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Bullets before ballots: Dozens of Mexican candidates have been killed as cartels seek more control

Three people in uniforms hold a red banner on their shoulders.
Members of the Mexican military hold the nation’s flag before an opposition rally at the Zócalo, Mexico City’s main square, this month as Mexico gears up for national elections this weekend.
(Ginnette Riquelme / Associated Press)
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Noé Ramos was chatting with voters, sharing breakfast with supporters of his mayoral reelection bid in his hometown in northern Mexico.

“It’s something very special that people give me a glass of water, that they invite me to have a taco, to have a tamale,” Ramos said in a Facebook livestream last month featuring him at an outdoor table in El Mante in Tamaulipas state. “It motivates me to keep on working to make things better. … I will not defraud them.”

An hour later, Ramos was dead. An attacker approached him on the campaign trail and stabbed him multiple times.

The same day, April 19, a mayoral candidate in the southern state of Oaxaca was found dead, two days after he was reported missing.

The slayings of at least 30 candidates have provided a chilling backdrop to Mexico’s June 2 elections, as criminal gangs seek expanded control in states where cartels already wreak havoc. The country’s largest vote ever, with more than 20,000 posts up for grabs and a marquee contest that will almost certainly see Mexico choose its first female president, has led to one of the bloodiest election cycles of recent times — and one in which voters say they are most worried about public safety.

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A person holds a sign that reads, "We are all the same Mexico," at an opposition rally.
A person holds a sign that reads, “We are all the same Mexico,” at an opposition rally in Mexico City called to encourage voting ahead of the presidential elections on Sunday.
(Ginnette Riquelme / Associated Press)

On Wednesday, the last official day of the Mexican campaign, another mayoral candidate was killed — in the western state of Guerrero, among Mexico’s most violent. José Alfredo Cabrera, an opposition hopeful in the municipality of Coyuca de Benítez, was shot dead at his closing campaign rally, authorities said. Video circulating online showed a smiling Cabrera greeting supporters as a hand holding a pistol appears at the back of his head. What sound like repeated shots are heard among screams from the crowd as the video loses focus. Authorities did not immediately verify the authenticity of the video, but the governor’s office confirmed the candidate’s slaying.

The killings this cycle, documented by human rights groups and others, haven’t reached the four dozen killings of candidates before the 2018 election, but the Mexican consultancy Integralia has declared the current campaign season the most violent in modern Mexican history when also taking into account threats, disappearances, kidnappings and other acts of intimidation — against not only office-seekers, but also current and former public officials and “collateral” victims such as family members.

Integralia counted 560 victims of political violence as of May 1 — compared with 389 victims during the 2017-18 campaign and 299 in the 2020-21 midterms. It specified 316 attacks or threats against candidates as of an updated report May 28.

The violence this year, as in other recent election cycles, has not targeted big-name candidates for the presidency, gubernatorial posts or other high-profile positions. Rather, those seeking municipal offices are in the crossfire.

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“It’s the Tip O’Neill phenomenon: All politics are local,” said David Shirk, a political scientist at the University of San Diego, referring to the late congressional leader from Massachusetts. “Mayors and mayoral candidates are essentially under siege because they are a critical point of influence and protection for criminal actors.”

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Gangs seek to finance their own nominees — and then strong-arm or eliminate opponents. Crooked mayors can deliver corrupt cops and other benefits to criminals seeking dominion over smuggling routes, extortion targets, municipal budgets and other opportunities in their territories, or plazas. Local politicians can be more vulnerable to cartel pressure than governors and other high-ranking lawmakers.

“Organized crime needs some kind of understanding with the authorities,” said Carlos Bravo Regidor, a Mexican political analyst. “That may be a kind of negotiation that can be friendly, or skirts legality, or involves bribes and collusion — or it can be violent, with threats, extortion or direct aggression.”

And buying politicians is far more certain than working through the democratic process.

“Criminal organizations need guarantees,” said Bravo Regidor. “Uncertainty doesn’t guarantee that the winner will be someone who agrees with the deals they have made.”

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Of course, being on a gang payroll is no assurance of longevity. Rival factions may come calling in a country where organized crime is highly fragmented.

“The real dilemma that a lot of candidates and officials face is this: If they are in the pocket of one criminal group, will they draw fire from another?” said Shirk, who heads the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego.

Another factor, of course, is protection: Hopefuls for local posts seldom have the bodyguards that accompany higher-level candidates.

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A man in uniform with a long rifle guards a building in Mexico's Michoacan state
Police guard the City Hall in Maravatio in the Mexican state of Michoacan in February after two mayoral hopefuls were gunned down within hours of each other.
(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

The violence has prompted the Mexican military to bolster security, dispatching more than 3,450 troops tasked with protecting some 554 aspirants, with the largest deployments for presidential and gubernatorial office-seekers, according to the secretary of defense. Still, there is no federal escort for most candidates, who often seek out protection from state and local police forces, or hire private bodyguards.

“Political violence is out of control and there is no real possibility that state or federal authorities can protect those who seek help,” wrote columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio in Mexico’s El Financiero newspaper. “And the form in which these cartels have been empowered, with the help of some politicians … leaves everyone exposed.”

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On the morning of April 1, Bertha Gisela Gaytán outlined how, if elected mayor of her home city of Celaya, she would target ever-mounting violence. Then she took to the streets of the industrial hub with supporters. It was the first day of her campaign.

A hit squad lurked. At least one assailant opened fire at point-blank range, according to police and witness comments to the media. The killers drove off on a pair of motorcycles. Images of Gaytán’s body lying face down on the street with blood flowing from her head were soon online.

Municipal police chat with a resident while patrolling her neighborhood in Celaya, Mexico.
Municipal police chat with a resident while patrolling her neighborhood in Celaya, Mexico, this year. A mayoral candidate in the city, which has become an organized-crime battleground, was gunned down April 1.
(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

Gaytán, a 47-year-old lawyer, had sought protection from federal authorities but had yet to receive it.

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“We had hopes that she would make a difference because she said she was going to combat the narcos,” said María Celorio, 32, a resident of Celaya — which, like much of the central state of Guanajuato, has become an organized-crime battleground, registering some of the country’s highest homicide rates. “Instead, they killed her.”

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Federal security was finally forthcoming for Gaytán — at her funeral, which featured phalanxes of troops guarding Celaya’s cathedral.

“Today we mark an absurd death, a death provoked by killers who believe they dominate society,” eulogized Father César Corres Cadavieco. “By cowardly criminals capable of finishing off a life that is an inconvenience to their own interests.”

Relatives of Gisela Gaytán mourn during her funeral in Celaya, Guanajuato State, Mexico,
Relatives of mayoral candidate Bertha Gisela Gaytán mourn during her funeral in Celaya, Mexico, on April 3.
(Mario Armas / Getty Images)

Gaytán was a member of the ruling leftist Morena party of outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — as were 10 of the candidates slain so far in the electoral season, the most of any party. But analysts said that may just reflect Morena’s domination of Mexican politics, not a targeting of its candidates for ideological motives.

Campaign violence tends to be concentrated in states such as Guanajuato, Guerrero, Tamaulipas and Michoacán, where cartels hold sway across vast swaths of territory.

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In the Michoacán city of Maravatío on Feb. 26, gunmen killed two mayoral candidates — from opposing political parties — seven hours apart. Both were shot in their vehicles. Authorities blamed organized crime but never clarified if the slayings were connected.

A sharp rise in violence has battered the southern state of Chiapas in recent months, killing scores and forcing hundreds from their homes. Mexico’s two major criminal syndicates — the Sinaloa cartel and the Jalisco New Generation cartel — are at war in a conflict to secure drug- and migrant-smuggling corridors from neighboring Guatemala, across jungles, rivers and mountains.

A series of attacks on mayoral candidates and their entourages in Chiapas this month have left at least 16 dead, including Lucero Esmeralda López Maza, 28, mayoral hopeful in the municipality of La Concordia, along with her sister. Three other mayoral aspirants from towns across Chiapas were injured in three other attacks, officials said.

A member of the Mexican National Guard stands at the perimeter of a crime scene with a bus in the background.
A member of the Mexican National Guard stands at the perimeter of a crime scene where a passenger was shot dead inside a bus in Celaya, Mexico, in February. As Mexico’s June 2 presidential election approaches, the national debate about security policy rages.
(Fernando Llano / Associated Press)

On May 12, a total of 11 people, mostly from one family, were massacred in the town of Chicomuselo, some 20 miles from the Guatemala border.

The isolated town is not far from one of the campaign’s most puzzling scenes: During a visit by Claudia Sheinbaum, the presidential front-runner, men in ski masks approached her vehicle and asked for help in bringing peace to Chiapas. They soon left, assuring the candidate that they were not fifis — a derogatory term for wealthy snobs popularized by López Obrador, Sheinbaum’s political mentor. No one was hurt in the encounter, but the peculiar incident dramatized the potential vulnerability of even the best-protected candidates.

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“Very strange,” Sheinbaum said afterward.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gestures with his arms during his daily news conference.
Mexican President President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, shown during his daily news conference, rejects critics’ contention that his policies worsened cartel problems in parts of the country.
(Luis Barron / Getty Images)

Chiapas’ Catholic bishops have declared that “there are no conditions for elections to take place” in much of the state. Many terrified office-seekers across Chiapas have dropped out.

Many candidates and local party officials in Chiapas and Tamaulipas that The Times reached out to did not respond to requests for comment or said they did not want to discuss the issue.

On a recent visit to Chiapas, López Obrador denied that the state was “in flames.” Some have blamed the outgoing president’s policies for an expansion in gang control in parts of the country. But he rejects allegations that his “hugs not bullets” approach — avoiding clashes with cartels in favor of funding social programs providing alternatives beyond a life in crime for impoverished youth — has exacerbated violence.

Even when authorities make arrests — which analysts say is all too rare — law enforcement actions can leave more questions than answers

This month, the chief prosecutor in Guanajuato state said seven suspects had been arrested in Gaytán’s slaying. But authorities clarified neither the motive nor who orchestrated the killing.

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Prosecutors in the cartel-dominated border area of Tamaulipas — widely considered a “narco state” — announced the arrest of a suspect in the stabbing death of Ramos, the mayor seeking reelection in El Mante. Authorities portrayed the suspect as a lone-wolf drug user and former butcher with a criminal record who believed himself to be “an avenger of God,” according to official statements and media accounts.

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That didn’t explain how the assailant, reportedly requesting a selfie with the candidate, managed to get close enough to stab Ramos, whose campaign had hired private bodyguards — in part because of a public history of threats against Ramos going back to at least 2022.

A man and woman stand in front of a campaign banner.
A file photo shows Noé Ramos with his wife, Sheyla Palacios, in El Mante, Mexico. Ramos, who was running for reelection as mayor, was stabbed to death April 19. Palacios is now running in his place.
(Sheyla Palacios campaign)

“I’m scared because we don’t know why this happened,” Ramos’ widow, Sheyla Palacios, told a Tamaulipas TV station about her husband’s assassination.

Palacios has taken Ramos’ spot on the ballot, running for mayor of the city of 70,000. Now state police are stationed outside Palacios’ home with security officials inside, she has said. She campaigns at choreographed events, escorted by armed guards.

Voters understand the need for extreme caution, even at the cost of sacrificing intimacy with constituents, Palacios says. “The people on the streets say they are with me, they hug me,” she said in the TV interview. “They give me words of encouragement, they pray for me.”

Times special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez Vidal contributed to this report.

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