Mexico’s deadly elections: Crime groups target candidates in a fight for turf

Mario Figueroa, a candidate for mayor of Taxco, reveals the scar left from when a gunman shot him in December.
Mario Figueroa, a candidate for mayor of Taxco, reveals the scar left from when a gunman shot him in December. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

TAXCO, Mexico — Mario Figueroa sat in his armored SUV, surrounded by bodyguards clutching semiautomatic rifles. The bulletproof vest was stashed behind the back seat.

These days, Figueroa rarely travels without his security team. As a candidate for mayor of this Spanish colonial city — once popular with American tourists, now lashed by drug violence — the 53-year-old businessman has already taken a bullet in the chest.

“We have to be ready for whatever happens,” he said. “We are in the hands of God.”

Figueroa speaks during a campaign rally this month in Tlamacazapa, on the outskirts of the city of Taxco.
Figueroa speaks during a campaign rally this month in Tlamacazapa, on the outskirts of the city of Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

Mexico is in the final days of one of its most violent electoral campaigns in modern times. Eighty-nine politicians have been killed since September, according to the security consulting firm Etellekt. Scores more have been wounded or threatened. The campaign has become a stark illustration of crime organizations’ quest to expand their control of Mexico’s territory, a rising threat to this young democracy.

Sunday’s midterm elections will determine the makeup of the lower house of Mexico’s Congress and most state legislatures, as well as nearly half the 32 governorships. But the violence has focused largely on thousands of races for mayor and other local government posts.

“This is a struggle for municipal power,” said Notre Dame political scientist Guillermo Trejo, who studies political violence in Latin America. Crime groups “have discovered that gaining control over municipal governments and local economies and populations and territories is crucial if they want to survive in the very fierce struggles for drug-trafficking routes.”

A wood seller enters a church in Taxco el Viejo, part of the municipality that includes the city of Taxco.
A wood seller enters a church in Taxco el Viejo, part of the municipality that includes the city of Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
Fátima Lechuga waits on a customer at her jewelry stand in Taxco while her 12-year-old daughter plays on her cellphone.
Fátima Lechuga waits on a customer at her jewelry stand in Taxco while her 12-year-old daughter plays on her cellphone. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
Wooden crosses are lashed together over a grave at the San Celso cemetery in Taxco.
Wooden crosses are lashed together over a grave at the San Celso cemetery in Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

TOP: A wood seller enters a church in Taxco el Viejo, part of the municipality that includes the city of Taxco. LEFT: Fátima Lechuga waits on a customer at her jewelry stand in Taxco while her 12-year-old daughter plays on her cellphone. RIGHT: Wooden crosses are lashed together over a grave at the San Celso cemetery in Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

The fight for influence is complex. There are politicians who resist crime groups and politicians who are suspected of welcoming the gangs’ cash or muscle. In some towns, a dominant trafficking organization has imposed its favorite candidate. In others, rival armed groups back opposing parties.

Then there’s Taxco, a picturesque silver-mining city 100 miles south of Mexico City. Three of the nine candidates for municipal president are protected by bodyguards. Another mayoral hopeful dropped out of the race after being kidnapped and beaten. Local branches of two major cartels — the Familia Michoacana and Jalisco New Generation — are playing a murky role in the election.

[Violent criminal groups are claiming more territory and eroding the Mexican government's control]

“We’ve reached an extreme,” said Figueroa, a political novice who’s running on the ticket of a small party, Fuerza por Mexico. He confessed to being nervous. “How could I not be?” he asked. “I’m not Superman. But someone needs to bring order to Taxco.”

Indeed, this once-peaceful city has become a symbol of the social and economic toll of crime groups’ expanding presence in Mexico. Taxco remains an architectural jewel, with its 18th-century Baroque cathedral and hundreds of whitewashed, red-tile-roofed homes spilling down Atatzin Mountain. Tourists still stroll its cobblestone alleys lined with silver jewelry shops; they are rarely harmed. But homicides more than tripled from 2007 to 2019, reaching 77, extortion is widespread and journalists self-censor for fear of being killed.

“Taxco used to be known as one of the most tranquil places in the world,” said Roberto Hernández Mojica, a local leader of a miners union. “Now, at 10 p.m., there’s no one outside because of the violence. It’s affected us tremendously.”

Municipal police on patrol in Taxco.
Municipal police on patrol in Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
A municipal police officer.
A municipal police officer. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
A statue of Saint George slaying a dragon appears behind scaffolding in the Santa Prisca cathedral in the center of Taxco.
A statue of Saint George slaying a dragon appears behind scaffolding in the Santa Prisca cathedral in the center of Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

TOP: Municipal police on patrol in Taxco. LEFT: A municipal police officer. RIGHT: A statue of Saint George slaying a dragon appears behind scaffolding in the Santa Prisca cathedral in the center of Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

The mayoral campaign here got off to a bloody start. Figueroa was getting out of his SUV near his downtown home on the evening of Dec. 21 when a motorcyclist suddenly roared up, his face hidden by a helmet.

There was a crack; the bullet pierced the candidate’s lung. He was rushed to the hospital.

Last month, security forces finally arrested a suspect, the alleged local boss of the Familia Michoacana crime group. Figueroa said he thinks the attack was a political hit. He recalled what the gunman had shouted before opening fire: “You’re not understanding the situation with Parra.” Marcos Parra was the municipal president of Taxco, running for reelection. Figueroa had accused his government of corruption in public works projects.

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“We’ve been very critical of the municipal president,” Figueroa said. “So we think that that’s the origin of the attacks against me.”

In an interview, Parra scoffed at the allegations, saying his rival had no evidence. “He’s probably going to accuse me of killing Kennedy, too,” he grumbled. If anything, Parra said, he’s the one being threatened. In recent months, gunmen claiming to be from the Jalisco New Generation cartel released a video and hung banners in town charging the mayor was a “rat” tied to the Familia Michoacana.

Marcos Parra, the National Action Party mayor of Taxco, is running for reelection.
Marcos Parra, the National Action Party mayor of Taxco, is running for reelection. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
A former state police officer, now Parra's personal bodyguard, holds a rifle as they return from a campaign rally in Taxco.
A former state police officer, now Parra's personal bodyguard, holds a rifle as they return from a campaign rally in Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

LEFT: Marcos Parra, the National Action Party mayor of Taxco, is running for reelection. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post) RIGHT: A former state police officer, now Parra's personal bodyguard, holds a rifle as they return from a campaign rally in Taxco. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

Parra hardly looks like a gangster. The 67-year-old politician, with slicked-back hair and a meticulously pressed shirt, is the son of a former leader of the conservative National Action Party, a respected figure who was jailed in the 1960s for confronting Mexico’s authoritarian, one-party state. Parra said he’d turned down invitations from crime groups to meet. “I’ve never sat and negotiated with anybody” from the organizations, he declared. “Nor am I going to.”

Still, he acknowledged, running Taxco has meant enduring constant pressure from the gangs, whose tentacles stretch into the police and justice system. When Parra moved back to the city to become mayor in 2018, it was so dangerous he left his wife and son in Acapulco, 150 miles away. Crime has declined since then, he said, but there are still only 40 municipal police officers. He’d recruited 64 more applicants, but they either flunked the test or decided not to join the force.

“Were they threatened?” he said. “I don’t know.”

[A Mexican mayor was jailed on drug charges. He continued to run his town. ]

Taxco’s challenges reflect those bedeviling many Mexican communities. Crime groups that once concentrated on exporting drugs to the United States have diversified into extortion, kidnapping and narcotics sales. A U.S.-backed effort to decapitate big cartels caused them to splinter into competing bands. Heroin producers sought additional routes, to respond to a growing American appetite for the drug and to evade federal authorities.

Taxco at sunrise. A tourist destination known for its steep streets and silver jewelry, it has been racked by drug violence in recent years.
Taxco at sunrise. A tourist destination known for its steep streets and silver jewelry, it has been racked by drug violence in recent years. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

Some of those roads in Guerrero state ran by this pretty mountain city, long known for its silver mines. Now it has a different geographical significance.

“The location of Taxco is fundamental for the passage of drugs and stolen cars,” Parra said.

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The campaign is shaping up as one of the most deadly in recent Mexican history, surpassed only by the run-up to the 2018 presidential election. Thirty-five candidates have been assassinated in the current contest, the vast majority of them seeking municipal office, according to Etellekt. (Fifty-four other politicians who were not seeking office this year have also been killed).

The slain candidates came from across the political spectrum, but Etellekt found that most were trying to oust the local governing party. The gangs have much at stake in the outcome of the races. “They want control of the police, control of public works projects, the budget, and illicit activities,” said Marcial Rodríguez Saldaña, the state leader of Morena, the party of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

As dramatic as the death count is, it doesn’t reflect the full scope of the gangs’ intimidation. In previous election cycles, some candidates ignored the death threats and carried on with their campaigns, said Adrian Wences, state director of the small Citizens’ Movement party. “Unfortunately, the threats were carried out,” he said. Now, “when they are threatened, they drop out.”

A campaign poster for Figueroa hangs in the market where his family business is located.
A campaign poster for Figueroa hangs in the market where his family business is located. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

In recent months, scores of candidates have either abandoned their bids for office under pressure or stopped campaigning. In one high-profile case, a candidate for municipal president of Valle de Bravo, a resort town outside Mexico City, gave up campaigning after she was kidnapped and threatened, according to local news reports. The candidate, Zudikey Rodríguez, who represents a coalition of parties opposed to Morena, subsequently insisted she was still in the race. “Throughout my life, I’ve never let fear hold me back,” she said in a video.

While political parties have denounced the violence, some might be taking advantage of the money and brute force of armed groups. “Really what we’re seeing is a very dynamic type of power negotiation between both sides,” said Falko Ernst, senior analyst in Mexico for the International Crisis Group.

The electoral violence is concentrated in seven states, according to the federal government, which has worked with local authorities to assign bodyguards for around 150 candidates. “We are going to continue providing protection,” López Obrador said last week. He urged citizens to not be afraid to vote on Sunday.

A photograph of Omar Jalil, right — along with pictures of other former Taxco municipal presidents — hangs at the entrance of the offices of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in the city.
A photograph of Omar Jalil, right — along with pictures of other former Taxco municipal presidents — hangs at the entrance of the offices of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in the city. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
The newspaper founded by slain journalist Francisco Pacheco reports on the lack of progress in his case in a cover story this month.
The newspaper founded by slain journalist Francisco Pacheco reports on the lack of progress in his case in a cover story this month. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)
Pacheco's press card.
Pacheco's press card. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

TOP: A photograph of Omar Jalil, right — along with pictures of other former Taxco municipal presidents — hangs at the entrance of the offices of the Institutional Revolutionary Party in the city. LEFT: The newspaper founded by slain journalist Francisco Pacheco reports on the lack of progress in his case in a cover story this month. RIGHT: Pacheco's press card. (Luis Antonio Rojas for The Washington Post)

López Obrador boasts that Mexico’s homicide rate has stabilized after several years of explosive growth. But his policies — which include a new national guard, and social programs to lure young people from crime — have not substantially reduced the number of murders.

The attacks on candidates reflect a broader effort by crime groups to exert control in Mexico. Hundreds of reporters, human rights defenders, environmental activists and priests have been killed in recent years. In Taxco, journalist Francisco Pacheco was gunned down in 2016 after publishing stinging criticism of the government of then-Mayor Omar Jalil. The politician is seeking to return to city hall in this year’s election. He has denied any wrongdoing and said in an interview that Pacheco might have been targeted because he covered crime.

Like most murders in Mexico, Pacheco’s hasn’t been solved. His son, Ali, said it served as a warning to others in a region where crime gangs share power with elected officials.

“The message was very clear,” he said. “Remain silent.”

About this story

Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Copy editing by Frances Moody. Design and development by Junne Alcantara.

Mary Beth Sheridan is a correspondent covering Mexico and Central America for The Washington Post. Her previous foreign postings include Rome; Bogota, Colombia; and a five-year stint in Mexico in the 1990s. She has also covered immigration, homeland security and diplomacy for The Post, and served as deputy foreign editor from 2016 to 2018.