Electoral Violence and Illicit Influence in Mexico

Midterm elections take place this Sunday June 6th.

Campaign season in Mexico has seen a rash of murders, as organised crime seeks to cement its influence no matter which parties win. The government needs to keep trying to break bonds between criminals and authorities, beginning with efforts in the country’s hardest-hit areas.

By The Crisis Group

HAVANA TIMES – What’s new? On 6 June, Mexico will stage its largest-ever election day, with 21,000 contests nationwide. Opposition forces accuse President Andrés Manuel López Obrador of planning to deepen authoritarian rule should his allies prevail in the polls. Meanwhile, criminal groups exploit electoral competition in their quest for impunity and power.

Why does it matter? The country’s politics are highly polarised, and its parties are weak and opportunistic. Criminal groups can use favours and threats to gain influence over future elected officials. Entanglements between government and organised crime that have long undermined security policies help perpetuate Mexico’s high levels of violence.

What should be done? Severing links between criminals and state officials will be challenging, especially given the government’s apparent reticence to act. Still, outside actors should encourage investment in independent election oversight bodies and local institutions, and a shift toward tailored and less militarised policies to curb insecurity in Mexico’s most conflict-ridden areas.

Executive Summary

As Mexico approaches the busiest election day in its history, the country’s criminal groups are vying to turn the polls into a lever for profit and power. For President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, in office since December 2018, the battle for over 21,000 posts at various levels of the Mexican state is a test of his proclaimed mission to rid the country of corrupt, neoliberal elites.

Opponents, on the other hand, denounce the government’s careless stance toward the COVID-19 pandemic, its divisive rhetoric and its alleged plans to establish central, authoritarian control over the state apparatus. Yet while the contenders wrangle for voters’ support, criminal groups have been busy seeking out potential allies among future elected officials, regardless of their affiliation.

Competition among these groups for influence over the state underpins a wave of electoral violence, which has so far claimed 89 lives. Collusion between state authorities and illegal outfits is likely to continue, spurring yet more bloodshed, absent steps to curb corruption and impunity during and after elections.

Elections in Mexico have for several cycles been tarred by waves of killings, primarily of candidates and state officials: 371 officials and 152 politicians, including 48 candidates, were murdered in the run-up to the last major polls three years ago.

Many of these victims had fallen out of favour with criminal outfits, whose pursuit of shady deals to assure themselves protection and access to public institutions and funds tends to be ruthless. With dismally low conviction rates for serious crimes such as murders – which total over 30,000 each year and go unsolved in almost 90 per cent of cases – and with police and judicial systems already compromised by illicit influence, particularly in regions marked by armed conflict, authorities often appear to lack either the will or the capacity to bring perpetrators to justice or to shield at-risk candidates.

This election cycle has brought more of the same — a polarised political environment, opportunistic parties and candidates, and criminal groups eager to build their influence. On the government side, López Obrador’s ruling MORENA party (created in 2014 to further his presidential aspirations) lacks cohesion and has been exploited by hangers-on who see it as a convenient vehicle for attaining power. For their part, opposition parties find themselves in a rut, with few leaders of note and many internal fissures. On both sides, candidates wishing to bolster their campaign with funding and blocs of guaranteed votes may look for assistance from criminal groups.

These criminal outfits, in turn, are increasingly locked in acrimonious feuds with one another. Over recent years, the large groups that once dominated the country’s organised crime scene have splintered into many smaller factions. As criminal sources confirm, transactional relations with elected politicians and state officials are one of the most significant competitive advantages an illicit group can enjoy.

The interplay of electoral competition and apparent corruption are on clear display in Michoacán state’s Tierra Caliente (the Hot Land), one of the regions of Mexico most blighted by conflict, where rival criminal groups look to gain advantage by forging pacts with prospective office holders. If their preferred candidates win, these groups can expect favours ranging from impunity to protective relationships with state-level and federal security forces, or even access to state largesse.

Local conflicts worsen when competing groups strike deals with different state offices or institutions, preventing any single criminal network from becoming dominant and setting the stage for violent stalemates.

Flourishing relations between state actors and criminal groups, anchored in a quid pro quo between illegal electoral support and official corruption, are among the greatest impediments to reducing Mexico’s sky-high rates of violence and impunity. Breaking these bonds will not be easy, especially given an absence of strong leadership on this issue at the highest level of government.

Mexico’s partners like the U.S. and the European Union should seek out allies in government and civil society who could take steps to stabilise regions ravaged by violence. One such step would be to strengthen the institutions in charge of safeguarding the elections’ integrity. Those bodies’ independence is crucial to any effort to shield elected officials from criminal influence. But patterns of corruption, co-option and impunity are deeply ingrained in the political and electoral systems. Countering these will require far stronger mechanisms of external oversight and accountability, backed by civil society, in institutions such as the police and prosecutors’ offices.

The overarching project of curbing criminal power in Mexico will also require a comprehensive overhaul of security policy, which, notwithstanding López Obrador’s pledge upon taking office to change course, continues to lean too heavily on the use of military force and thus to backfire. Tailored strategies for conflict-affected areas, entailing security forces protecting vulnerable civilian populations alongside efforts to clean up local institutions and the creation of programs that address underlying socio-economic causes of criminal recruitment, would represent a more effective way forward.

Here again, the federal government’s will to make such moves is presently lacking, but some state and local authorities as well as civil society groups are doing innovative work. Washington and other influential outside actors should support these sub-national efforts even as they press the federal government to reorient itself to a new security policy that can help Mexico break out of the deadly cycle in which it finds itself.

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2 thoughts on “Electoral Violence and Illicit Influence in Mexico

  • This is essentially the essence of the Mexican way of life. The culture has been permeated by corruption and violence for so long and so deeply that there is really no solution other than a very long, very slow evolution towards a new national identity. The Aztecs had an interesting way of dealing with corrupt judges and public officials – the death penalty.

  • AMLO “continues to lean too heavily on the use of military force”? The most common criticism of AMLO is that he is too lenient in dealing with the narcos.

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