With Mexico’s presidential vote and other key elections less than six months away, both the government and its watchdogs fear that the black hand of organized crime will manipulate the process to install puppet candidates as servants of the drug cartels.

According to Mexican prosecutors, little has been done to keep the narcos and their drug money out of the July 1 election, and U.S. officials worry that tainted campaigns could bring new leaders to city halls and federal offices who might undermine the ongoing war against Mexico's powerful crime gangs.

Political analysts say that the drug lords could corrupt the presidential race even without having to meddle directly in those campaigns and that their attempts to boost local candidates or suppress votes could contaminate the process at every level.

Such threats appear to put Mexican democracy at a critical juncture, as the country struggles to escape from the decades-long shadow of corrupt, one-party rule while new, darker forces angle for power.

Five governorships, hundreds of congressional seats and nearly 1,000 local-level races are at stake, but the top prize is Mexico’s presidency, an office that the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, dominated for much of the 20th century and appears poised to recapture.

Despite concerns that drug gangsters will bankroll some candidates while intimidating — or assassinating — others, a package of new laws targeting election-related crimes has stalled in Mexico's National Congress since April. That leaves little time to safeguard the upcoming vote, Juan Luis Vargas, Mexico’s chief prosecutor for electoral crimes, said in an interview.

“The appetite of these criminal groups is infinite,” said Vargas, explaining that the cartels operate by an “economic logic” not unlike any business interest looking to gain influence. “They want certain guarantees from the authorities: that their monopolies will be protected and their competitors won't be allowed to operate in a given territory.”

Mexico's 2012 vote is even more at risk from pernicious influences than the last presidential election in 2006, Vargas said, because the country's mafias have honed their methods of corruption, opting to finance campaigns rather than buy off officials after they are in power.

“They say: ‘Why would I want to pay off the authorities if I can own them from the start?’ ” he said.

Elections held Nov. 13 in Mexico’s troubled state of Michoacan are viewed as an ominous sign of what could happen to the vote this summer. Polls showed the sister of President Felipe Calderon, Luisa Maria Calderon, with a solid lead in the governor's race, but she ended up losing to PRI candidate Fausto Vallejo Figueroa amid multiple allegations of voter intimidation.

Local news media revealed audio recordings of a La Familia drug cartel leader allegedly threatening to kill voters' family members if they cast ballots for a candidate who was supposedly backed by the rival Knights Templar gang. Federal authorities say they are investigating, as candidates in other towns also reported threats.

“We cannot allow organized crime to decide at the ballot box,” said Josefina Vazquez Mota, a leading contender to be the 2012 presidential candidate of the National Action Party (PAN), which ended 71 years of PRI-party rule with Vicente Fox's election in 2000.

Mexican presidents are limited to one six-year term, and the PAN held on to power in 2006 with Calderon's narrow win over leftist challenger Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who will top the ticket for the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, again in 2012.

This time around, analysts expect PAN candidates to be hobbled by public dissatisfaction with Calderon's military offensive against the drug cartels. At least 50,000 people have been killed since he took office in December 2006, and gangland violence has spread misery to parts of the country that were previously considered safe.

Outdated election laws

Calderon has angered rival lawmakers by suggesting that a presidential victory by PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto would represent a capitulation to the criminals. But many Mexicans seem nostalgic for the relative tranquility of life under the PRI, whose network of patronage and corruption once kept organized crime in check.

PRI leaders have bristled at allegations by Calderon and others that they aren’t as committed to fighting the cartels. But political observers say the party deserves the most blame for holding up a package of proposals that would stiffen penalties for election-related crimes, expand investigative powers and mandate greater transparency and oversight for campaign financing, among other changes.

Pena Nieto has called on candidates to sign a “pact” agreeing to shun any offer of assistance or cash from criminals. “I don’t want a single vote or bit of help from those who are outside the law,” he said. “I want to win the trust of good Mexicans.”

Mexico has not updated its election-crimes laws since 1996, despite the intensified pressure on its political system from the cartels as well as conventional influence-seekers.

“We have federal election laws that are made to prevent outside interference, but the reality is that if you get a million pesos to put up campaign posters, there is very little authorities can do about it,” said Jose Carreño, a political analyst and resident scholar at Mexico’s Tecnologico de Monterrey.

“We have a problem, but until there is reform, there isn’t much that can be done,” he said.

Cartels’ local influence

Local elections are viewed as especially vulnerable to cartel interference, because it takes relatively smaller acts of fraud, corruption and political violence to sway the outcome. And some observers of the drug war doubt the gangsters’ ability to have significant influence beyond their immediate surroundings.

“Mexican narcos don’t have the ability to sway elections on a national scale,” said Mexican security analyst Alejandro Hope. “And why would they need congressional deputies anyway? They don’t control the local police.”

But a presidential victory by the PRI could still be marred by perceptions of illegitimacy if there are widespread reports of vote-buying, violence and other shenanigans at the local level.

“I think a lot of people want to give the PRI the benefit of the doubt, because they think it may be in a stronger position to get the [cartels] under control, given its history and reputation,” said Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, a policy think tank based in Washington. “But the penetration of the drug trade into the political system appears to be deepening, and it’s very hard to get precise information.”

Jeffrey Davidow, who was the U.S. ambassador to Mexico when the PRI lost the presidency in 2000, said that although Mexico’s political parties are often quick to throw around accusations of underworld ties, their campaign operations are so opaque that the allegations rarely stick.

“All of these charges and insinuations seem to argue strongly that the Mexican political system ought to be more transparent about how elections are funded,” Davidow said.