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In Mexico, being a candidate for public office is a high-risk job

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Gisela Gaytán had just arrived at an event on the first day of her election campaign for mayor in the industrial heart of central Mexico when the shooting began.

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

The daylight murder of Gaytán, a 37-year-old lawyer, reflects a macabre trend in this year’s general elections in Mexico. Gaytán is one of 36 people murdered since last summer who were seeking public office, according to an analysis by The New York Times, making this one of the bloodiest election cycles in recent memory.

The murders of candidates signal a threat to the heart 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.

However, analysts and security officials say emboldened cartels are spreading fear in local contests as they expand their reach through 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: at least 14 of those relatives have been murdered in recent months. Some cases have been especially gruesome; This month, in the state of Guerrero, the dismembered bodies of a city council candidate and his wife were found.

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

To maximize their profits, criminal groups need compliant 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 towns across Mexico makes painfully clear, analysts say, candidates who dare to deviate from that cooperation risk being assassinated.

As a result, many have abandoned the races. Some political parties have withdrawn from certain localities because they cannot find people willing to run. Instead of contacting voters in public, some local campaigns have largely moved online.

Almost on a weekly basis, more candidates have been targeted. Since Gaytán’s death on April 1 shocked the city of Celaya, at least eight more candidates have been murdered across the country.

Attacks have intensified in states where criminal groups have fragmented into multiple criminal gangs, all competing fiercely for power. Another reason for the enormous magnitude of the massacre is the sheer size of these elections. With more than 20,000 local positions in dispute, it is Mexico’s largest election of all time.

Sandra Ley, a security analyst at 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 is essential in their daily lives.”

Despite the attacks, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and other figures from his Morena party have, for the most part, minimized the danger.

But the murder of Morena member Gaytán shocked the country, and López Obrador spoke about it the next day, at his morning press conference.

“These events are very regrettable because these are people who are fighting to assert 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 and Citizen Protection declared that it was providing protection to 487 candidates.

According to security experts, part of the increase in cartel violence has to do with the Mexican president’s own security strategy. López Obrador came to the presidency in 2018 promising to reform the country’s strategy toward crime, with an emphasis on addressing poverty that causes young people to join criminal 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 as security forces clashed with armed groups, although recent reports suggest there have been exceptions during his rule.

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

Electoral violence has permeated states where these types of attacks had not previously occurred in previous elections, most notably Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. The region has recently been engulfed in massacres as two notorious cartels and several factions fight for control of the country’s southern border with Guatemala. At least six people running for public office have been murdered in Chiapas since December, according to a Times count.

These types of murders are attacking the structure of Mexico’s democracy.

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

Antonio Carreño, state coordinator of the Citizen Movement party in Michoacán, said at least seven candidates from his party had dropped out of the races, expressing doubts about whether Mexico could boast of 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 female bodyguard, Gaytán had just begun her campaign, fully aware of the danger she faced. Just hours before her murder, at a local rally, she had announced some of her plans to make the city of Celaya safer.

He had promised to stop 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 asked federal authorities to protect her and eight other mayoral candidates in Guanajuato, said Jesús Ramírez Garibay, the 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 quick intervention by the state electoral institute and the state government,” said Ramírez Garibay. “They began their campaigns at their own risk, with only God’s blessing.”

In an interview, the Secretary of Public Security of the state of Guanajuato, Alvar Cabeza de Vaca, assured that his office never received a request for protection for Gaytán. And based on a risk analysis the state conducted in December studying each candidate’s vulnerability, she wouldn’t have needed it, he alleged.

“I was at a low level of risk,” said Cabeza de Vaca. “But that’s not so important. The important thing for me was that I didn’t have a request. Regardless of our internal analysis, whoever asks for protection is given protection.”

Alma Alcaraz, Morena’s candidate for governor of the state of Guanajuato, declared after Gaytán’s death that she had begun to receive threats. “They began to tell us through social networks: ‘You are the one who follows, prepare yourself, leave the fight, retire.’” She said.

Guanajuato state and municipal police officers are currently protecting 255 local candidates, Cabeza de Vaca reported.

However, the conditions that have turned Guanajuato—and Celaya in particular—into a hotbed of violence persist.

Guanajuato is home to a series of manufacturing plants that are part of a boom in nearshoring 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 control of 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 battleground. 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.

The Guanajuato state Attorney General’s Office stated this month that authorities had detained seven suspects from an unidentified “criminal cell” for their connection to the murder, and that even more people could be involved.

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

Juan Miguel Ramírez, a university professor who replaced Gaytán on the ballot, declared that campaigning has become a surreal exercise in which he is flanked by a dozen uniformed soldiers, even when he is teaching.

On a sweltering day in May, he showed great confidence in his abilities. But, she admitted, the climate of fear in Celaya and the fate of his predecessor have made her dilute what she says in the electoral campaign.

Ramírez 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 did not like that proposal. So based on that I make general proposals now.”