Mexico faces the challenge of avoiding the normalization of political violence
Forensic technicians work at a polling place where a man tossed a human head, in Tijuana, in June 2021.
Forensic technicians work at a polling place where a man tossed a human head, in Tijuana, in June 2021.Jorge Dueñes (REUTERS)

Mexico arrives at the electoral appointment on Sunday seriously wounded, bleeding violence of all kinds. One of the most obvious affects the political class, deputies, mayors and aldermen, but also officials and party leaders. To everyone’s families. With votes in six states, the concern about insecurity transcends the day of the elections and points to the processes: the selection of candidates, the composition of the government teams, financial support… The campaign seems calmer than other years, oblivious this time to municipal elections. The Etellekt consulting firm has counted 85 attacks on politicians in these weeks, although only 11 against candidates for a popularly elected position.

In perspective, however, the data is chilling. From 2018 to 2022, Mexico has registered 663 attacks against “people who work in the political, governmental sphere or against government facilities or parties,” according to the count of the Data Cívica organization, which maintains the project. Vote Between Bullets, on political and electoral violence. By attacks, Data Cívica understands threats, murders, armed attacks and attacks of any kind, as well as kidnappings and disappearances.

The year in which the most attacks have been recorded has been 2021, with 176, only above 2018, when the last presidential elections were held. Mexico then counted 167 attacks. For its part, the 2021 electoral process has been the largest in the country’s history. Voters elected 500 federal deputies, 15 governors, 1,063 deputies in 30 local congresses, as well as authorities in 1,926 municipalities.

The question, then and now, is why the violence intensifies. Why the election of public officials, the work they perform, the source of fights and discussions throughout the planet, degenerates in Mexico into torrents of mafia violence. And why, after so many years, the situation remains unchanged.

For Sandra Ley, responsible for the project Vote Between Bullets, Mexico lives “long-winded criminal wars”, in which politics appears as one of the war scenarios. An academic at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), Ley adds: “We cannot think of organized crime as an economic actor, but also as a political actor, not in terms of being part of one party or another, but because of its objective of generate protection networks to operate”.

This year has seen again attacks on politicians, just like last year. At this point, Data Cívica counts 72 murders —in 2021 there were 73—, the majority of officials, the majority at the local level, the same trend as in recent years. On the other hand, the attacks linked to the electoral process on Sunday have decreased. “The increase in attacks these years is because we have had hundreds of local elections, an area in which organized crime has an impact. In 2018 and 2021 all these municipal presidencies were renewed and thus we have so many attacks”, he explains. On Sunday, instead, relays at the head of the States are voted.

Enrich the criminal notion

In Mexico, it is often assumed that the violence linked to drug trafficking permeates other spheres, such as politics or elections. As if the murders of mayors and candidates responded, in general, to disputes over the sale of marijuana or methamphetamine, or to the control of a transit route. It is not that it cannot happen, but it is absurd to generalize, as argued by Romain Le Cour, coordinator of the security program of the organization México Evalúa.

Says Le Cour: “In the case of Mexico, where the lines between different types of violence are blurred, political violence has the objective of changing or influencing the behavior of other local actors. If you kill a municipal president, an activist, a journalist, the deterrent effect is immediate. When you want to launch yourself, you are going to think twice, ”he argues.

For the expert, the weight of authorities and candidates in the violence suffered by the union resides ironically within it. “If we had investigation and justice in this country, we would realize the shared responsibilities. Look, the Ministry of the Interior considers that public authorities are directly involved in almost half of the cases of murdered journalists,” he points out. “If we follow the diagnostic guideline, if half of these murders [de periodistas] they have to do with public authorities, I don’t see why it would be different for electoral contests”, he adds.

Delving into the responsibility of the union itself, Ley, author of the celebrated book Votes, drugs and violence: The political logic of criminal wars in Mexico (Debate, 2022), adds that “crime needs protection networks to exist”, a term also used by academic Benjamin Smith, author of the monumental work The Dope (Norton, 2021), on the history of drug trafficking in Mexico and its relationship with violence.

“These protection networks began to shake with the political alternations in the 90s, but they ended up being reestablished,” explains Ley. In that sense, our democracy is illiberal, because of democracy we only have the exercise of the vote. We have concentrated on the electoral exercise, but we lack a strengthened rule of law”, he clarifies. “The Mexican State needs to cleanse itself of the protection networks generated during the authoritarianism of the PRI, in the Army, the security forces. That same apparatus of justice that gave rise to human rights violations, is the same one that has continued democracy”, he ditches.

Le Cour insists on asking the right questions. “The explanations that exist in Mexico are in terms of criminal incentive: they kill to control the public budget, a route, etc. It may be, yes, but who benefits from the crime? The criminal leader of the area has one year, two, three, of life expectancy, five is rare, 10, extraordinary. There remain the political leaders, businessmen, governors, public forces… If we asked this question in a neutral way, instead of thinking about the narco, we would see the number of people who have an interest in eliminating such a mayor, ”he concludes.

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