Image: Election poster in Ciudad Jaurez
Alejandro Bringas  /  Reuters
A woman walks next to a poster of a local candidate in Ciudad Jaurez on Friday.
By
updated 7/4/2010 12:17:31 AM ET 2010-07-04T04:17:31

A common theme haunts Sunday's state and local elections across Mexico: drugs.

One gubernatorial candidate has been photographed with a powerful kingpin. Another was arrested and accused of protecting two cartels. A third was assassinated after pledging to bring peace to his violent state.

Many Mexicans are scared to vote, and others wonder why they should bother if the cartels seem to be in charge anyway.

The elections for governors, mayors and local posts in 12 states is the biggest political challenge yet for the government of President Felipe Calderon, who declared war on the cartels in 2006 and deployed thousands of troops and federal police to wrest back territory from drug traffickers.

A low turnout in the most violent states would signal Mexicans believe the drug lords have more control than ever.

And Calderon's conservative party is facing a resurgence of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which ruled Mexico for 71 years through a combination of coercion and corruption that critics considered a veiled dictatorship. That party, known as the PRI, is favored to win in most of the 12 states and gain momentum to regain the presidency in 2012, just 12 years after losing it.

That would add uncertainty to the future of Mexico's drug war, backed by millions of dollars in U.S. aid and marked by an unprecedented increase in the number of drug suspects extradited to the United States for prosecution under Calderon's National Action Party.

Nowhere has drug violence so shaken campaigning as in the northern state of Tamaulipas, where PRI candidate Rodolfo Torre was assassinated Monday, less than a week before he was forecast to win the race for governor.

Even Calderon said the attack showed drug cartels were trying to sway the elections. He pleaded with Mexicans to vote and show they would not be intimidated. The PRI nominated Torre's brother Egidio to run in his place.

For many, the attack was a frightening reminder of the growing power of drug traffickers in Tamaulipas, a state of cattle ranchers and oil wells that is both a PRI stronghold and the birthplace of the Gulf cartel.

Cartel henchmen extort restaurants, car dealerships and junkyards. People avoid highways where caravans of armed men travel openly, their luxury SUVs sometimes stamped with the Gulf cartel acronym. Local media stopped reporting on much of the violence after reporters were beaten and threatened — the Torre assassination being a notable exception.

"For a long time, authorities in Tamaulipas have pretended to govern while criminal groups impose their law," political analyst Alfonso Zarate wrote in the Reforma newspaper.

Torre, a doctor who served as the state's health secretary, had mostly campaigned on fighting poverty, even as turf wars escalated following a split between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas gang of hit men. Local politicians often avoid discussing drug trafficking, insisting it is the federal government's responsibility to fight organized crime.

Image: Soldier guards Mexican government building
Eduardo Verdugo  /  AP
A soldier, top left, stands guard inside the headquarters of the Tamaulipas state government in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, on Friday.

But Sunday, Torre announced that security would be a priority in his government. The next day, armed men ambushed his campaign caravan, killing him and four others, including his assistant and a state legislator.

Dozens of election workers have since quit, some because their homes were damaged by Hurricane Alex but others because they were afraid to show up at polling stations, said Arturo Miniz, a spokesman for the state election institution.

Many voters feel the same way.

"Here, wherever you go, you go with fear," said Jose Torres, who sells newspaper and shines shoes at a shopping mall in Ciudad Victoria, the state capital. "You hear a noise and you throw yourself to the ground."

Torres, who now shuts his newspaper stand three hours earlier than normal to avoid being out at night, can't decide whether to vote Sunday. "If I go vote, I will go very early in the morning, hoping that nothing happens," he said.

PRI supporters say Torre might have been targeted because current Gov. Eugenio Hernandez had appealed for more federal troops in his state. Calderon's government has said there was no indication of corruption in Torre's past.

But politicians in Calderon's party have long insinuated that the PRI protects the Gulf cartel. National Action leaders complained they couldn't find anyone to run for mayor in some Tamaulipas towns because of drug gang intimidation, and noted that the PRI had no trouble fielding candidates. In May, a National Action mayoral candidate was killed after ignoring warnings to drop his campaign.

Similar allegations have dominated the campaign for governor in the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo, home to Cancun, and northern Sinaloa state, the cradle of the powerful drug cartel by the same name.

In Quintana Roo, Cancun Mayor Gregorio Sanchez was arrested last month on charges of protecting two cartels, ending his campaign for governor for a leftist party. He has dismissed the charges as politically motivated.

"People start to think that voting is unnecessary," said Alejandro Ramos, a civil servant in Cancun. "People have long thought that the politicians have ties to organized crime."

In Sinaloa, a scandal broke out when the newspaper Reforma published a photograph of PRI candidate Jesus Vizcarra Calderon attending a party many years ago with kingpin Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.

During a televised debate, his opponent, Mario Lopez, demanded to know if rumors were true that Zambada is the godfather of one of Vizcarra's children. Vizcarra refused to answer.

Lopez shot back: "To fight crime, you can't be a part of it."

Vizcarra in turn brought up a scandal from Lopez's own past: allegations that one of Lopez's underlings protected drug dealers when he was mayor of Ahome six years ago.

But cartels are so entrenched in Sinaloa that many voters believe politicians have no choice but to work with them.

"I think the best option is Jesus Vizcarra because he did a good job as mayor," said Jorge Vargas, 29. "Drugs are a very important factor of power in Sinaloa and I think you have to negotiate with the capos to stop the killings."

Pedro Angulo, a 22-year-old university student, said the same thing about Lopez. "For me, the best choice is Mario Lopez Valdes, and he can do what it takes to reduce the problem of violence in Sinaloa. Let him negotiate with whoever he needs to but all the deaths in the street have to stop."

Lopez is backed by both the conservative National Action and a major leftist party, one of several awkward alliances that Calderon's party formed in the hopes of ousting the PRI from its strongholds.

Polls suggest the strategy has the best chance of succeeding in the southern state of Oaxaca, one of the few states where the election has not been dominated by the drug war.

Campaigning has been tense anyway, with widespread fears of violence if the outcome is tight. In 2006, deadly protests broke out for five months over allegations that Gov. Ulises Ruiz of the PRI rigged his 2004 election victory against Gabino Cue. This year, Cue again is running for a National Action-backed allegiance against Ruiz' hand-picked successor, Eviel Perez.

Associated Press Writers Ricardo Gonzalez in Culiacan and Gabriel Alcocer in Cancun contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Mexico Under Siege

loading photos...
  1. A tattooed man stands on a hill overlooking Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, on Dec. 20, 2008. Cartels have launched a wave of violence against the government of President Felipe Calderon since it began a crackdown on organized crime in 2006. According to the attorney general’s office there were 5,370 drug-related homicides in the year to Dec. 2, 2008. That is double the 2007 number. Juarez alone saw an estimated 1,600 such slayings. And the deaths can be horrific – victims have been tortured, beheaded or dissolved in acid. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Inside the car where Marisela Granados de Molinar was killed on Dec. 3 alongside her boss, Jesus Martin Huerta Hiedra, a deputy prosecutor in the Mexican city of Juarez. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Federal police search cars at an impromptu checkpoint near the U.S. border on Nov. 10, 2008. In the late 1980s the United States stemmed the flow of cocaine from South America through the traditional trade routes in the Caribbean. Looking for alternate ways into the U.S., South American cartels began to run drugs through Central America and Mexico, and now the vast majority of illegal drugs flow through this corridor. Facing the recent slew of deaths and corruption scandals among all levels of the police, the government has deployed 45,000 soldiers to fight the cartels as well. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Missing person signs litter the walls of local police stations in Juarez. Kidnapping is integral to the drug-running business and the general lawlessness accompanying it. Before the latest surge in drug violence, Juarez was infamous for another gruesome string of crimes – the kidnapping and murder of young women. There have been 508 such incidents since 1993, according to the state government. When the bodies do show up, many have been raped and mutilated. Many believe that most of these deaths are related to gang initiation rituals. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. El Diario newspaper's Armando Rodriquez was murdered outside his home while warming up his car on Nov. 13, 2008. The 40-year-old crime reporter was killed in front of his 8-year-old daughter who he was about to drive to school. Mexico is one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Since 2000, 25 have been killed there. In addition, seven journalists have disappeared since 2005. Many reporters refuse to put their bylines on stories, and many newspapers have stopped covering the drug gangs altogether. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The body of El Diario's Rodriquez -- killed in his car outside his house while his family watched in November 2008 -- is taken away in a body bag by an ambulance. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A U.S. official stands beside a recently discovered cache of drugs on the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border crossing. In December, the United States delivered $197 million to Mexico, the first stage of a $400-million package to buy high-tech surveillance aircraft, airport inspection equipment, and case-tracking software to help police share intelligence. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Men and boys shoot heroin in a "picadero," or shooting gallery, in Ciudad Juarez on the banks of the Rio Grande, just across from the United States. Thousands of picaderos, some serving as many as 100 customers a day, are said to exist in Juarez alone. Drug use and addiction among Mexicans has exploded recently, with the number of known addicts almost doubling to 307,000 in six years. Most experts assume these numbers dramatically undercount the problem. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Patrons and workers mingle at Hollywood strip club in downtown Juarez. With American sex tourism on the decline due to the dramatic increase in murder and violence, the few remaining strip clubs have become common hangouts for narcotics traffickers, or ‘narcos.’ (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A man walks in front of 24-hour funeral parlor. The death industry is booming in Juarez where an estimated 1,600 people were murdered in 2008. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Neighbors and family of slain Alberto Rodriquez, 28, watch and cry as the authorities descend on the crime scene. Rodriguez was killed in his car outside his house while his family watched. (Shaul Schwarz) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A bus carrying women and children drives by the site where David Rodriguez Gardea, 42, and Antonio Bustillos Fierro, 38, were gunned down on Nov. 12, 2008. The agents had led an investigation resulting in the arrests of gang members suspected in dozens of murders. The cartels are killing police officers at an unprecedented rate, especially at the border. Gangs have been breaking into police radio frequencies to issue death threats. "You're next, bastard ... We're going to get you," an unidentified drug gang member said over the police radio in the city of Tijuana after naming a policeman, Reuters reported recently. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A U.S. border patrol officer stands behind bullet-scared bullet-proof glass on the El Paso-Ciudad Juarez border. Although border agents do not get shot at often they are self-described "sitting ducks." The cartels and drug traffickers send messages of terror through such examples. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. The casket of David Miranda Ramirez, 36, is carried by fellow police at his funeral on Nov. 13, 2008. An estimated 50 of Ciudad Juarez’s police officers were killed in 2008 in incidents blamed on drug gangs. Many officers have quit out of fear for their lives, often after their names have appeared on hit lists left in public. While some police have been killed, others are being lured into cooperating with the cartels. Theses gangs have “enormous economic power, and behind that, enormous power to corrupt and intimidate,” says Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Family of slain police officer Miranda Ramirez mourn his loss at his funeral. (Shaul Schwarz / Reportage by Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Video: Arrest announced in Mexico shooting deaths

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments