Soldiers arrive at the municipal building in Amacuzac, Mexico.
Soldiers arrive at the municipal building in Amacuzac, Mexico.

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AMACUZAC, Mexico — The voice of the mayor-elect boomed from a loudspeaker in the central plaza of this small city. By now, his constituents were used to it.

Buenas tardes, amigos y amigas,” Alfonso Miranda Gallegos declared. “From this federal prison, I greet the Mexican people.”

Miranda was calling from 700 miles away, behind the high walls of Federal Prison No. 14, in the middle of the desert. While state prosecutors built their case against him, accusing Miranda of secretly working for one of Mexico’s largest drug cartels, he had found a way to govern Amacuzac with a smuggled cellphone.

He had been arrested in May 2018, but after campaigning from prison, he won a second term in a landslide. Even once his replacement moved into the municipal palace, Miranda remained in contact with local officials, dialing in at all hours to inaugurate new streets, address his cabinet, and rally his supporters.

"I’ll be out soon,” he would promise, rarely mentioning the charges of kidnapping and organized crime lodged against him.

What had put him behind bars, prosecutors say, was the kind of infiltration repeated all over Mexico: a politician apparently bought off by drug traffickers.

That corruption appears to exist at the upper levels of the Mexican government. Over the past year, the country has been rocked by the separate indictments of two top former Mexican security officials. U.S. prosecutors say former defense minister Salvador Cienfuegos and former public security secretary Genaro García Luna aided drug cartels while in office.

But the high-profile arrests of federal cabinet officials have obscured a crisis of governance at the local level, where mayors and police chiefs have formed alliances with cartels. The breadth of that criminal control is only now coming into view.

[U.S. arrest of former Mexican defense chief tests anti-drug alliance]

In Morelos state, where Amacuzac is located, investigators last year said they found that top officials in more than half of the state’s 36 municipalities had ties to cartels. The evidence included recorded phone conversations between local officials and cartel bosses and videos of mayors being threatened if they didn’t cooperate with cartel gunmen.

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“The infiltration has reached a worrying level,” said Pablo Ojeda Cárdenas, who is the state’s secretary of government, one of Morelos’s top officials.

Amacuzac, state authorities believed, was a case study in the connection between local politics and the criminal underworld. Miranda is the uncle of Santiago Mazari Hernández, the leader of Los Rojos, which controlled the trafficking of drugs, particularly heroin, through much of southern and central Mexico. Amacuzac is a key gateway on that route. Investigators say they found recordings of Mazari Hernández bragging about funding his relatives’ political campaigns in Amacuzac: “I supported the campaign with money. I got the votes," he says in one.

A new state administration came to power in 2018 on promises to pry local governments from cartel control. Its motto: “Government without compromise” — an allusion to the agreements between politicians and cartel bosses that effectively transform local police into cartel gunmen. But Amacuzac would prove just how difficult it is to extricate local politics from criminal enterprise, even when the alleged criminal politician is locked up.

State prosecutors have not publicly detailed the allegations against Miranda. Miranda has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

“I’m wrongly imprisoned,” he said by telephone. “The law has been twisted.”

Friends and family wait for a call from Alfonso Miranda Gallegos, who was making mayoral decisions for Amacuzak while in prison.
Friends and family wait for a call from Alfonso Miranda Gallegos, who was making mayoral decisions for Amacuzak while in prison.

Within weeks of his arrest, Miranda called his son Gabriel from prison. He had an idea: With a smuggled cellphone, he could run Amacuzac from behind bars.

“The people there in my town want to hear my voice,” Miranda explained in an interview with The Washington Post. “They want to listen to me. They want to know that I am alive, that I have not died.”

Some calls were to deliver basic orders: checking that public works projects were on schedule, making sure his staff was still being paid. But Miranda missed the profile he had enjoyed as a prominent politician, when he walked the streets around the central plaza, offering favors and loans. So in early 2019, he began sending messages to be played at public events.

“It’s a great honor and satisfaction to deliver what we promised,” his disembodied voice said at the inauguration of a street in the neighborhood of Cazahuatlán. The town had become accustomed to the ritual; people applauded their incarcerated leader after the recording cut out.

Miranda and his family had long been at the top of Amacuzac’s political hierarchy. They ran a cattle farm and a butcher shop in the city. In their sprawling house were blown-up photos and magazine clippings of Miranda. “Public Servant Exemplar,” said one headline. Miranda stares at the camera with a slight smile, his salt-and-pepper hair perfectly combed, his white button-down shirt crisp.

Miranda's wife, Rita Domínguez Mendoza, tends this garden at their sprawling property in Amacuzak.

Erick Miranda Brito runs his family's butcher shop.

An award given to Miranda is displayed at the family home.

Miranda, who first served as mayor from 2009 through 2012, would stroll along the main avenue in a cowboy hat and blue jeans, his political advertisements painted on the city’s walls, with his party’s slogan in bold letters: “Together We Will Make History.” He appointed Gabriel as his city secretary. His nephew Jorge Miranda was mayor from 2015 to 2018. When Alfonso Miranda’s other son, Rene, lost his own mayoral race in Amacuzac, Miranda — who was then mayor — ordered the demolition of the mayor’s office. (He later called the timing coincidental.)

It could be hard to tell whether Miranda was more beloved or feared. He renovated the city’s livestock market and built a small shopping center for artisans and restaurants. He paid the medical bills of the poor with his own money. But it was widely known that Miranda’s relatives were some of the country’s most powerful drug kingpins. A rumor circulated that the bodies of his enemies were buried under the livestock market.

Decorations hang in the market built by Miranda.
Decorations hang in the market built by Miranda.
A man drives by a campaign sign for Miranda, who ran for mayor when he was in prison.
A man drives by a campaign sign for Miranda, who ran for mayor when he was in prison.

Decorations hang in the market built by Miranda. A man drives by a campaign sign for Miranda, who ran for mayor when he was in prison. (Luis Antonio Rojas For The Washington Post)

In 2014, when the attorney general’s office announced it was investigating Miranda for allegedly collaborating with drug traffickers, supporters in Amacuzac refused to rescind his appointment to the state legislature. When he was jailed in 2018, they held a protest in the state capital.

“We voted for a social leader,” their hand-painted signs read. “He devoted his life to supporting the community.”

While Miranda ascended through Amacuzac’s political class, his nephew, Mazari Hernández, became the leader of Los Rojos. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration tracked the group’s growing role in North America’s heroin trade. Mazari Hernández became one of the most powerful — and most wanted — men in Mexico.

Publicly, Miranda family members have tried to distance themselves from Mazari Hernández. Several say they haven’t seen him in years.

“He was a nice guy, but we never really knew what he was up to,” said Erika Brito, Miranda’s daughter-in-law.

Erika Brito, who is married to Miranda's son Gabriel, drives to the family house.
Erika Brito, who is married to Miranda's son Gabriel, drives to the family house.

Senior Mexican officials say the family was working in unison, an example of the way local politics and drug trafficking have become conjoined in much of the country. For months after Miranda’s arrest, the city refused to appoint a replacement for the mayor.

“We tried to insist,” said Ojeda, the state’s government secretary. “This man is not legally the mayor" because his right to hold office was suspended when he was imprisoned. "But there was no reaction. Maybe it was fear.”

Then Miranda took on one of the country’s most sacred rites. He recorded the Grito de Dolores, a traditional declaration of independence delivered by local, state and national leaders every Sept. 15 in municipal plazas across the country.

Local officials in Amacuzac plugged a cellphone into the sound system and pressed play. Miranda’s voice echoed over the crowd. A Mexican flag hung in front of the stage where the mayor normally would have stood. Green and red lights were strung overhead.

“Long live the heroes who gave us our sovereignty and our liberty!” Miranda shouted. A cannon was fired in the distance. A few voices cheered, the recording cut out and an awkward pause followed.

Even some of Miranda’s relatives and colleagues were shocked that he would attempt the ritual.

“We thought it was going too far,” said his son Rene.

News of the imprisoned mayor’s grito made headlines in Mexico City — an almost cartoonish example of criminal control over local politics. An order came down from the federal government and he was stripped of his cellphone in prison. The state electoral commission said Miranda’s “political rights have been suspended.”

The grito was “a wake-up call for us,” Ojeda said. “We needed to clean things up.”

Weeks later, Gabriel was arrested on a charge of attempted murder. The family’s grip on power, and their perceived impunity, appeared to be coming to an end.

Morelos is hardly the only place in Mexico where cartels have swallowed local politics. Current and former mayors and police chiefs across the country are routinely charged with organized crime. Between 2004 and 2018, at least 201 local officials were assassinated — many, analysts say, because they were linked to cartels or refused to cooperate with them.

“Even if you’re a mayor who wants to stay clean, it becomes about physical survival for you and your family,” said Falko Ernst, a researcher with the International Crisis Group in Mexico. “In many cases, they aren’t left with many choices.”

A faded Mexican flag is seen on the hood of a car in Amacuzac.
A faded Mexican flag is seen on the hood of a car in Amacuzac.
The door of this house in Amacuzac was sealed.
The door of this house in Amacuzac was sealed.

A faded Mexican flag is seen on the hood of a car in Amacuzac. The door of this house in Amacuzac was sealed.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has required that local police take “confidence tests,” including a polygraph exam, to prove that they are loyal to the government, not organized-crime groups. In some places, such as Acapulco in 2018, entire police forces have been disbanded over suspected cartel links.

Mayors are legally exempt from those confidence tests. Still, several state security forces have taken up their own counterintelligence campaigns against local officials. Morelos has been unusually transparent.

State authorities this year said they found a cellphone belonging to an associate of Mazari Hernández that included 11,000 voice-memo exchanges related to Los Rojos’s operations — many of them between Mazari Hernández and local officials throughout the state.

“It shows us the whole thing works,” said one state security official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation.

There was more evidence. In 2017, authorities found a video showing the mayor of Mazatepec, a few miles north of Amacuzac, being threatened by masked cartel gunmen.

We “want you to cooperate,” one of the gunmen said.

“I’m not going to be brave,” Mayor Jorge Toledo submitted. “You do your work and I’ll do mine.”

The problem of corruption in local politics sometimes felt intractable. State authorities could arrest mayors and police chiefs, but that wouldn’t end the influence of criminal groups unless they could find uncompromised leaders to replace them.

[Former Mexican anti-drug official charged with taking bribes from ‘El Chapo’ cartel]

With Miranda in jail, Ojeda set about trying to appoint a replacement. “Someone who is clean,” he told The Post last year. “Someone we can trust.”

But anyone who emerged would be seen as challenging the Miranda family. The last non-Miranda mayor of Amacuzac had been a man named Noe Reynoso, who served from 2012 to 2015 and was still, years later, considered a bitter rival by the Mirandas. In September 2019, he was shot twice in the head. Gabriel Miranda was charged; he denies wrongdoing and police have not offered a motive. Reynoso survived.

Ramiro Iturbe Parra, who agreed last year to become Amacuzac's mayor, sits in his office in the city's municipal building.
Ramiro Iturbe Parra, who agreed last year to become Amacuzac's mayor, sits in his office in the city's municipal building.

Ojeda tried to persuade Ramiro Iturbe Parra, the owner of a local tortilla shop and a public administrator in the line of succession for mayor, to take the job. Iturbe declined, saying he been warned by criminal groups not to accept.

Ojeda persisted, even going on television to reassure Iturbe. “We will provide whatever protection he requires,” Ojeda said in one interview.

Iturbe is a rotund man with a slight mustache, known mostly in Amacuzac for the corn tortillas he made at Tortilleria Rami. He relented in October 2019.

Ojeda drove to the city in a convoy of armored cars to swear him in. Iturbe wore a white button-down shirt and a fedora. When the official photographer snapped pictures, Iturbe did not smile. He would describe his inauguration as “a moment when I couldn’t help but be scared.”

Interviewed a few weeks later, Iturbe was visibly nervous. He refused to answer questions about security. He had asked for a larger police presence, he said, but state officials told him there was money for only one bodyguard and 27 police officers.

“Of course I am afraid,” he said. “Sometimes I dream I’m still making tortillas.”

Asked why he took the job, Iturbe looked down at his desk.

“I did it for the municipality, for my people,” he said. “I want my children to have better lives. Not the one I'm living now.”

Alderwoman Eugenia Núñez López, a close colleague of Iturbe, spoke of being “petrified” of the Mirandas. She died in October after contracting the coronavirus.

“They used to say hello to us, and now there’s just a coldness, like they blame us for what happened to Alfonso,” she said in December last year. “I don’t know what they’re planning.”

A few hours after Núñez López spoke about her concerns, several members of the Miranda family were seen leaving Iturbe’s office. They spoke quietly to one another. Iturbe declined to describe the subject of the meeting.

“Some minor issues,” he said.

Weeks later, Iturbe’s car exploded outside his house. He was a few yards away but survived unscathed.

Miranda continued to try to exert control over Amacuzac. After Iturbe’s inauguration, he was no longer able to address the town so brazenly. But he continued to call weekly to a gathering in his home of family, friends and local officials.

Miranda opened one such call by attacking the charges against him.

“The people of Amacuzac didn’t vote for a criminal, but a hard-working, honest man,” he said.

His audience, in a tight circle around the phone, nodded. The officials, speaking in the presence of a Post correspondent and photographer, told Miranda they had a message for him.

“You can count on us” said Etelvina Miranda Flores, the city’s director of women’s affairs. “The directors are with you, and we’re waiting for your release. This is your project.”

“Were the journalists listening?” Miranda asked.

“Yes,” she said. “Don’t worry.”

Iturbe’s first significant public appearance was just before Christmas 2019. It would be a chance to speak to his constituents just a few steps from Miranda’s butcher shop.

Iturbe sits with his family at a lighting ceremony for the city's Christmas tree as he makes his first public appearance as mayor.

Children parade through Amacuzac's streets before the tree lighting.

A soldier guards a street in Amacuzac. Iturbe has asked Morelos state for a larger police presence in the city but has been told there are not enough funds.

But Iturbe never left his plastic folding chair. An assistant read his speech while Iturbe stared at the ground, flanked by his two bodyguards.

“It would be better if every day was Christmas,” the aide read, “because it’s the only day that everyone wants peace.”

Two months later, Iturbe publicly threatened to resign. He said the state had failed to protect him.

Elsewhere in Mexico, mayors have grown so afraid that they have governed from outside their municipalities. Since receiving multiple death threats, Yanet Morales Huizar, the mayor of Apulco in Zacatecas state, has governed almost entirely over the telephone from an undisclosed location.

[Mexico’s Jalisco New Generation Cartel blazes a bloody trail in rise to power]

“I decided I had to protect myself,” she said.

Iturbe opted to stay in Amacuzac. If the threats continued, he said, he would quit.

“I spoke to my family about it,” he said. “They told me to keep going.”

By June of this year, Iturbe was a different man: confident, outspoken, funny. He sat behind his desk wearing a surgical mask. The city had been battling a growing number of coronavirus cases.

“The state government never sent me the security I asked for,” he said. “But we are trying our best.”

A few months earlier, investigators with the state attorney general’s office had searched a cattle farm once managed by the Miranda family, looking for a mass grave. The team brought shovels and dug into the brown dirt.

“What I can confirm is that it was a search for bodies, but I still cannot tell you if there was a discovery or not,” said Uriel Carmona Gándara, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office.

The Miranda family had exploded in anger.

“They are tearing up everything,” said Brito, Miranda’s daughter-in-law. “They won’t even tell us what they are doing here.”

The sun rises over Amacuzac.
The sun rises over Amacuzac.

Mazari Hernández was arrested in late 2019 and his detention dramatically changed the security dynamic in Morelos, weakening Los Rojos just as the Jalisco New Generation cartel was expanding across the country. If the Miranda family had once been untouchable in Amacuzac, officials said, that was no longer the case. In April, Miranda’s brother was found killed near the livestock market.

Iturbe said he was starting to feel more comfortable. He was hopeful that security conditions were beginning to stabilize. But it turned out the decline of Los Rojos and the fall of the Miranda family did not mean that Amacuzac was safer, or out of cartel control.

An internal security map of Morelos shared by state authorities showed a new fight for power between groups representing the Familia Michoacana and the Jalisco cartel.

“Security hasn’t improved,” said one official. “It has just changed.”

By October, violence had again seized Amacuzac. In 15 days, two police officers were shot, one of them killed. A local judge was shot and in critical condition. Iturbe received more threatening phone calls from numbers with out-of-state area codes. He believed the Familia Michoacana was setting down roots.

“They’re running over Amacuzac,” he said. He asked state authorities for more police, he said, but the request was rejected.

Authorities reduced their count of municipalities under partial or complete cartel control to 16.

In two separate interviews, state officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, said Iturbe seemed to be performing as well as he could under the circumstances. But in both cases, the officials later admitted concerns about links between Iturbe’s relatives and one of the two cartels that had gained ground in Morelos.

“What I can say is that we are worried and we are following it,” one said.

Iturbe denied that any of his relatives had links to cartels.

“I wouldn’t allow it,” he said. “Never, never, never.”

Asked if it was possible to remain neutral as leader of a city buffeted by organized crime, he was adamant.

“I will quit this job before I’m forced to work for one of those groups.”

About this project

Copy editing by Frances Moody and Martha Murdock. Graphics by Adrian Blanco. Graphics editing by Armand Emamdjomeh and Tim Meko. Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard. Design and development by Joanne Lee. Design editing by Brian Gross. Project editing by Courtney Kan.

Kevin Sieff has been The Washington Post’s Latin America correspondent since 2018. He served previously as the paper's Africa bureau chief and Afghanistan bureau chief.