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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Thomas Graham in Celaya

‘It’s become a battleground’: Mexico’s local candidates face deadly violence

A forensic technician works at a scene where Bertha Gisela Gaytan, Celaya's mayor candidate for the ruling party Morena, was killed by unknown assailants during a campaign rally, in San Miguel Octopan, Guanajuato on 1 April.
A forensic technician works at a scene where Bertha Gisela Gaytán, a mayoral candidate, was killed by unknown assailants during a campaign rally, in San Miguel Octopan, Guanajuato, on 1 April. Photograph: Juan Moreno/Reuters

Breakfast with Juan Miguel Ramírez, candidate for mayor in Celaya, Mexico, is interrupted by the thud of army boots coming down the stairs.

Soldiers have been camped on the roof of the family home since Ramírez replaced his predecessor, Gisela Gaytán, who was shot dead on the first day of her electoral campaign in one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities.

Gaytán is one of 30 candidates to have been murdered on the road to Mexico’s 2 June vote. Hundreds more have dropped out or asked for protection as organised crime groups vie for influence in government, corroding Mexican democracy in the process.

The violence in part reflects the scale of the elections, Mexico’s biggest ever. They will decide the successor of the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, as well as more than 20,000 posts at the federal, state and municipal levels.

All political parties have been affected by violence – but it is candidates and authorities at the municipal level that have been hit hardest. It is both the least protected layer of the state and where criminal groups seek deals with authorities to deepen their control over the local territory and its businesses.

Several factions are fighting over Celaya (population 500,000), one of the biggest industrial cities in the state of Guanajuato.

“It’s become a battleground,” said Falko Ernst, Mexico analyst for the non-profit Crisis Group. “It’s not just about drug routes, but oil siphoning, local extortion markets and retail markets for methamphetamine.”

Since 2020, roughly one in every thousand people in Celaya has been murdered each year. It is the most dangerous city to be a police officer in Mexico: in the past three years, at least 34 officers have been killed.

Hours before her death, Gaytán held a press conference in which she laid out her proposals to fight corruption and improve security in Celaya as candidate for Morena, the party of President López Obrador. Both Celaya and Guanajuato have been governed by the conservative Pan party for decades.

At the time, Ramírez, who helped design Gaytán’s platform, was working with the rest of her team in his home.

They all had their phones on silent. “We only got the news when someone came to tell us,” said Ramírez. “At first we didn’t want to believe it. Then they showed us a photo.

“[Replacing her] was a difficult decision, because the murder of Gisela was not an ordinary killing,” said Ramírez. “They put a bullet in her neck and then shot her all over her body.

“They shot her many times,” he repeated, held by the memory for a moment.

The state attorney general has twice announced the arrests of suspects, claiming to have dismantled the cell that murdered Gaytán, but without providing information about the motive.

The state governor, Diego Sinhue, has said they are exploring all possible lines of investigation – including that factions within Morena itself unhappy with the selection of Gaytán as candidate may have been involved.

“I have not received threats, but I have felt a hostile atmosphere coming from the state government,” said Ramírez, describing the announcement that Morena itself was under investigation as an attempt at “intimidation”.

Candidates themselves are not the only ones at risk.

Last week, the father of Saúl Trejo, Morena candidate for mayor in the nearby municipality of Tarimoro, was shot and killed.

“Going after relatives is a way of pressuring the candidate,” said Alejandro, Ramírez’s son and campaign manager. “Maybe they want to avoid a direct confrontation with the soldiers – but they can get to you indirectly.”

Soldiers are guarding not just Ramírez’s house, but that of his daughter, too.

Yet Alejandro seemed sanguine about the risks of a family-centred campaign.

“We’re used to it,” he said, before considering for a moment. “Honestly, there’s a lot of joy when you’re out campaigning. But then sometimes I talk to the soldiers and they mention little things. Like last night – we got in after midnight and they told me that a blue Kia had been following us. And suddenly you’re aware of what’s happening.”

Attacks on politicians are just “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to criminal attempts to influence elections and penetrate the state, said Ernst.

Violence extends both beyond the campaign trail and to a wider range of actors. “Behind a murdered politician there are surely journalists, activists and religious leaders who have been attacked,” said Sandra Ley, from the non-profit México Evalúa.

Such attacks have been rising for the last several governments, unaddressed by any party.

In some parts of Mexico, criminal control is now such that it is hard to claim free and fair elections are taking place.

“In [the state of] Guerrero there are places where organised crime groups control many spheres of life – not just the political, but the economic and social,” said Mónica Meltis, executive director of Data Cívica, which tracks political violence. “They control when people can leave their homes.

“And then you have to ask who is being selected to take decisions [in government],” added Meltis. “They are surely people with agreements with organised crime groups.”

Overall, political violence correlates with lower voter turnout – perhaps reflecting voters’ perception that candidates are being pre-selected by criminal groups, or the fear of violence during the act of voting itself.

In Celaya, the effect of Gaytán’s murder will only become clear on 2 June.

“It’s ugly to say it, but with the murder of Gisela, the voting intention for Morena went up,” said Ramírez.

“We are telling people to go and vote as if they were going to the market or taking the kids to school. To go and vote as if it were just another day,” said Ramírez. “To go and vote despite the fear we all have.”

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