One of the Deadliest Jobs in Mexico: Running for Office

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Gisela Gaytán had just arrived at an event on the first day of her mayoral campaign in central Mexico’s industrial heartland when the gunfire broke out.

Moments later, her lifeless body laid crumpled in a pool of blood.

The assassination in broad daylight of Ms. Gaytán, a 37-year-old lawyer, reflects a gruesome trend in this year’s general election in Mexico. She figures among the 36 people killed since last summer while seeking public office, according to a New York Times analysis, making this one of the most blood-soaked election cycles in recent memory.

The candidate killings point to a threat at the core of Mexico’s democracy. Voters are preparing to cast ballots next month in a spirited election that could produce the country’s first female president, a milestone in the world’s largest Spanish-speaking country.

But analysts and law enforcement officials say that emboldened cartels are spreading fear in races at the local level as they expand their reach into extortion rackets, migrant trafficking and food production.

Heightening the sense of terror, not only candidates but their family members are being increasingly targeted, with at least 14 such relatives killed in recent months. Some cases have been especially gruesome; in Guerrero state, the dismembered bodies of a candidate for city council and his wife were found this month.

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

To maximize their profits, hydra-headed criminal groups need pliant 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 around Mexico makes painfully clear, analysts say, candidates daring to veer from such cooperation face getting killed.

As a result, scores of them have dropped out of races. Some political parties have pulled out of certain towns after failing to find people willing to run. Instead of reaching out to voters in public, some local campaigns have largely moved online.

Nearly every week, more candidates are targeted. Since Ms. Gaytán’s death on April 1 stunned the city of Celaya, at least eight more have been killed around the country.

The attacks have intensified in states where gangs have splintered into multiple criminal groups, all of them fiercely competing for power. Another reason for so much carnage is the sheer size of this election. With more than 20,000 local posts up for grabs, it is Mexico’s largest ever.

Sandra Ley, a security analyst with the public policy group Mexico Evaluates, said the killings showed that organized crime groups were shielded by corrupt or intimidated local officials.

The cartels, Ms. Ley said, need “access to resources and information that is essential in their day-to-day operations.”

Despite the attacks, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and some in his ruling Morena party have mostly downplayed the danger.

But the assassination of Ms. Gaytán, a member of Morena, rocked the country, and Mr. López Obrador addressed it the following day in his morning news conference.

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

This past week, the Security Ministry 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. Mr. López Obrador came to office in 2018 pledging to overhaul the country’s approach to crime, with an emphasis on addressing the poverty that drives young people to join gangs rather than aggressively confronting the cartels in the streets.

The plan, which Mr. López Obrador called “hugs, not bullets,” has had some success. It coincided with a decline in the mass killings that happened 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 undesired effect,” said Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexico-based security consultant. Mostly left alone, he said, criminal groups grew emboldened and expanded their presence into new areas.

Election violence has now permeated states previously untouched by such attacks in past elections, most notably Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state. The region was recently plunged into bloodshed as two major cartels and various factions fight for control of the country’s southern border with Guatemala. At least six people seeking public office have been killed in Chiapas since December, according to a Times count.

Such killings are tearing at the fabric of Mexico’s democracy.

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

Antonio Carreño, the head of the Citizen’s Movement party in Michoacán state, said that at least seven candidates from his party had pulled out of races, voicing doubts over whether Mexico could boast of having free elections and rule of law.

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

Ms. Gaytán’s state, Guanajuato, where a vibrant economy coexists with simmering security challenges, showcases the risks that people running for office face.

Accompanied by a privately hired female bodyguard, Ms. Gaytán had just started her campaign, well aware of the danger she faced. Only hours before she was gunned down, she had announced some of her plans to make the city of Celaya safer at a local rally.

She 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 killed, the Morena party had filed a request with federal authorities for protection for her and eight other mayoral candidates in Guanajuato, said Jesús Ramírez Garibay, the secretary general 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’s electoral institute and the state government,” Mr. Ramírez Garibay said. “They began their campaigns on their own, with the blessing of God alone.”

In an interview, Guanajuato’s security secretary, Alvar Cabeza de Vaca, said that his office never received a protection request for Ms. Gaytán. And according to a risk analysis the state conducted in December studying each candidate’s vulnerability, she would not have needed it, he contended.

“We detected a low risk for her,” Mr. Cabeza de Vaca said. “But that’s not so important. What’s important for me was that I didn’t receive a request. Regardless of our analysis, whoever asks for protection is given protection.”

Alma Alcaraz, Morena’s candidate for governor of Guanajuato state, said after the death of Ms. Gaytán, she started receiving threats. “The messages began appearing: ‘You’re next, leave the race, withdraw,’” she said.

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

Still, the conditions remain in place that have made Guanajuato — and Celaya in particular — a cauldron of violence.

Guanajuato is home to an array 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 New Generation, are engaged in a protracted conflict over extortion operations and territory for selling crystal meth.

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

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

As political tensions ratchet higher over Ms. Gaytán’s killing, other local candidates are navigating what it means to still be involved in politics.

Juan Miguel Ramírez, a university professor who replaced Ms. Gaytán on the ballot, said campaigning has turned into a surreal exercise in which he is flanked by a dozen uniformed soldiers, even as he teaches class.

On a sweltering day in May, he was confident about his chances. But, he admitted, the climate of fear in Celaya and his predecessor’s fate has made him water down what he says on the campaign trail.

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, I now keep my proposals more generic.”