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City Reels After Its New Mayor Is Murdered a Day After She Took Office

Over 70 mayors have been killed over the last ten years in Mexico but while many have been rumored to have made deals with criminal groups, Gisela Mota enjoyed a clean reputation.

by Jan-Albert Hootsen
Jan 4 2016, 9:40pm

Imagen por Jan-Albert Hootsen

Whenever Gisela Mota Ocampo left her home in the city of Temixco to run an errand, go to work or visit friends, she made a point of showing she wasn't frightened. Even after she was elected mayor last summer, she refused to employ any kind of security detail.

The 33-year-old politician was murdered on Saturday morning, less than 24 hours after she was sworn in to her new job.

The murder has shocked Mexico, where over 70 mayors or former mayors have been killed over the last ten years. Last year alone claimed the lives of five municipal presidents. 

Many of the deaths have been accompanied by rumors of links between the victims and organized crime but, aside from a drunk driving incident last October, Mota had a clean reputation in her city of almost 100,000 people in Morelos State, about 50 miles south of the capital.

Related: Mayoral Candidate Is Beheaded in Guerrero Ahead of Mexico's Local Elections Season

"She was a very humble person, she never wanted special treatment," Aaron Garduño, an employee of Temixco's municipal government, told VICE News. "I knew her as an easy going woman with clean hands. She walked through the streets without any fear."

Garduño was one of hundreds of inhabitants of Temixco who attended the funeral of Mota on Sunday. Friends, sympathizers and co-workers flocked to attend a mass given at Mota's house on the outskirts of town, after which her casket and dozens of flower arrangements were carried on a hot and heavy afternoon to a nearby cemetery, accompanied by a band playing traditional ranchera music.

Earlier that day, many more visited a wake at the municipal palace, where activists of Mota's left wing Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) banged drums and chanted slogans such as "Gisela lives, the struggle will continue."

According to statements by Morelos' state authorities, a group of armed men forced themselves into Mota's residence early on Saturday morning, beating her badly before shooting her in the head. The authorities said they later caught up with two suspects who police killed in the subsequent shootout. They also said they arrested three others in connection to the case, including a minor and a woman.

photo by Jan-Alberto Hootsen

Many in Temixco say they are at a loss to explain the murder. Some who knew the mayor say she hadn't received any threats over the past few months.

"I have never heard of her being accused of any kind of corruption, links to gangs or any such thing, not even in gossip," says Nancy Guasco, a biologist from Mexico City who attended yesterday's funeral. She knew Mota from her days as an activist in the ranks of the PRD.

Morelos Governor Graco Ramírez has been quick to say the murder was a direct challenge to successes he claims his administration is beginning to have combating the many organized criminal groups that operate in the state of less than two million inhabitants. Almost one thousand people were murdered last year.

He claims the gangs want to stop the state implementing a plan to dismantle all municipal police forces and replace them with a single statewide force.

"It is a direct hit against us and against a brave and admirable woman," he said in an interview on Monday on Radio Fórmula.

"There's pressure on many mayors in our state, they are afraid of the cartels. Some of them have been taken out of their houses in the middle of the night with violence to intimidate and threaten them."

Ramírez said Mota was "careless" about not using bodyguards, but claimed she was targeted because she was particularly closely identified with his policies.

The governor added that different criminal groups hold sway in different cities around the state with a gang known as Los Rojos dominant in Temixco. He said state intelligence services had identified a "very aggressive cell" of Los Rojos as being behind the murder.

Related: Mexican Mayor Accused of Ordering Citizen Journalist's Killing in Veracruz

Temixco lies just south of the state capital of Cuernavaca which is reputedly dominated by a rival gang known as Guerreros Unidos. Los Rojos and Guerreros Unidos are said to be fighting a bitter turf war over who controls lucrative criminal activities in the area such as kidnappings, extortion, and drug trafficking.

Local authorities in Mexico are particularly vulnerable to getting sucked into such disputes as criminal gangs seek to protect or expand their operations in particular territories. This most famously takes place via offers of plata o plomo — silver or lead — in which collaboration can bring riches, while refusing to make deals can mean death.

According to Edgardo Buscaglia, a University of Columbia scholar who has extensively researched Mexico's drug wars over the past decade, more than half of the country's municipalities are controlled by gangs.

The most notorious case is the city of Iguala, just over the border from Morelos in the state of Guerrero where many of the same criminal groups also operate. Guerreros Unidos was allegedly behind the disappearance of 43 student teachers in Iguala in September 2014.

Related: Ayotzinapa: A Timeline of the Mass Disappearance That Has Shaken Mexico

"Municipal authorities in Mexico are an easy target," Alejandro Hope, a security expert in Mexico City, told VICE News. "Criminal groups will attempt to force mayors into appointing officials in charge of public security, so that they won't be disturbed in their activities."

"It is also very beneficial for these groups to have access to property information and tax records," he added. "Having informants in municipal governments allows them to choose kidnapping victims and extortion targets with greater efficiency."

During last year's election campaign, Mota promised voters she would refuse any kind of pact with organized crime and would clean up Temixco. "She may have been an inconvenient mayor," Hope said.

Meanwhile, Temixco's orphaned municipal government declared a three day period of mourning as the city gets over Mota's murder.

"We don't know why this happened," said Garduño, who knew Mota well and was part of her campaign team. "Quite frankly, this tragedy has left us without hope and wondering what the future will bring for our city."

Follow Jan-Albert Hootsen on Twitter: @Jayhootsen