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'People Are Fed Up': Jalisco Elections Could Upend Traditional Politics in Mexico

Two candidates in Guadalajara, the nation’s second-largest city, have stoked optimism about a citizen-led government in a state that faces mounting violence.

by Duncan Tucker
May 11 2015, 5:36pm

Imagen por Duncan Tucker

Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, known for the film Birdman, perfectly captured the mood of his nation during his 2015 Academy Awards acceptance speech, dedicating his award to the people of Mexico.

"I pray that we can find and build the government that we deserve," he said.

Years of constant bloodshed and unchecked corruption have fueled disillusionment in the country ahead of this summer's midterm elections. But in Guadalajara, the nation's second-largest city, there are signs that the June 7 elections could herald a shift toward what some voters hope could be a more citizen-led model of government.

Two candidates in particular have stoked a sense of optimism: Enrique Alfaro of the liberal Citizen's Movement party, and Pedro Kumamoto, a young independent candidate for the Jalisco state congress.

Alfaro, who is currently leading in Guadalajara's mayoral race, presents a well-funded and highly organized campaign, while Kumamoto is leading a mostly grassroots independent movement. But what 40-year-old Alfaro, and wiry 25-year-old Kumamato have in common is the goal of defeating the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, from its current grip of power in one of Mexico´s most important states.

Victory for either candidate would prove significant, given that the PRI and the conservative National Action Party, known by its Spanish acronym PAN, have taken turns governing Jalisco and its capital since 1929.

"I think in Guadalajara and the entire country people are fed up with the political system, the parties, and the way they govern," Alfaro told VICE News. "This election could be the breaking point in which we manage to achieve a non-traditional model of politics."

Related: How the Jalisco New Generation Cartel Is Terrorizing the People of Western Mexico

Guadalajara mayoral candidate Alfaro delivers a campaign speech in a rundown city park. (Photo by Duncan Tucker)

Alfaro gained a positive reputation as mayor of Tlajomulco, a sprawling municipality just south of Guadalajara, where according to Cimtra, a nonprofit accountability watchdog, he led the most transparent government administration in all of Mexico.

Despite winning the highest number of votes in Guadalajara, Jalisco's capital, he narrowly lost the governor seat in 2012 to PRI candidate Aristóteles Sandoval, the man now in charge of the state that faces mounting violence resulting from the influence of the Jalisco New Generation cartel.

Alfaro has established a comfortable lead in the polls over his closest rival, PRI candidate Ricardo Villanueva, and now looks likely to become the Guadalajara's next mayor.

'I don't think Mexico can stand another fraud.'

If he wins, Alfaro has vowed to implement two key local initiatives, which he first introduced in Tlajomulco to empower citizens and restore trust in government. One is a system for a "participatory budget," which would enable citizens to vote on what their taxes should be spent on. The second initiative would allow citizens to call for unscheduled midterm elections, to replace the mayor at any point if dissatisfied with his performance.

With Guadalajara suffering a dramatic rise in violence in recent weeks, Alfaro said he also plans to implement a "safe city" contingency plan developed with the help of the United Nations.

At a recent campaign rally in a rundown city park, Alfaro promised he would save the city 600 million pesos (more than $39 million) in his first year by cutting local officials' salaries and benefits. The savings, he said, would be used to fund social programs, and to improve access to employment and education.

"I'm going to vote for Alfaro because he seems like a very honest person with good initiatives. Guadalajara needs someone who will implement these initiatives for the benefit of everyone," Anabel Cervantes, who heard Alfaro deliver his speech, told VICE News. "People are beginning to realize that the parties that have dragged us along all these years are complete frauds."

Despite enjoying strong public support, Alfaro knows victory will not come easily.

Last month, Leonel Sandoval, the father of Governor Sandoval and also a Jalisco state supreme court justice, was caught on tape implying that the state electoral tribunal intended to illegally influence the elections in favor of the PRI. Despite the evidence against him, the politically connected judge was quietly absolved of any wrongdoing on Friday. The ruling that was largely overshadowed by the wave of violence sweeping Jalisco.

"That's the PRI in its essence — it's used to winning elections by twisting the law," Alfaro said. "I don't think Mexico can stand another fraud."

In mid-April the tactics of the ruling party allegedly became even more bizarre, when intruders flew a drone through Alfaro's property, filming the house and peering in windows for more than half an hour. His party, the Citizen's Movement, later called a press conference to denounce the intrusion.

"To enter someone's home like that is crossing a line, but the people behind the state government don't have limits or principles," Alfaro said, referring to the PRI, who he suspects were behind the intrusion.

While Alfaro has sought to distance himself from the political establishment, the most enduring criticism he faces focus on the fact that he represented both the PRI and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, before joining the Citizen's Movement in 2012.

"I don't think it makes you a bad person to have been in a political party," Alfaro told VICE News. "What would be bad is to stay in a party when it doesn't represent what you believe in. I decided to leave the PRI when I realized that it's an irreparable party, which represents the worst of the past."

This is the first time in over half a century that Mexico has allowed independent candidates to run for office. The results of this decision appear to be inspiring a new generation of political hopefuls.

Pedro Kumamoto, who not long ago was student body president at Guadalajara's ITESO University, is leading an unprecedented campaign to become Jalisco's first independent congressmen.

Related: Displaced by Drug Violence in Mexico — and Ready to Vote?

After growing disillusioned following the 2012 elections, Kumamoto and a dozen peers founded Wikipolítica, a grassroots movement aimed at making Mexico a more democratic society. The move led to his ambitious run.

"I was pissed off about the way they do politics in this country," Kumamoto, 25, told VICE News. "Politics have long been synonymous with corrupt, lazy, and selfish individuals, but we can change that."

He hopes to soon represent District 10, a penguin-shaped chunk of the Guadalajara metropolitan area, in the state legislature.

Although running on a shoestring budget, Wikipolítica has swollen into a group of 70 committed activists and other supporters who help out on an irregular basis, knocking on doors and handing out fliers at intersections.

Related: Coordinated Attacks Hit Western Mexico After Operation to Nab Cartel Leader, Reports Say

This fresh-out-of-college political hopeful recently declared his assets publicly: $560 in the bank, a 2008 Toyota, and $1,960 worth of art. He hoped that others would do the same.

"I was the first candidate in Jalisco to make my finances public," Kumamoto said. "Everyone laughed at me because I don't have much money."

If elected, he has vowed to give up 70 percent of his salary to fund civic forums on the most pressing issues in local neighborhoods.

"We don't believe public servants should become viceroys," Kumamoto explained. "State congressmen earn 110,000 pesos ($7,180) per month in Jalisco — 55 times the minimum wage. It's scandalous."

'Politics have long been synonymous with corrupt, lazy, and selfish individuals, but we can change that.'

Kumamato acknowledged that he faces challenges as a non-affiliated candidate, but believes he will be able to make an impact. 

"There's a radical difference between us and Enrique Alfaro," Kumamoto told VICE News. "He's a pragmatist and we're idealists."

As proof he can overcome the odds, Kumamoto noted the 7,200 signatures that his team gathered to endorse him — well over the 5,585 required by law to secure his candidacy.

"When I said I was going to be the first ever independent candidate in Jalisco — without making pacts with political parties, businessmen or the mafia — people laughed and called us crazy, saying it would never happen," he said. "But we did it."

Even if he doesn't triumph at the polls, Kumamoto is convinced his campaign will influence the political discourse in Jalisco by encouraging greater civic participation and demonstrating that grassroots movements are a legitimate alternative to the party-centric model.

"Many people say, 'Politics stink. It's shit, I don't like it.' But if it's shit that's because you're not doing anything about it," Kumamoto said. "We're a bunch of kids with no money and no resources and we're doing things the way we believe they should be done. If 70 people can achieve this, imagine what 200 people could do."

Related: Jalisco's 'New Generation' Is Becoming One of Mexico's Most Powerful and Dangerous Drug Cartels

Follow Duncan Tucker on Twitter: @DuncanTucker