“Enough with the bad guys being owners of the streets,” he said. “I am a man of the law. I am going to impose order. My hand is firm. I am not scared.” He was shot dead the next day. Picture from Murrieta's Twitter account.
MEXICO CITY - In his last campaign message, Abel Murrieta stared confidently into the camera and declared that if elected mayor, the residents of Cajeme, Mexico could live without fear.
“Enough with the bad guys being owners of the streets,” he said. “I am a man of the law. I am going to impose order. My hand is firm. I am not scared.”
A day after recording that video, two gunmen approached him on the street and shot him ten times - twice in the head. They then fled the scene in a car, according to local authorities.
Murrieta had been campaigning ahead of June 6 midterm elections. His murder in broad daylight was a chilling reminder that running for elected office in Mexico also means risking one’s life.
The participation by criminal groups in the battle for political power and the murder of politicians and candidates in election season has become frighteningly routine. In the run-up to the 2018 election, more than 110 politicians and candidates were killed. Hundreds more pulled out of races because of threats.
This year’s election is just as bloody. From September 7, 2020 - April 30, 79 politicians and candidates were murdered, according to the consultancy firm Etellekt.
“Violence is more and more used as a political tool in Mexico,” said Romain Le Cour, coordinator of the Noria Mexico & Central America Program, an independent research organization, noting that around 93 percent of crimes go unreported or unsolved, and the murder of local politicians is no exception. “In that context, electoral violence becomes a resource, part of the political competition.”
Organized crime is the major driver, he added, but political rivalries and longtime feuds between powerful families also play a role. “It is easy to eliminate a rival,” he said.
On June 6, Mexicans will elect 500 members of congress, 15 governors and more than 20,000 local officials. Most attention on the elections has focused on whether President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s Morena party will win a supermajority in Congress.
But organized crime has a vested interest in local races, because help from local political powers determines how easily they can operate, said Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexico-based security consultant with Lantia Intelligence.
“Once these criminal groups have become dominant in a particular area, it’s a natural next step for them to try and govern,” Guerrero said. They are supporting specific candidates or even attempting to promote someone from within their organization “in a very pragmatic way, without aligning with any one political party.”
Local candidates like Murrieta are some of the most vulnerable. Guerrero said he believed Murrieta’s assassination in the city of Ciudad Obregón on Thursday was “revenge” from La Linea drug cartel, which operates in the northern Mexican states of Sonora and Chihuahua. As a former attorney general of Sonora and, later, as a lawyer for an extended Mexican-American Mormon family pressing for justice in the 2019 massacre of nine members of their family, Murrieta pursued La Linea.
The figures from Etellekt and other independent groups contradict the government’s estimates of just 12 electoral-related killings during this election cycle.
Analysts attributed the enormous discrepancy to several factors. Local officials, who typically investigate homicide under Mexican law, don’t have the capacity to carry out a proper investigation and determine motives. And federal authorities are reluctant to recognize that violence is related to elections because it would acknowledge their failure to protect Mexico’s democracy.
“There is no incentive for authorities to recognize a homicide as a crime connected to the electoral process,” wrote Francisco Rivas, director of the National Citizens Observatory, in an editorial in the newspaper El Universal. “In a country where institutional capacity makes it difficult to clarify the motives behind crimes, political killings are rarely recognized as such, and victims obtain justice even less frequently.”
Murrieta, 58, joined the team of attorneys representing the Mormon LeBarón family in early 2020. Even by the standards of Mexico’s criminal brutality, the ambush and murder of three women and six children shocked the country and reverberated in the United States. La Linea drug cartel has been implicated in those killings, and a presumed leader of the cartel was arrested last year in the investigation.
Adrián LeBarón expressed outrage on Twitter on Thursday following Murrieta’s massacre. “They killed my advocate! Today they cowardly killed the one who decided to defend us legally.” A spokesman for the LeBarón family said Murrieta was planning to travel to Tijuana on Friday to meet with family members and share new information about the case.
The national director of Citizen Movement, the political party Murrieta was affiliated with, blamed the governor of Sonora and President López Obrador for the assassination, accusing federal and state security forces of being overrun by organized crime.
López Obrador defended his administration's response to mounting election-related violence. He offered sympathy to Murrieta’s family but called the accusations against him “irresponsible” and an attempt to “manipulate” voters.
A homage appeared on Murrieta’s Twitter account following his murder. “Up until the last minute of his life, Abel showed us that he was a man of integrity, a man who gave everything to protect innocent lives, a man who couldn’t be corrupted by criminals and for that reason they assassinated him.”