MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican drug cartels have launched a campaign of intimidation against some politicians running in local elections next month in a show of power that is defying Mexico’s army-led crackdown on traffickers.
Drug hitmen have forced a string of candidates out of municipal races in two states on the U.S. border and killed at least one mayoral hopeful, using terror to try to dictate who will run cities and towns along key smuggling routes into the United States.
The violence is an alarming sign of the power drug traffickers still wield, despite an all-out war with security forces and President Felipe Calderon’s vow to weaken the cartels.
Gunmen killed a mayoral candidate for the conservative ruling National Action Party, or PAN, in the border town of Valle Hermoso in Tamaulipas state in May after he spoke out against drug violence while campaigning, police and politicians say.
In nearby Nuevo Laredo, drug hitmen killed two people close to a leftist candidate for mayor last month, and then they strung up banners warning against supporting the candidate. “This is what happens to everyone who supports these fucking people,” the banners read.
Calderon has made stamping out drug cartels his No. 1 priority, rolling out tens of thousands of troops to flashpoints across Mexico with U.S. support. Yet escalating violence is frightening tourists away from beach resorts, prompting some businesses to freeze investment in factories and worrying the United States.
Calderon has played down the violence despite the more than 23,000 people killed in the drug war since he took office in late 2006. He blames the media for exaggerating the conflict.
But the intimidation ahead of elections on July 4, which are being held in almost half of Mexico’s states, shows the deep reach of the cartels, politicians and drug experts say.
“Being a candidate is complicated and difficult because of the insecurity. Violence has become normal,” said Javier Garza, the head of the PAN in Tamaulipas.
In May, police arrested the mayor of the Mexican beach resort of Cancun and candidate for governor of the surrounding Quintana Roo state, accusing him of protecting drug gangs. He is one of the highest-ranking public officials to be swept up in Mexico’s crackdown on traffickers.
Mexican towns are still plastered with colorful election billboards and giant photos of candidates with the usual promises of more schools, better roads and help for the poor.
But in Mexico’s most violent drug war state Chihuahua, several candidates have dropped out after receiving threats. Two leftist candidates needed police protection to be able to register for election races, said officials from the center-left Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD.
“The most probable thing is that (the drug cartels) have calculated that some candidates who are likely to win are not going to work with them so they prefer to eliminate them,” said Jorge Chabat, a drug trade expert at Mexico’s CIDE institute.
In a cluster of towns outside Ciudad Juarez, the bloodiest front in the drug war, masked, heavily-armed drug hitmen have killed at least three local politicians this year and mayoral candidates dare not campaign in the towns they hope to run.
“There’s been an exodus of people and our party members have moved to Ciudad Juarez even though they are registered as candidates in those towns outside the city,” said Miguel Vargas, a leader of the PRD in Chihuahua state.
In Tamaulipas, one businessman running for mayor in a factory town across from McAllen, Texas, was forced to flee across the border in April after the powerful Gulf cartel accused him of taking contributions from the gang’s bitter rivals and former armed wing, the Zetas.
People close to the candidate who was running for the center-left Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, said the man was ordered by gunmen to leave the town or be killed. When he failed to take the threat seriously, the men drenched his house with gasoline and set it on fire. “He had to leave to save his life,” said a source who declined to be named.
Some candidates have agreed not to mention drug war insecurity while campaigning, even though it is a top voter concern, politicians from the leftist Workers Party said. Others have resorted to sending out large cardboard photos of themselves instead of campaigning in person as volunteers go around towns distributing campaign leaflets.
Voters in border states say they desperately want an end to the beheadings, extortions and daylight shootouts. Many worry too many election candidates are caught up in the drug trade.
“No candidate on the border is immune to pressure from the cartels, so who can we vote for, who can we trust?” asked housewife Estela Gutierrez in Reynosa, across the border from Texas.
Editing by Kieran Murray