MEXICO CITY — No one ever said it was easy being a mayor in Mexico, where corruption is as common as cacti, politics is a Machiavellian game of three-dimensional chess and drug cartels are often more powerful than local governments.
But in recent days, Mexicans have seen the depth of the challenge facing the men and women charged with running the 2,438 municipios, roughly the equivalent of U.S. counties, that are supposed to be a building block of governance here.
The mayor of Santa Ana Maya, a rural municipality in Michoacan state, was killed this month after complaining that cartel members were regularly demanding a chunk of the federal money meant for public works projects in his area, a practice he said was widespread.
Now it seems the drug lords may not be the only ones demanding their cut.
Several lawmakers and heads of local governance associations recently have begun accusing legislators in the Mexican Congress of also regularly shaking down municipal governments, demanding that they kick back "tithes" of at least 10% if they want infrastructure projects included in federal budget plans. Sometimes the lawmakers allegedly demand that projects be built by specific companies that are run by their cronies.
Though no proof of the practice has emerged, the allegations have plunged Mexico City, the capital, into full scandal mode, with investigations demanded and lawsuits threatened. Former allies have turned on one another.
An anonymous legislator last week singled out the conservative party's leader in the lower chamber, Luis Alberto Villarreal, accusing him of taking a 10% cut of projects last year worth about $45 million.
Villarreal has denied the charge and has made threats of legal action, presumably against his accuser if he or she is ever identified.
Some powerful members of Villarreal's National Action Party, meanwhile, are among those clamoring for an investigation, and have asked Villarreal to step down in the meantime. Others are hoping the matter will be discussed by a proposed new anti-corruption commission, an idea introduced by President Enrique Peña Nieto that has yet to be approved by Congress.
Corruption in Mexican government is a well-known fact of life, and many mayors are presumed to be crooked as well. But some observers are incensed by the notion that federal officials may have been sapping the strength of local governments at a time when they needed to be stronger than ever to face the threats posed by drug gangs.
Eduardo R. Huchim, a columnist for the newspaper Reforma, wrote this week that the federal government had forgotten that municipalities, "being the authority closest to society" needed strengthening.
"It hasn't been that way," he wrote, "and they've practically been left to their own devices."
The heightened drug violence in recent years has made it risky business to be a mayor, with 44 killed during the last seven years, according to Ricardo Baptista, director of the Assn. of Local Authorities of Mexico.
Many mayors have been too afraid to speak out about the alleged extortion from legislators and have turned instead to local governance associations like Baptista's to make the issues public.
"Some are at risk of losing their lives, and others are at risk of going to jail for entering into these [corrupt] practices," Baptista said Wednesday after a tribute to the slain mayor, Ygnacio Lopez Mendoza, outside the Mexican Senate.
Just as bad, Baptista said, is that residents lose faith in the government.
Federico Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said the long-term solution may be to lift the prohibition on mayors and legislators running for second terms. That, he said, would force them to make their case to voters that they had managed public funds responsibly.
Estevez was unusual in seeing a positive side to the scandal. In the less democratic Mexico of the recent past, he said, the alleged illicit payments sought by officials might never have come to light.
Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times