One of the deadliest jobs in Mexico: running for public office

Gisela Gaytán had just arrived at an event on the first day of her mayoral campaign in the industrial heart of central Mexico when gunfire erupted.

Moments later, his lifeless body lay collapsed in a pool of blood.

The daylight murder of Ms. Gaytán, a 37-year-old lawyer, reflects a shocking trend in this year’s general elections in Mexico. She is among 36 people killed since last summer while seeking public office, according to a New York Times analysis, making this one of the bloodiest election cycles in recent memory.

The murders of candidates signal a threat to the core of Mexico’s democracy. Voters are preparing to cast their ballots next month in a lively election that could result in the country’s first female president, a milestone in the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country.

But analysts and law enforcement officials say emboldened cartels are spreading fear in local races as they expand their reach into extortion, migrant smuggling and food production.

To add to the sense of terror, not only the candidates but also their relatives are increasingly being targeted, with at least 14 of those relatives murdered in recent months. Some cases have been especially gruesome; In the state of Guerrero, the dismembered bodies of a municipal council candidate and his wife were found this month.

Armed groups are also turning some of the killings into mass shootings. In the state of Chiapas, gunmen this month killed a mayoral candidate and seven other people, including the candidate’s sister and a girl.

To maximize their profits, hydra-led criminal groups need docile elected officials. Threats and bribes can ensure that a small town mayor or City Council member turns a blind eye to illicit activities. But as the bloodshed in cities across Mexico makes painfully clear, analysts say, candidates who dare to deviate from that cooperation risk being assassinated.

As a result, dozens of them have abandoned racing. Some political parties have withdrawn from certain cities when they cannot find people willing to run. Instead of reaching voters in public, some local campaigns have largely moved online.

Almost every week, more candidates are attacked. Since Gaytán’s death on April 1 shocked the city of Celaya, at least eight more have been murdered across the country.

Attacks have intensified in states where gangs have split into multiple criminal groups, all competing fiercely for power. Another reason for so much carnage is the magnitude of this election. With more than 20,000 local positions at stake, it is the largest ever in Mexico.

Sandra Ley, a security analyst at the public policy group México Evalúa, said the killings showed that organized crime groups were protected by corrupt or intimidated local officials.

Cartels, Ley said, need “access to resources and information that are essential in their daily operations.”

Despite the attacks, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and some members of his ruling Morena party have downplayed the danger.

But the murder of Morena member Gaytán shook the country, and López Obrador addressed the issue the next day at his morning press conference.

“These events are very unfortunate because these are people fighting to defend democracy,” he told reporters. But he also quickly suggested that the murder was related to high levels of violence in Guanajuato, the state where Celaya is located, and not to Mexico’s elections.

Last week, the Ministry of Security said it was providing protection to 487 candidates.

Part of the rise in cartel violence, security experts say, has to do with the Mexican president’s own security strategy. López Obrador took office in 2018 promising to reform the country’s approach to crime, with an emphasis on addressing the poverty that leads young people to join gangs rather than aggressively confronting cartels in the streets.

The plan, which López Obrador called “hugs, not bullets,” has had some success. It coincided with a decline in mass killings that occurred when security forces clashed with armed groups. although recent reports suggest there have been exceptions during his administration.

“But it had, let’s say, a very pernicious unintended effect,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a security consultant based in Mexico. Left mostly alone, he said, criminal groups became emboldened and expanded their presence into new areas.

Electoral violence has now permeated states that had not previously been affected by such attacks in past elections, most notably Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. The region was recently engulfed in bloodshed as two major cartels and several factions battle for control of the country’s southern border with Guatemala. At least six people seeking public office have been murdered in Chiapas since December, according to a Times tally.

These types of murders are tearing the fabric of Mexico’s democracy.

“Who is going to want to go to a rally where there is a risk that a drone could drop a bomb?” asked Guillermo Valencia, leader of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in the state of Michoacán, where in February gunmen murdered two mayoral hopefuls from rival parties in the city of Maravatío on the same day.

Antonio Carreño, leader of the Citizen Movement party in Michoacán state, said at least seven candidates from his party had withdrawn from the races, expressing doubts about whether Mexico could boast free elections and the rule of law.

“The question is clear: Where is democracy?” he said.

The state of Gaytán, Guanajuato, where a vibrant economy coexists with latent security challenges, shows the risks faced by people running for public office.

Accompanied by a privately hired bodyguard, Ms. Gaytán had just begun her campaign, well aware of the danger she faced. Just hours before she was shot and killed, she had announced some of her plans to make the city of Celaya safer at a local rally.

He had promised to curb the activities of corrupt officials, improve the salaries and working conditions of police officers, and install panic buttons and surveillance cameras throughout the city.

Before she was murdered, the Morena party had submitted a request for protection to federal authorities for her and eight other candidates for mayor of Guanajuato, said Jesús Ramírez Garibay, general secretary of the party’s state committee. But the request, he added, remained in bureaucratic limbo for weeks, bouncing between federal and state authorities without being approved.

“These candidates were left unprotected because there was no prompt intervention by the state electoral institute and the state government,” said Mr. Ramírez Garibay. “They began their campaigns alone, only with God’s blessing.”

In an interview, the Secretary of Security of Guanajuato, Alvar Cabeza de Vaca, said that his office never received a request for protection for Mrs. Gaytán. And according to a risk analysis that the State carried out in December studying the vulnerability of each candidate, she would not have needed it, he maintained.

“We detected a low risk for her,” Cabeza de Vaca said. “But that’s not so important. The important thing for me is that I did not receive any requests. Regardless of our analysis, whoever asks for protection receives protection.”

Alma Alcaraz, Morena’s candidate for governor of the state of Guanajuato, said that after Gaytán’s death she began receiving threats. “Messages started appearing: ‘You’re next, drop out of the race, retire,’” she said.

Guanajuato state and municipal police are now protecting 255 local candidates, Cabeza de Vaca said.

Even so, the conditions that have turned Guanajuato – and Celaya in particular – into a cauldron of violence remain in force.

Guanajuato is home to a number of manufacturing plants, part of a nearshoring boom in which companies have moved industries from China to Mexico. But it is also a place where two cartels, Santa Rosa de Lima and Jalisco Nueva Generación, are involved in a prolonged conflict over extortion operations and territory to sell methamphetamine.

A lucrative stolen fuel trade, a weakened police force and criminal turf wars have turned Guanajuato into a killing field. Homicides have declined from pandemic-era levels, but government data shows they remain exceptionally high, with at least 2,581 murders recorded in 2023, more than any other state in the country.

Guanajuato’s attorney general’s office said this month that authorities had captured seven suspects from an unnamed “criminal cell” in connection with the murder, and that even more could be involved.

As political tensions rise over Ms. Gaytán’s murder, other local candidates are exploring what it means to remain involved in politics.

Juan Miguel Ramírez, a university professor who replaced Gaytán on the ballot, said the campaign has become a surreal exercise in which he is flanked by a dozen uniformed soldiers, even while teaching classes.

On a sweltering May day, he was confident in his chances. But, he admitted, the climate of fear in Celaya and the fate of his predecessor have made him dilute what he says during the campaign.

He refrains from focusing on the city’s security challenges as she had done.

“There are many criminal groups in Celaya,” he added. “Some of the groups here didn’t like that proposal. Based on that, now I keep my proposals more generic.”

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