TIJUANA, Mexico (Reuters) - As millions of Mexicans lined up on Sunday to vote in the country’s largest election in history, others were huddled at the door to the United States, fleeing violence and bereft of hope that a new government could staunch it.
In past weeks, families escaping threats of extortion, kidnapping and murder, many from states riven by drug cartel-linked brutality, crammed into migrant shelters in the border city of Tijuana, waiting to cross to San Diego to seek asylum.
“We are overwhelmed by violence, and the proof is all these people who arrive daily, even with their children,” said Jose Maria Garcia, director of the Juventud 2000 migrant shelter in Tijuana. “They don’t... trust that whoever wins is going to do something for them.”
Camped early Sunday on the square abutting the entrance to the San Ysidro Port of Entry in Tijuana, Carmen Medina, a 26-year-old widow from the southern Mexican state of Zacatecas, said she had no interest in Sunday’s election.
“I barely left with what I was wearing,” said Medina, her face drawn with exhaustion, her three-year-old daughter perched on the sidewalk by her side. “My head is filled with getting there,” said Medina, glancing toward the border a few hundred feet away. A U.S. flag fluttered just beyond.
Medina said her husband was killed last year in retaliation for failing to pay extortion money on their small grocery shop to local criminals. She said a man recently showed up at her home demanding more.
Medina said she had heard U.S. authorities were jailing asylum seekers and had even separated parents from children, but she said she had to take the risk.
Mexican voters will elect a new president and decide on more than 3,000 down-ballot seats on Sunday. Widespread disenchantment with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) over intensifying violence, along with endemic corruption and a sluggish economy, have helped leftist frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador maintain a strong lead in opinion polls. He has promised to curtail corruption and take a different approach to Mexico’s militarized fight against drug cartels.
But shelter director Garcia said that if activity in his facility is any indication, the numbers of Mexicans migrating north in recent weeks is outpacing even flows of Central Americans who typically pass through Tijuana.
With almost 30,000 homicides registered in 2017, Mexico experienced its bloodiest year on record. Since election campaigning began last September, at least 145 politicians and candidates for office have been killed, according to data from the Mexico-based security consultancy Etellekt.
The victims belonged to a variety of political parties. Security experts say drug gangs are using violence to install friendly mayors and other elected officials, eliminate rivals and scare off would-be reformers who might stall their trade.
Attacks on politicians intensified in the final two weeks of campaigning, with seven candidates for office killed in the states of Michoacan, Guerrero, Quintana Roo, Guanajuato and Oaxaca, according to Etellekt.
“The challenge for whoever governs next was the major challenge of governments in recent years,” said Rodolfo Olimpo, president of the State Board of Migration in Baja California. “We have not seen a substantial change... People simply want to run away.”
They include Jose, a 37-year-old father of three who waited on a stool Friday near the walkway to the U.S. gate at the San Ysidro Port of Entry in anticipation of requesting asylum for himself and his family.
He declined to give his last name out of fear that the family was being pursued. Jose said he fled Chilapa, Guerrero, with his wife and three sons soon after their 11-year-old witnessed a man shot dead in May in front of the family’s market stall.
The father said the family abandoned everything, their business, their home. He said he had heard that U.S. officials had hardened the rules at the border and that there was a chance he might be separated from his boys and his wife.
“I prefer that they separate me from them knowing that at least they have a future and won’t end up dead or kidnapped in Guerrero,” Jose said. “We have no alternative but to leave because those (criminals) have eyes everywhere. Even here we feel unsafe.”
Former President Felipe Calderon, backed by the United States, began militarizing the fight against Mexico’s drug cartels in 2006, dispatching tens of thousands of soldiers in the effort. The strategy toppled some kingpins, including Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, the longtime boss of the notorious Sinaloa Cartel.
But more than a decade later, the strategy has led to fragmentation of criminal groups who have turned on each other. They have penetrated deeply throughout the country, terrorizing police, public servants and residents to assert control.
“We cannot live here anymore,” said Patricia Reyes, a farmer who recently arrived in Tijuana to seek asylum in the United States with her two children.
Reyes fled Ocampo, Michoacan where last month Fernando Angeles Juarez, a mayoral candidate was shot dead. Local media reported that three suspects had been apprehended in the killing.
“If they kill [politicians], imagine what can happen to us?” Reyes said. “It takes away all hope that with a new government, whoever it is, things will change.”
Oscar Misael Hernandez, a researcher at the College of the Northern Frontier, said many Mexicans have given up hope that their government can guarantee their security, which is why some are willing to risk everything on a long-shot asylum claim in the United States.
The violence, he said, “is impacting families, no matter their social class, gender or creed.”
Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz; Writing by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Marla Dickerson