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Narco Ties, Embezzlement, and Topless Models: It's Election Season in Mexico

Mexico elects 12 new governors on Sunday after intense campaigning that has highlighted both Mexico’s most difficult challenges and the difficulties the country’s politicians have persuading the electorate they are not part of the problem.

by Paul Imison
Jun 3 2016, 7:37pm

Photo by Reuters

Multiple allegations of narco-links hang over numerous candidates. One contest, between cousins, includes very hard-to-explain purchases of luxury properties in Manhattan. A nominally progressive party dominated by women has promoted itself with topless models painted in party colours.

Almost half of Mexico heads to the polls on Sunday in local elections that include the choice of 12 new state governors and culminates a period of intense campaigning dominated by the chilling and the scandalous, as well as a good dose of the ridiculous.

The elections stand as a key test for President Enrique Peña Nieto's governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. They have also put on display many of Mexico's acute challenges and how the country's politicians are struggling to persuade the electorate that they are not a big part of the problem.

Key races include Tamaulipas, just over the border from Texas, where the shadow of local drug cartels and violence looms particularly large. The campaign in the neighbouring Gulf State of Veracruz takes place against a similar backdrop of organized crime, though here alleged embezzlement has dominated the news. Meanwhile, in the poor southern state of Oaxaca, striking public teachers have ensured that traditional ideological battles are also present.

All the variations raise questions about the capacity of the institutions to ensure fair play.

'All the parties have a mafia mentality towards politics and depend on dirty money and illegal tactics to procure votes'

Mexico is still plagued by doubts about electoral fairness 16 years after it ended 71-years of one party rule by the PRI. Alleged irregularities — such as vote buying, violation of campaign spending limits, and illicit campaign finance — are most intense at a local level. In this election, the national electoral authorities have put out alerts in five states warning of the potential risk for violence and fraud.

"It's disappointing, though maybe not surprising, that Mexican democracy still suffers from so many problems," said Alberto Fernández, a political scientist at The New School. "The parties don't respect the rules of the game and seem to have little incentive to make the system work."

Related: A Hacker Said He Rigged the 2012 Mexican Election, and It May Still Be Happening Today

The governorship race in Tamaulipas is particularly controversial because long-latent accusations of narco-complicity have been at the forefront of the campaign.

Frontrunners Baltazar Hinojosa of the PRI and Francisco Cabeza de Vaca of the opposition National Action Party, or PAN, have accused each other of illicit deal-making with the cartels. As if to give credibility to its accusations the PRI suspended three lesser municipal candidates for alleged ties to the narcos.

Such accusations are nothing new in Tamaulipas, but they are also far from proven. While two former governors, Tomás Yarrington and Eugenio Hernández, are currently fugitives from drug money laundering charges in US courts, serious investigations into narco-corruption are almost unheard of in Mexico.

"There are few states in Mexico more politically opaque than Tamaulipas," said political analyst Jesús Cantú. "There's very strong evidence of ties between the elite and organized crime, but the federal government refuses to take action. The allegations of hidden deals with organized crime also tend to be associated with accusations of lavish spending and dirty tricks.

Edgardo Buscaglia, a scholar at Columbia University who has observed numerous Mexican elections and will oversee this year's race in Veracruz, said the phenomenon is common among all the parties at the local level.

"Left and right don't matter in Mexico," he said. "All the parties have a mafia mentality towards politics and depend on dirty money and illegal tactics to procure votes."

Related: Why Some Peruvians Worry Keiko Fujimori Will Turn the Country into a Narco Paradise

While dirty electoral tricks may not distinguish between ideologies, voters are being asked to make a choice between left and right, at least in some states.

The reforms that led to the end of the PRI's hegemony at a national level occurred side by side with structural changes that moved the country's economy to the right. The PRI returned to government again in 2012 and is now pushing pro-private sector reforms ever deeper.

The contrast is starkest in the gubernatorial race in Oaxaca where the tone of the election has been set by a bitter dispute over a public education reform between a radical teachers' union and the federal government.

Public discontent with the teachers' protests appears likely to see Alejandro Murat of the PRI recapture the state after a six-year hiatus. But if the PRI is set to win in Oaxaca, elsewhere a new left-wing party formed by the veteran leftist and two-time presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador is doing surprisingly well.

López Obrador formed the National Regeneration Movement, known as Morena, which also means dark skinned, in 2014. The party could even win its first governorship, in the central northern state of Zacatecas, as well as take control of a constituent assembly due to establish a new legal framework for the Mexican capital.

Yet Morena, like its right-wing rivals, has also seen members accused of corruption.

The party's gubernatorial candidate in Zacatecas, David Monreal, has been questioned as to the origin of a declared $1.5 million fortune while his brother, Ricardo Monreal, a Mexico City councillor, has been formally accused of diverting public resources into his brother's campaign.

Related: Mexico Is Having Its Most Depressing Election in Recent History

Corruption will also be on the agenda in Veracruz, an extremely troubled state on Mexico's Gulf Coast where at least 14 journalists have been murdered since current governor Javier Duarte took office in 2010.

Popular news website Animal Político published an investigation last week claiming to detail an elaborate money laundering scheme involving $35 million. The government's federal auditor detected public spending irregularities of nearly $1 billion in the state in 2014 alone.

Miguel Ángle Yunes and Héctor Yunes who are the two main contenders to win in Veracruz are cousins, but that hasn't stopped their bitter mutual attacks. Héctor has accused Miguel Ángel of buying two luxury apartments in Manhattan with public money. Miguel Ángel has accused his rival of receiving support and money from the Zetas drug cartel.

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Political analyst Alberto Fernández said that a lack of political leadership, social inequality, and control of public finances are all a factor in Mexican democracy progressing so slowly since the PRI lost total control of the central government in 2000.

"There have obviously been advances in the democratization of power, but this hasn't been matched by strong, transparent institutions capable of regulating elections," he said. "Mexican democracy is still yet to meet the needs of the country's citizens."

Follow Paul Imison on Twitter: @paulimison

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