democraciaAbierta: Analysis

Mexico’s recent election violence can’t be blamed on organized crime gangs alone

Up to 150 people were killed during the politically polarized campaign, with candidates, local officials, journalists and activists targeted

Gema Kloppe Santamaría
10 June 2021, 9.53am
Mexican President López Obrador blamed ‘organized crime’ for ‘the scourge of violence every day’
Raj Valley / Alamy Stock Photo

On Sunday 6 June, Mexicans took to the polls in what was the country’s largest-ever election – and one of its most violent, with candidates, local officials, journalists and human rights activists targeted.

There were reports of up to 150 killings during the campaign, which was marked by political polarization heightened by the president’s attacks on the country’s electoral authority, as well as on his various detractors, journalists and civil society groups.

The people voted for 15 state governors, 30 state legislators, 1,900 mayors and the lower house of the national legislature. Though Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was not on the ballot – he is halfway through his six-year term – the election was largely seen as a referendum on his presidency and likely either to boost MORENA, his party, or clip its wings.

National and international coverage of the election violence focused on the involvement of drug cartels or organised criminal groups. The government, as well as President López Obrador, repeatedly referred to “organized crime” as the reason for “the scourge of violence every day”.

Indeed, recent studies have shown that organised crime groups have incentives to perpetrate violence during an election, especially at the municipal level. Moreover, as analysts have pointed out, these organizations’ “incentives to kill” include the fact that they get away with it – more than 90% of murders go unpunished in Mexico.

Nevertheless, it would be inaccurate to focus on only organised crime. There is not much empirical evidence for criminal organization’s direct involvement in election violence, though admittedly such incidents often go unreported or investigations remain unsolved. Accordingly, the culpability of organised crime groups rests on speculation, rumour or the ‘evidence’ that is allegedly left behind at the crime scene by the perpetrators, such as notes left on the victim’s body. Sometimes, the manner of the killing – multiple shots to the head, for example – is considered to be proof that organised crime was involved.

Incentives to kill include the fact that perpetrators can get away with it – more than 90% of murders go unpunished

It’s also important to note that several organized crime groups have the protection of the authorities, particularly at the local level, as described in a recent report by the International Crisis Group. In other words, the lines between many of Mexico’s political actors and its criminal groups are more “fluid”, as Romain Le Cour Grandmaison writes for the Mexico Violence Resource Project, representing “overlapping sovereignties that collaborate and compete in a given territory”. As my own research shows, collaborations between political and criminal actors are not new to Mexico, and today, as in the past, extrajudicial killings may be perpetrated by state actors such as the police.

A narrative that attributes all violence to organised crime groups also fails to account for the multiple actors – trade unions, local power brokers, lynch mobs – that saw this election as an opportunity to advance their interests.

Unions with members in the transportation and construction sectors, for instance, regarded the election as an opportunity to secure contracts for public infrastructure projects. In March 2021, in Ecatepec municipality in the State of Mexico, the Sindicato Libertad union, which represents transport workers, street vendors and trash collectors, had a run-in with MORENA supporters protesting over a lack of drinking water. The union members are believed to be supporters of the organisation’s leader who was running for office as the candidate of a rival political party. Unions in Mexico tend to have deep connections to local power brokers, commonly known as caciques, as well as to influential businessmen and families.

Community-based forms of violence and vigilante justice also played a crucial role in the election violence

The caciques may or may not have ties to organised crime, but usually belong to families that have dominated local politics, unions, and businesses for decades. Acts of intimidation and violence, including extortions, kidnappings and killings are unlikely to occur without the caciques’ knowledge and possibly even their approval or active participation. In the state of Veracruz, for instance, several criminal organizations, including the brutal Jalisco New Generation Cartel and the Old School Zeta have a significant presence. Even so, as recent research has suggested, not all violence can be attributed to these groups.

A case in point is the assassination of Carla Gladys Merlín Castro and her daughter, Carla Enríquez Merlín, both members of an influential family of caciques with a sprawling business empire that includes transportation, restaurants, stores and ranches in Veracruz. In fact, their deaths are difficult to disentangle from the family’s own alleged history of political control, corruption and violence.

Community-based forms of violence and vigilante justice – including lynchings – also played a crucial role in the election violence. Groups that are more or less organised, seek to put pressure on, intimidate or negotiate with public officials or with candidates running for office. Their aim is to ‘correct’ the behavior of politicians who have been accused of corruption, of misusing public funds or of collaborating with organised crime groups. In states like Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Veracruz, ordinary residents of certain neighbourhoods have organized lynchings, riots and even kidnapped officials. A recent case involved a lynching threat against a candidate for mayor of San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas. Villagers put a noose around his neck, stripped him of his shoes and made him walk around while they berated him for failing to do the work he had promised during his term as a state legislator.

There was more than one actor involved in the election violence in Mexico. We need to break away from the usual explanations that focus only on the actions of criminal organizations, which are often imagined as operating outside the margins of the state. In fact, trades unions, vigilante groups, local power brokers and state actors also play a role in the violence, during an election or otherwise. For them, just as for organised crime groups, violence constitutes a political language, one that is used to make claims, negotiate access to resources, or influence electoral results. Beyond this election, these actors will probably continue to use violence as a way of doing 'politics through other means' so long as impunity and corruption remain an endemic feature of Mexico’s political system.

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