MEXICO CITY – When Mario Anguiano successfully ran for mayor of Colima three years ago, no one much cared that his brother and cousin were in prison on drug charges.
Now that he's running for governor of Colima state, a banner appeared in the capital city mocking Anguiano's family ties by linking him to the Zetas, a gang of drug hit men:
"Welcome to Colima! Soon to be territory of our boss of bosses, Mario Anguiano Moreno. The Zetas support you, and we are with you until death."
The drug war is playing in Mexico elections like never before. Usually a taboo subject hiding in plain sight, drug-trafficking didn't figure prominently in political campaigns, even in places like the Pacific coast state of Colima, where Manzanillo port is a major transshipment point for U.S.-bound cocaine.
Anguiano's Institutional Revolutionary Party denies any involvement with drug traffickers and accused the ruling National Action Party of hanging the banner - which it denies.
But in the July 5 midterm elections for 500 congressional seats, six governors and 565 mayors, President Felipe Calderon's party, known as the PAN, is aggressively painting opponents as soft on drugs and itself as the only party gutsy enough to take on the cartels.
"It's the first elections where a party is directly linking itself to the drug-trafficking issue," said Juan Azcarraga, the director of Mexican polling firm Ipsos public affairs. "In the past, it was touched upon in a superficial manner, like an insinuation."
The PAN is banking on a tough-guy image to keep its grip on power against Anguiano's party, known as the PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years before losing the presidency to the PAN in 2000. The PRI is regaining support among Mexicans fed up with an economic recession and drug violence that has killed 10,800 people since Calderon took office in 2006.
At the same time, a growing citizens' group disillusioned with what it sees as ineffective politics as usual is urging voters to cross out all candidates in protest.
A Ipsos poll in May indicated 11 percent of Mexicans would support the protest vote, up from 3 percent in January, and 27 percent of voters would support the PRI compared to 23 percent for the PAN. The poll interviewed 1,000 adults face-to-face and had a margin of error of 3 percent.
If the PAN loses to the PRI, it would mean popular support has slipped for Calderon and his bloody, U.S.-backed assault on the drug cartels. It would also embolden his congressional opponents to block his more controversial measures, including legislation that would give more police powers to 45,000 troops deployed across Mexico to counter corrupt law enforcement in the drug war.
The PAN has launched an ad campaign featuring some of Mexico's biggest celebrities warning that a vote against the ruling party would mean a return to times when Mexico's leaders let the cartels flourish.
In one television spot, beloved masked Lucha Libre wrestler "Mistico" flexes his muscles, bounces around the ring and says: "A lot of people say the fight against drug trafficking has never been as complicated. The truth is, that for many years, nobody had fought against them. Now, the president and the PAN are giving it their all, and we have to support them."
Calderon's opponents accuse him of using the drug war for political gain. They say it was no accident that federal agents arrested 10 mayors in the president's home state of Michoacan for allegedly protecting drug traffickers just weeks before the elections — even though two were from his own party.
Prosecutors have levied organized crime and drug charges against seven of the mayors, plus the former state attorney general and 19 other officials. The other three mayors detained have not been charged, but will continue to be held pending investigations, officials said.
Federal Attorney General Eduardo Medina-Mora alleged the charged officials helped the La Familia drug cartel. He did not provide details on the charges, but officials have said the suspects allegedly leaked sensitive information to the drug gang.
Federal election officials say they're watching campaigns like never before to detect any illegal influence — doing random checks, urging political parties to report irregularities and ordering investigations into anything suspicious, such as a contender spending more money than reported by his campaign.
So far they have no evidence of drug traffickers donating money to candidates, said Leonardo Valdes, president of Mexico's federal electoral institute.
But the institute is limited in its policing, as drug traffickers can offer money under the table or use threats to cut deals with candidates.
The issue is dominating political campaigns from sleepy coastal towns to swanky suburbs. Candidates who used to focus on pot holes and unemployment, even as drug violence plagued their areas, are meeting it head on.
After Anguiano won the nomination in Colima, PRI leader Beatriz Paredes said federal authorities assured the party he was not under criminal investigation.
The candidate's brother, Humberto Anguiano, is in prison in Mexico for drug dealing, while his cousin, Rafael Anguiano, was arrested in Los Angeles in a 1997 sweep that dismantled methamphetamine and cocaine trafficking rings across the United States.
There is no evidence that Anguiano is tied to drug trafficking.
Still, PAN national leader German Martinez wondered aloud whether Anguiano would aggressively fight drug gangs, while assuring Colima voters that there are no such doubts about PAN gubernatorial candidate Martha Sosa.
"I'd walk through fire for Martha Sosa because she will not flinch before crime," Martinez said.
But the drug-war strategy could backfire for the PAN in Nuevo Leon state, where a frank-speaking PAN mayoral candidate in Mexico's richest city, San Pedro Garza Garcia, was recorded telling supporters that drug traffickers have contacted all leading political contenders in the country seeking their loyalty.
Mauricio Fernandez also suggests in the recording that he would avoid confronting the Beltran Leyva cartel, which controls the Monterrey suburb, to maintain the peace.
The recording was leaked to Mexican media, which broadcast it nationwide last week, prompting calls by opponents for his withdrawal from the race.
Fernandez acknowledged making the remarks, but he said they were taken out context.
"I don't know, nor have I sat down with, or anything of the sort with anyone from organized crime," he told The Associated Press.
But for many Mexicans, Fernandez's remarks point out a weak spot for the PAN: Some voters prefer peace to the mayhem that comes with confronting drug lords.
Charlene Garcia, a San Pedro doctor, said many believe Fernandez was just telling the truth.
"I don't think it surprises anyone that the Beltran Leyvas live here," she said. "The price of having a completely clean city would be too high, and I don't think it's possible to wipe out drugs completely. It would mean a lot of violence without changing anything."
Garcia, meanwhile, is considering marking an "X" through her ballot and joining the protest vote.
"I think all politicians, once they are in office, have to work with organized crime," she said.