Mexico has to vote this weekend amid candidate killings and ballot burnings

Mexico burn election materials

MEXICO CITY — One candidate for congress was at home near the capital when a group of gunmen stormed in and shot him dead at point blank range.

A mayoral hopeful in Michoacan state had just finished talking at a rally when a van drove past and triggermen fired out the window, killing him in the street.

And in Guerrero state, masked men burst into the electoral offices and stole ballot papers, burning them in front of cameras.

As Mexico prepares to vote for hundreds of legislators, nine governors and hundreds more mayors on Sunday, brazen acts of violence have hit candidates and party activists, claiming 21 casualties so far. The bloodshed alongside attacks on the election authority’s offices and vehicles is raising concern about the health of Mexico’s young democracy and its conditions to hold Sunday’s vote.

“You would think there is a homicidal strategy against democracy.”

“This has never happened, never,” wrote political commentator Ciro Gomez Leyva — meaning the electoral violence is much worse this time than sporadic political killings here in the 1980s to 2000s. “The list also includes assassination attempts, injuries, kidnappings, and threats for candidates to resign ... You would think there is a homicidal strategy against democracy.”

The violence has been carried out by a range of groups with different motives. It mixes drug cartel carnage and political infighting with aggressive protests and sabotage. It is an explosive cocktail.

Mexico continues to suffer from a relentless cartel war that’s claimed more 83,000 lives since 2007, according to a government count. Cartels may attack political candidates who refuse to work with them. Or cartel gunmen may accuse a candidate of working with a rival gang.

Several killings in the runup to the election bear the marks of cartels, according to prosecutors.

Supporters of Enrique Hernandez, a slain mayoral candidate for the left-leaning opposition party National Regeneration Movement (Morena), carry his coffin after a funeral mass in the town of Yurecuaro, state of Michoacan, May 16.

In one case in Guerrero, mayoral hopeful Ulises Fabian Quiroz was held by men in military fatigues and bulletproof vests, a favorite narco look. The aggressors asked if Quiroz, a 34-year-old member of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, knew a local gang leader, according to a report in news magazine Proceso that cited witnesses. Then they shot him dead.

“The participation of organized crime [in the killing] is very evident,” Guerrero state prosecutor Miguel Angel Godinez told CNN.

In some other cases, party activists themselves could be involved in the hits. In Oaxaca state, Jehova de la Cruz, a local leader of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, was driving through his town of Juchitan when gunmen killed him.  

The poor southern state has less experience with cartel killings but a long history of violence by party activists against their rivals.

However, police have failed to make arrests in most of the electoral killings so the motives are unclear to the public, allowing fear to spread of unknown assassins.

Sabotage the vote

Amid this murder spree, several groups are attacking electoral offices and burning ballots in protest.

Leading these attacks is a teachers union that’s enraged by education reform that threatens their jobs. Union affiliates have stormed electoral offices, hijacked trucks and blocked roads in several states.  

Students have been demonstrating against this weekend’s vote, too, but for an entirely different, horrifying reason. They’re furious that 43 young teacher trainees disappeared last September in Guerrero state.

More from GlobalPost: 43 haunting portraits of Mexico's missing students

A protester from Ayotzinapa throws stones at the Mexican Federal Police blocking the Chilpancingo-Tixtla highway as relatives of 43 missing students demonstrated on their way to Chilpancingo on Wednesday.

Federal prosecutors say police and cartel hit men working with the local mayor kidnapped the students, killed them and burned their remains in a bonfire. Family members, who recently toured the United States for help, reject that account and are still searching for their missing relatives. The victims' surviving classmates and families believe the ballots are discredited by “narco politics” and want the elections canceled.

Yet another force protesting is a group of anarchists, who’ve dubbed the election month “Junio Negro” or “Black June.”

“We don’t want them to represent us, we don’t want to elect them nor work for them, we have decided to take control of our destiny and our lives,” said one message from a group called Anarchist Black Cross.

Mexico’s anarchists are known for periodic clashes with police, especially in the capital.

Confronting the diverse threats, election officials on Wednesday passed a motion to take extraordinary measures for the vote to go ahead, including last minute changes of venues. They also called on police to protect voting stations.

Raul Benitez, a specialist on violence here, said the protests alongside the assassinations make the situation more explosive than in previous Mexican elections.

“There has been cartel violence before and this has never seriously stopped elections from going ahead. But the boycotts will have a big impact,” he said. “Even though there is not that many people involved, it has an effect across the country. People get scared to go out and vote and that creates a feeling of ungovernability. This feeds into a wider crisis of human rights abuses and other problems in Mexico.”

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