PLATA O PLOMO

They’re Murdering Their Mayors in Mexico

The drug gangs make offers that mayors can’t refuse. Gisela Mato got a bullet in the head a day after she took office.

01.14.16 5:01 AM ET

The Mexican government was in a chirpy mood last week. After six months on the run, Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán was once again in custody. President Enrique Peña Nieto welcomed the relief: after calling Guzmán’s escape “unforgivable,” Peña Nieto vowed to get the boss of the Sinaloa Cartel back in custody, and so he did (even if Sean Penn got to interview the fugitive first).

áDays later, the dust has yet to settle. But, unfortunately, Guzmán’s arrest won’t do much to quell Mexico’s latest drug-related challenge: the country’s municipal collapse.

Imagine you’ve just won the mayoralty of a town of, say, a couple thousand people. The nearest city is one hundred miles away, perhaps more. You’ve run on a promise of renewed security, vowing to put an end to rampant police corruption and the extortion of businesses by dangerous thugs. People are fed up, and rightly so. The region’s cartel, an offshoot of a bigger organization supposedly dismantled in the course of the country’s war on drugs, runs a tight ship.

If you’re willing to cooperate, they offer protection and a false sense of safety, with the complicity of shady local authorities. Most people have no choice but to acquiesce. After a few days in office, a representative of the parallel state run by the cartel knocks on your door. He brings along the ill-fated offer. You can indeed refuse, but at your own unambiguous risk.

What do you do?

In Mexico, if you are one of the brave ones, you might end up like Maria Santos Gorrostieta, mayor of Tiquicheo, Michoacán. Back in 2008, at the height of the drug war in her home state, Santos vowed to fight the gangs that had besieged her small town of 13,000 people. Local cartels tried to have her killed almost immediately. They failed twice, but managed to kill her husband on the first attempt.

Santos miraculously survived a second hit on her life, but it left her with horrendous scars. She shared pictures of the butchery in an attempt to illustrate her tragedy. “My body has been mutilated,” she said in an interview shortly afterwards, “but I will get up as many times as God allows me to. I cannot give up because I have three children to take care of.”

Santos was finally killed in 2012 after being kidnapped in broad daylight, not in the streets of Tiquicheo but on those of Morelia, the capital of Michoacán, a city of almost 600,000 people.

Since 2006, violence in Mexico has followed a curious geographic progression. After Michoacán came the states of Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and Nuevo León, where the fight between Mexican forces, the Zetas and the remnants of the Gulf Cartel turned Mexico’s northeast into a war zone.

Violence has now moved southwest, alongside Mexico’s Pacific coast. First came Guerrero, where local cartels have swallowed entire towns, corrupting local authorities, often with sickening consequences.

The latest epicenter of Mexican violence is Morelos, a state of 1.8 million people which borders Mexico City. It’s a beautiful place. Its capital, Cuernavaca, is known as “the city of eternal spring.” Novelist Malcolm Lowry loved it, as did, well, mobster Sam Giancana. Conquistador Hernán Cortés chose it as his place of leisure, as did Archduchess Charlotte of Austria, 300 years later. Nowadays, Morelos is less known for R&R and more for AR-15’s. The fate of a recently elected mayor illustrates the state’s—and the country’s—current predicament.

The town of Temixco lies just south of Cuernavaca. Like most of Morelos, it has become a battleground between two small but brutal cartels, Los Rojos and Guerreros Unidos. Both spun from larger groups, Los Rojos from the Gulf Cartel and Guerreros Unidos from the Beltran Leyva organization.

For at least three years, these gangs have tried to gain a foothold in Morelos, a state of crucial geographical importance since, among other things, it connects the country’s capital to drug producers and distributors along the coast. In this context, the region’s local governments have become particularly vulnerable. Even the presumption of allegiance can carry the ultimate cost. This appears to have been the case for Gisela Mota, the first woman to be elected mayor of Temixco.

Mota seemed to be in high spirits during a New Year’s Day interview. Wearing heavy makeup and a striking red dress, she touted Temixco’s many tourist attractions (like the gorgeous 16th-century hacienda once owned by Martin Cortes, son of Hernán) and promised to reduce the town’s heavy debt.

She won’t get the chance to try. Just a few hours after taking office, Mota was gunned down inside her home. Seven men bound the newly elected mayor’s relatives and shot her four times, once in the head. She died in her bedroom.

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Who killed Gisela Mota? Journalist Héctor de Mauleón, who has followed the story closely, points to a report by state officials: members of Los Rojos assumed Mota had struck a deal with a group of petty drug dealers from Guerreros Unidos. They executed her for it.

Morelos Gov. Graco Ramírez—who has recently hinted at a possible presidential run—suggests a different motive. Ramírez says Mota was killed after she resisted the cartels’ demands to reject what is knows as “Mando Único,” a controversial measure that takes authority away from the more than 2,500 local police forces in the country and gives it to the states.

This reshuffling is Mexico’s attempt to reduce the country’s vast municipal police corruption, seen by some as an almost insurmountable obstacle in the fight against the powerful cartels and their many offshoots. A recent study found that, at least during the last five years, drug cartels have focused their efforts in subverting the rule of law not on the state or federal strata but at the local level, precisely in towns governed by people like Maria Santos Gorrostieta or Gisela Mota.

Since 2007, 84 mayors have been killed in Mexico, along with 64 municipal public officials and at least 15 candidates. Mexican rule of law has been dismantled at the local level, making part of the country ungovernable. The proverbial plata o plomo,” silver or lead, has indeed become the new normal for a great number of small-town officials in Mexico. If, like politics, all sense of safety is local, Mexico has a long way to climb on its way back from hell. “Mission accomplished” it’s certainly not.