturday, May 15, 2010

Candidates threatened in local Mexico elections

MEXICO CITY — One candidate was gunned down with his son inside his business. Another is missing after assailants torched her home. In some towns near the U.S. border, parties can’t find anyone to run for mayor.

The violence is intensifying fear that Mexico’s drug cartels could control July 4 local elections in 10 states by supporting candidates who cooperate with organized crime and killing or intimidating those who don’t.

Nowhere has the intimidation been worse than in the border state of Tamaulipas, where Mexican soldiers are trying to control an intensifying turf battle between the Gulf cartel and its former ally, the Zetas gang.

Gunmen burst into the farm supplies business of Jose Guajardo Varela Thursday and killed him and his son, after he ignored warnings to drop his bid for mayor of Valle Hermosa, a town about 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of Brownsville, Texas.

“Organized crime wants to have total control over local elections,” said Carlos Alberto Perez, a federal lawmaker for Calderon’s conservative National Action Party, known as the PAN.

On Saturday, authorities said former Mexican presidential candidate Diego Fernandez de Cevallos had disappeared, and his abandoned car was found near his ranch in the central state of Queretaro.

It was unclear whether the disappearance had any relation to organized crime. Officials said there were indications of violence but could not say whether the 69-year-old attorney and power broker had been abducted.

The election climate highlights how difficult it is to stop drug gangs from controlling Mexican elections, because the influence doesn’t normally appear as campaign contributions.

The federal government makes it difficult to for drug money to infiltrate national and local campaigns with lavish public financing, free television and radio ads, and tight restrictions on private donations. No candidate has been charged with receiving donations from drug traffickers since Calderon took office in 2006.

Instead, candidates have rumored ties to cartels that predate their campaigns and that benefit their businesses or private lives in a country that bans consecutive terms.

Such ties are hard to prove.

When 12 mayors from President Felipe Calderon’s home state of Michoacan were arrested on charges of protecting the La Familia cartel last year, all but two were released for lack of evidence — a blow to Calderon’s attack on political corruption.

“There is no way in Mexico to control this,” said Manuel Clouthier, a PAN congressman representing Sinaloa, where he says it’s an open secret that drug money controls much of the politics in his state. “This supervision of funding is just another sham.”

In Tamaulipas, PAN leaders have complained publicly for weeks that their candidates were getting death threats.

Calderon has condemned Guajardo’s assassination. Interior Secretary Fernando Gomez-Mont said Friday that the government has provided security in appropriate cases — but in discreet ways that won’t interfere with the candidate’s political activities.

Last week, assailants torched the home of Martha Porras, who had been seeking the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party nomination for mayor of Nuevo Laredo, a city across from Laredo, Texas. She and several of her relatives have disappeared, though police haven’t said if she was kidnapped or fled.

The PAN has been unable to field candidates in three Tamaulipas towns run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years before losing the presidency in 2000. It still controls many states, including Tamaulipas.

The PRD says its party members are too scared to run in the same three towns, but the PRI hasn’t had trouble fielding candidates there.

“In Tamaulipas, it has been very difficult for us to persuade citizens to be candidates for mayor, deputy mayors and legislators because they are constantly being threatened,” PRD national leader Jesus Ortega said in a recent interview with Milenio newspaper. “It seems the only ones who are acceptable are from the PRI.”

PRI leaders dismiss allegations that the party is in bed with organized crime, saying it is a tired tactic that opponents dredge up every election.

The PRI gained seats in congressional elections last year amid discontent with a flagging economy and surging gang violence. Calderon’s 3-year-old crackdown on drug cartels has claimed more than 22,700 lives.

This year, the PAN and the PRD have formed uncomfortable alliances in the hopes of unseating the PRI in several gubernatorial races.

One of those states is Sinaloa, a stronghold of the powerful cartel by the same name.

In December, the newspaper Reforma published a photograph of the PRI gubernatorial candidate Jesus Vizcarra attending a party many years ago with a man identified as Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, the No. 2 leader of the Sinaloa cartel.

In a phone interview, Senovio Ruiz, the head of the PRI in Sinaloa, insisted that Vizcarra had no ties to drug cartels. He said the allegations are “part of the media campaign” against the candidate, who is the mayor of the state capital of Culiacan.

Ruiz refused to comment on the Reforma photograph.

Clouthier, who has angered his party by openly criticizing Calderon’s drug war strategy, said little has been done to prevent drug money from reaching political interests.

“Narco-politics goes back many years,” Clouthier said. “It’s looking for its coronation in these elections.”

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