Severed pigs’ heads tossed outside political offices. Police raids on campaign gatherings. Vote-buying and voter suppression. Bot invasions of social media designed to distort campaign trends. Gross violations of campaign spending limits. Forced disappearances and murders of activists.
Such were the incidents and accusations marring the June 4 elections in four Mexican states that analysts consider a possible dress rehearsal for the national presidential and congressional elections next year.
Despite tensions, tricks and troubles, Mexicans cast ballots in the states of Mexico, Coahuila, Nayarit and Veracruz, where new governors, mayors and city council reps were variously elected.
In a message that downplayed irregularities, alleged electoral crimes and political violence documented in the Mexican press, the National Electoral Institute (INE), the federal agency tasked with organizing national elections and assisting local ones, hailed the June contests.
“The National Electoral Institute has once again fulfilled its constitutional obligation of assisting with the local public electoral organisms in the organization of elections for receiving the free, secret and direct vote of thousands of citizens,” said Edmundo Jacobo, the INE’s executive secretary. “(June 4 ) has been an exemplary round that confirms the continuity and strength of our electoral democracy.”
While official tallies have President Enrique Peña Nieto’s ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) retaining the governorships in its historic strongholds of Coahuila and Mexico state, the old party lost the top seat of power in the Pacific coastal state of Nayarit and forfeited many local offices to opposition forces in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz.
More than two weeks after the voting, however, the gubernatorial elections in Coahuila and Mexico face formal legal challenges by opposition forces while post-election disputes swirl around many local offices in Veracruz and Nayarit.
Important backdrops to the June elections include the negative rub-off from an unpopular Peña Nieto administration, mounting scandals over money laundering and other illegalities allegedly committed by former PRI governors and senior officials in the states holding elections, escalating narco violence, rampant criminality, and economic discontent.
Elections in Jarocholanida, poppy land and Zeta zones
In Veracruz, gateway to the Spanish conquest of Mexico and an old center of the country’s oil wealth, the PRI and allied Mexican Green Party (PVEM) wound up the big loser in municipal elections in which they confronted assorted opposition parties, including a right-left alliance of the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and more liberal Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). Some Mexican analysts regarded that as an unholy marriage but others considered it an opportunistic example befitting an era when matters of ideology and principle are sacrificed for political expediency’s sake.
Questions of endurance or efficacy notwithstanding, the PAN-PRD coalition emerged as the big winner on June 4, sweeping more than 100 municipalities, many of which are being legally contested by the official losers.
In a state where fierce violence has pitted competing organized crime groups in recent years, especially the Zetas and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel (CJNG), election incidents included the shooting of a vehicle outside the home of a PRI-PVEM candidate in San Rafael, the similar riddling of PAN truck in Soconusco and the hanging of CJNG banners in Acayucan.
In the worst election episode, a young member of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s Morena party, Alfredo Tlaxcaltecatl, was shot to death in the indigenous Sierra Zongolica. Two other Morena members identified as Mario Flores and Daniel Tehuatlec were wounded. Though geographically distant from the June 4 elections, violent attacks have cost the lives of at least two other Morena members in June.
Eduardo Catarino Dircio, municipal director of Morena in Tixta, Guerrero, was shot to death on June 4, allegedly by state police. Tixtla is the scene of ongoing disputes between organized crime gangs as well as the site of the Ayotzinapa rural teacher college, the school attended by the 43 male students who were forcibly disappeared by security forces in the city of Iguala nearly three years ago.
On June 18, Luis Rey Sifuentes, municipal leader of Morena in Aquiles Serdan, Chihuahua, died in a hospital after being shot six days earlier at his store. Rey’s death came the day before Morena leader Lopez Obrador signed a “unity pact” in Chihuahua City with locals. The event was splashed with the booing of several politicians previously identified with the PAN, MC, PRI and PRD parties but who now apparently support Lopez Obrador, according to Chihuahua press accounts.
In Veracruz’s municipal contests, the PAN-PRD alliance won the big coastal city of Veracruz and neighboring Boca del Rio, while Morena captured the state capital of Xalapa and the old Gulf Coast oil city of Coatzacoalcos.
Unlike the other states conducting elections June 4, the governor’s seat in the land of jarochos (Mexican slang for Veracruz natives) was not up for grabs this electoral round; it was previously captured by the PAN’s Miguel Angel Yunes in the 2016 election. Shrouding both elections was the shadow of the now-disgraced former PRI governor, Javier Duarte, who fled Veracruz last year amid a corruption scandal but was recently arrested at a resort in Guatemala.
Similar political dynamics were operative in Nayarit, the west coast state snuggled between Jalisco and Sinaloa that is a significant opium producer and a source of heroin sold in New Mexico and other U.S. states.
As in Veracruz, the Nayarit election unfolded amid a local, corruption-tainted PRI administration. The scandal flared last April after U.S. authorities arrested Nayarit’s state attorney general, Edgar Veytia, when he was crossing the border near San Diego and whisked him off to a New York court where he confronts drug trafficking charges.
Since Veytia’s arrest, stories have flowed like a river of muck in the Mexican press about the incarcerated top cop’s alleged pacts with organized crime groups; control of jails and prisons; theft of lands, involvement in murders and disappearances; and ownership of multi-million dollar properties in the U.S. Veytia’s long associations with outgoing PRI Governor Roberto Sandoval, who has not yet been charged with any crimes, undoubtedly reaped political repercussions.
Like Veracruz, a PAN-PRD alliance was the prime beneficiary of scandal, with the added sideshow, or perhaps main one, performed by PAN presidential hopeful Rafael Moreno Valle, the controversial ex-governor of Puebla state, according to Proceso magazine.
Named the special PAN delegate for Nayarit, Moreno Valle helped mobilize voters, a warm-up which could give him an asset in the upcoming race for the PAN presidential nomination.
Election results showed businessman Antonio Echeverria of the PAN-PRD combo (plus two smaller allied parties) beating out the PRI by about more than 11 points, with Morena, a much newer party, landing a distant third with approximately 12 percent of the vote. Victor Echeverria’s father governed Nayarit between 1999 and 2005.
A smattering of violence also accompanied the Nayarit election, but no immediate fatalities were reported.
PAN Congressman Marko Cortes and PRD politician Carlos Navarette jointly complained about an election-day checkpoint that was installed by the Nayarit state police at the state border line where the international tourist resorts Puerto Vallarta, Jalisco and Nuevo Vallarta, Nayarit meet, backing up traffic for hours on the Puerto Vallarta side.
Quoted in Noticiaspv.com, the two politicians charged that Nayarit state officials “inhibited” residents who were working in neighboring Jalisco from returning to vote. Like the Paso del Norte of El Paso, Ciudad Juárez and Doña Ana County, New Mexico, the Puerto Vallarta-Nuevo Vallarta borderland is a place where many people work or study in one state but live in another.
Nayarit authorities, however, justified the checkpoint by arguing it was designed to shield against “mapaches” (literally raccoons in Spanish), or electoral tricksters, infiltrating from Jalisco.
Celso Valderrama Delgado, president of the Nayarit Electoral Institute, said another election concern centered on political phone calls made from call centers which were not accounted for in campaign spending.
In the northern border state of Coahuila across from Texas, opposition parties have formed the Dignity Front in an effort to have PRI gubernatorial candidate Manuel Angel Riqueme’s official victory tossed out. PRI opponents staged a massive post-election march in the state capital of Saltillo, drawing tens of thousands of people in a protest turnout observers called historic. Similar opposition protests were held in the border city of Piedras Negras, Torreon and Monclova.
Coahuila has been another flashpoint of violence and corruption in recent years. The Juárez, Gulf, Sinaloa and Zetas organized crime groups have waged bloody wars for control of transnational smuggling routes, street drug sales, prisons and entire regions, leaving behind a trail of mass graves, charred homes and shattered families. Successive PRI state administrations are under fire for alleged corruption in compiling a massive state debt.
All eyes on the big prize
Of all the elections held June 4, the races in the state of Mexico just outside the capital city garnered the most attention. The country’s most populous entity with an estimated 15,176,000 residents and 11,317,686 eligible voters, Mexico state is a study in contrasts, an entity of industrial districts and farmland, huge slums and ritzy developments, Mexico City suburbs and indigenous villages, and congested roads and rural getaways.
Ruled by governors from the PRI or its antecedents since the inception of the ruling party in 1929, Mexico state is crime-ridden, poverty-plagued and environmentally challenged. In recent years, Mexico state has become notorious for a high number of femicides, or the systematic killing of women based on gender and with state complicity. The brutal, post-election murder of 11-year-old Valeria Teresa Gutierrez in Ciudad Neza recast the issue in the public light.
Citing numbers from the National Institute of Statistics, Geography and Informatics (INEGI), Proceso magazine columnist John M. Ackerman recently wrote that more than 6.6 million crimes were registered in Mexico state in 2015 alone. Forty-six percent the respondents to a 2016 INEGI survey reported being a victim of crime, while fully 90.6 percent stated a feeling of insecurity. Only 19 percent trusted the local police, according to Ackerman. In another recent piece, Proceso reported that seven major organized crime groups and 113 smaller gangs were active in Mexico state.
Rightly or wrongly, the governor’s race in particular was widely viewed as a test of the relative competitiveness of the PRI and Morena in next year’s presidential and congressional elections. Three major candidates and four minor ones vied for the state’s top job, with the election narrowing down to two: Alfredo del Mazo of the PRI, who is President Peña Nieto’s cousin, and Delfina Gomez, the woman candidate of Morena. Although the election officials handed del Mazo a win with a vote share of about 34 percent, edging out Gomez’s approximately 31 percent, Morena and other opposition parties are challenging del Mazo’s official victory.
Press coverage of the Mexico state election was replete with allegations of election law violations and bizarre incidents that strongly hinted of an orchestrated campaign of political psych-ops, such as the dumping of pigs’ heads near Morena personnel and voting sites, and the distribution of false state election authority leaflets advising residents how to behave under gunfire. In one instance, journalists were assaulted and cameras smashed. Three Morena activists were reported forcibly disappeared, with one still missing days later. One activist reportedly returned home with physical injuries from a beating.
PRI opponents accused the longtime ruling party of being behind much of the violence and irregularities.
Victor Hugo Sonvon, Mexico state PAN director, told La Jornada newspaper that one-third of the scheduled functionaries assigned to work election day polls did not show up and were replaced by people standing in line. The PAN charged that “anti-democratic parties” contaminated June 4 by means of “telephoned threats, distributing false papers, delivering money to people in the immediacy of the polls, illegally mobilizing voters, distributing living supplies, and manipulating voter lists.”
Meanwhile, the PAN’S poor performance in Mexico state (candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota barely topped 10 percent of the vote), sent shockwaves rippling through the conservative party and inspired barbs directed at youthful party president Ricardo Anaya, who is considered a likely contender for the PAN presidential nomination. Rival Margarita Zavala, former President Calderon’s wife and an open contender for the PAN’s 2018 top nomination, lashed out at Anaya for possessing an “atrocious individualism,” and proposed that the party accelerate the choosing of its presidential nominee.
In the cage of the dinosaurs
Interviewed on Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui’s Internet show, prominent political pundit Denise Dresser analyzed the big picture materializing from the haze of June 4.
“So many times we’ve announced the extinction of the PRI dinosaur and so many times we’ve celebrated its end only to wake up and find out it is still there,” Dresser said. The political analyst considered the Mexico state election in particular a “microcosm” of problems plaguing the political system, including government support for certain candidates and parties, intimidation, patronage politics, and the indifference of authorities to electoral lawbreaking.
According to Dresser, among the important takeaways of the elections was more proof that the PRI prevails when the opposition is fragmented, as in Mexico state, as well as added doubts about the ability of either the center-left PRD or left nationalist Morena to win on their own without a coalition. The author of several books stressed that del Mazo received fewer votes than the other parties combined but still won at the end of the day.
According to Proceso, the PRI’s vote share plunged by about one million votes, or by 31 percentage points, in Mexico state alone in comparison with the 2011 gubernatorial election.
“If the PRD had joined with Morena, the left would have won,” Dresser maintained. “It isn’t merely the responsibility of (PRD gubernatorial candidate) Juan Zepeda and his recalcitrance, but also the responsibility of Lopez Obrador, who’s spent years and years attacking and criticizing the PRD. That’s no way to construct an alliance,” she added.
Considered an early frontrunner for the Mexican presidency in 2018, Lopez Obrador doesn’t have only the PRD to worry about as a competitor that could chip away at his existing and potential working-class, urban middle class and poor rural bases.
On his left, health promoter Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez, the spokeswoman for the new Indigenous Council of Government supported by the National Indigenous Congress and Zapatista National Liberation Army, has been designated as the group’s presidential candidate if ballot requirements are met.
Emilio Alvarez Icaza, a highly respected veteran of the 1990s civil society pro-democracy movement and an activist with poet Javier Sicilia’s anti-violence crusade who went on to serve as the executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington from 2012 to 2016, has launched a presidential bid as an independent.
In recent comments to Proceso, Alvarez contended that Mexico had fallen down on the road to democracy taken by many 20 years ago. Alvarez assessed current political landscape as “a failed democratic transition, with residual benefits and more and more in a retrogression.”
For Dresser, the 2017 state elections exposed serious deficiencies in the Mexican political system. “The behavior of the electoral authorities explains why the dinosaur continues being there,” she told Aristegui. “The PRI is showing that it isn’t just the dinosaur but the caretaker of the dinosaurs’ cages, which are more or less intact. The problem isn’t only electoral or the political parties. It’s systemic.”
Kent Paterson is an independent journalist who covers issues in the U.S./Mexico border region.