The Cartel’s Deadly Grip on Mexico’s Elections

At least 145 politicians, candidates, and party workers have been killed since the campaign season began in September.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

GUADALAJARA, Mexico—There is no escaping the fact that Chapultepec Avenue has changed since the Jalisco New Generation cartel tried to kill the former state prosecutor.

Despite enjoying a reputation as one of Mexico’s trendiest locations, business has slowed in the once crowded bars along the famous Guadalajara street and only a handful of shoppers are in sight.

“A white car stopped outside the fruit cart and four guys in bulletproof vests got out with assault rifles,” said Roberto, a local business owner who witnessed the shootout in May and asked not to be identified by his real name for fear of retaliation. “They started shooting at the restaurant and kept firing for about three minutes.”

The brazen attack highlighted the danger that Mexico’s most powerful cartel poses to the health of its democracy. When Mexicans went to the polls on Sunday, they did so after a campaign season punctuated by death threats and political assassinations, with many suspecting the Jalisco cartel has driven much of the bloodshed.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftist populist candidate won by a landslide campaigning against violence and crime, but has also suggested an amnesty for some criminals could help pacify the country.

The specifics of the controversial plan to negotiate with certain nonviolent criminals remains unclear, but Mexico’s president-elect is certainly looking to explore options beyond the heavy-handed, military-led approach of the past two administrations.

In recent years, the Jalisco cartel has endeavored to establish a vast network of political allies who favor its criminal projects and has routinely targeted any politicians or political hopefuls who refuse to accept its conditions. And while the headlines about the elections were all about the new president, the cartel’s targets for intimidation or elimination are among thousands of candidates for other positions.

“This happens every three years. Whenever there’s an election drug traffickers want to impose themselves,” Roberto said. “It makes you feel powerless and it’s a disaster for business.”

The failed attempt to assassinate the former state prosecutor and then-Labor Secretary Luis Carlos Nájera was the highest profile attack on a politician during the campaign season in the western state of Jalisco. Nájera escaped with a minor injury but 14 others were wounded and three died in the shootout, the police chase, and subsequent narco-blockades—roadblocks made by burning vehicles in order to provoke chaos in the city.

The events of that day came against the backdrop of a stunningly violent campaign season.

At least 145 politicians, candidates, and party workers were killed across Mexico after the election race started last September, according to Etellekt, a risk-analysis firm.

More than half of these murders occurred in the Pacific coastal states, a region dominated by the Jalisco cartel, which oversees heroin production and smuggles precursor chemicals through local ports to make crystal meth.

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“The cartel is likely behind many of these attacks, not only in Jalisco but throughout the country,” said a member of Guadalajara’s city police force who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It is without doubt the most violent group that exists in the country.”

This is not the first time the deadly organization has heavily disrupted a campaign season. The cartel erected dozens of narco-blockades throughout the western region of Mexico during the midterm elections in 2015.

Both sets of attacks were precipitated by a change in security strategy. In 2015, the government launched Operation Jalisco, which aimed to capture the group’s leaders.

Authorities stepped up the pressure again this year, after newly appointed Interior Secretary Alfonso Navarrete said that tackling the organization was “the main objective of the federal government” in January.

But with Mexico’s campaign season underway, allegations of criminal collusion became a common feature of local and state politics.

On the eve of the elections, Enrique Alfaro, the front-runner for Jalisco state governor, denied any wrongdoing after journalist Anabel Hernández said he was under investigation in the United States for ties to the Jalisco cartel. Alfaro won the gubernatorial race comfortably after announcing he was making a formal complaint against his accusers for “moral damage and electoral crimes.” The media outlet Aristegui Noticias was forced to take down the article in compliance with an order from Jalisco’s Electoral Institute.

However, no one disputes that the Jalisco cartel was engaged in its own campaign across the country throughout the run-up to the election.

“There is a territorial dispute raging between three cartels,” said Francisco Jiménez Reynoso, a security expert from the University of Guadalajara. “The Jalisco cartel is fighting the Sinaloa cartel, as well as a splinter group called Nueva Plaza.”

Famed as the birthplace of mariachi and tequila, Jalisco was long regarded as a safe haven from the drug war that ravaged other parts of the country. But the Jalisco cartel emerged around 2010 to fill the vacuum created by the death and capture of rival criminal leaders.

Recent cartel conflict has fueled an explosion of violence in the state. According to the Jalisco Institute of Forensic Sciences there were 1,623 murders during the nearly 10-month election season, up more than 35 percent from the 10-month period preceding it. 

The latest high-profile arrests of Jalisco cartel operatives and affiliates, including Rosalinda Gonzalez, the wife of the group’s alleged leader Nemesio “El Mencho” Oseguera, have not yet reduced the homicide rate.

In fact, the government’s strategy has proved ineffective throughout the country.

It has been nearly 12 years since then-president Felipe Calderón deployed troops with the aim of dismantling the cartels and restoring the rule of law in the country’s criminal hotspots.

But Mexico suffered the most violent year in its modern history in 2017, with more than 29,000 homicides (PDF). Based on the numbers documented for the first four months of this year, the country looks set to break that grim record in 2018 (PDF).

The militarized anti-cartel strategy has also led to human rights abuses and damaged the relationship between security forces and civilians.

“The federal government has always sought to dismantle criminal organizations through brute force,” said Rubén Salazar, the director of Etellekt, the risk-analysis firm. “But that has generated bad feeling and support for the Jalisco cartel in many communities.”

This public resentment was on show in the southern Jalisco city of Ciudad Guzmán this month, when a crowd gathered to protest the navy’s alleged involvement in two forced disappearances. Angry protestors clustered around a group of armed marines, throwing sticks and rocks at them. One even spray-painted the Jalisco cartel’s initials on a navy pickup.

Salazar said a new and effective course of action is desperately needed to counter the explosive growth of Mexico’s most powerful cartel.

“The group is increasingly focusing on synthetic drugs. These don’t require extensive plots of land but do provide massive profits,” he said. “That in turn gives the cartel greater financial power to buy off and take over authorities.”

Salazar regretfully expects the spiraling violence will continue. He also warns that the danger cannot be contained by national borders.

“This cartel is not only a Mexican national security risk,” he said. “It is a threat to the security of the entire North American region.”