EMILIANO ZAPATA, Mexico – Before the sun climbed above the hills around this central Mexican town, Saul Garcia and his family awoke to the sound of bullets piercing the front gate. A masked motorcyclist had opened fire on their brick home, leaving behind a poster signed by the La Familia drug cartel, warning the mayoral candidate to withdraw from the race or the gang would kill him, his wife and three children.
Garcia, a candidate for the local Social Democratic Party, didn't pull out. A state police officer now follows Garcia 24 hours a day while he courts voters on the steep and narrow streets of Emiliano Zapata, a suburb of Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos.
As Mexicans head to the ballot box Sunday, drug cartels are registering their votes with scare tactics and cold, hard cash to make sure whoever is elected doesn't interfere with their lucrative operations. The focus is usually on local politics, where officials and their police departments can cause problems, or smooth the way, for gangs moving drugs or shaking down businesses. It's also easier to influence a local race than an extensive, well-financed national election in the glare of media coverage.
Drug cartels aren't political, they're practical. Officials from all three major parties have been accused of drug gang ties, or have come under attack. Gangs support candidates they can buy off or a scare off — and government officials say they're fighting back.
"We've said for several months that we have to recognize the presence and action of criminal groups around the election, particularly in the local sphere, " Mexico's federal interior secretary, Alejandro Poire, said Thursday. "We are acting to contain it, to prevent it and to bring those responsible to justice."
Garcia says he doesn't know why he was targeted.
"I don't have enemies," said Garcia, whose home was attacked April 30. "When I realized they were threatening me and saying I had to quit I thought, 'But wait, we are free to vote and to be elected.'"
Election violence this season has flared in Morelos and in other states where voters will choose six governors and hundreds of mayors and councilmembers. While the federal government does not track the number of candidates threatened, there have been scattered reports of attacks or threats against politicians and campaign workers in several states, including a gubernatorial candidate in Morelos.
A Morelos state official who was not authorized to talk to reporters said La Familia is seeking to control small towns like Emiliano Zapata since taking a beating in its home state, neighboring Michoacan. There, the cartel has been wounded by government attacks and an internal split.
In Michoacan state elections last fall, an anonymous newspaper ad threatened members of the governing National Action Party to stay home on election day in a town whose mayor already had been killed. Shadowy groups intimidated candidates into dropping out and used roadblocks and phone threats try to control the vote. Pollsters were kidnapped and released unharmed only weeks before elections.
There have also been attacks against candidates in the drug-plagued state of Guerrero, though it is not clear who was responsible.
Poire, the interior minister, met with Morelos Gov. Marco Adame on Wednesday to coordinate security efforts for elections day and promised an immediate response to any emergencies that threaten the voting process.
Drug cartels have bribed officials for decades, paying off governors, mayors and other public officials as part of the cost of doing business. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ruled Mexico for 71 years, and in those days, cartels didn't need to pay attention to the electoral season.
But the party's ouster in 2000 created a power vacuum and left territory and elective offices up for grabs. Since then, candidates of all stripes have been accused of being bought by cartels.
"This new phenomenon systematically pulls mafias into politics," said Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst. "They didn't used to get involved in this whole task of financing campaigns or nominating their members for elected seats. When there was a winner, you negotiated and if he didn't want to, you killed him and that was the end of it."
A small state of 1.7 million people, Morelos' large swaths of mountain lands are ideal for transporting cocaine and heroin on state highways from southern ports to Mexico City and northward. The territory was once controlled by the powerful Sinaloa Cartel through its former allies, the Beltran Leyva gang.
The state's capital of Cuernavaca, a favorite retreat for U.S. retirees and wealthy Mexico City residents, was also a sanctuary for drug capos until President Felipe Calderon's crackdown on organized crime. Marines in 2009 raided a luxurious apartment complex and killed drug kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva.
Since then, the city has seen a surge in drug violence as factions of the Beltran Leyva, La Familia and other smaller gangs fight for turf. All the cartels rely on local politicians, especially mayors, who control the police forces.
State officials say kidnappings have increased in the past couple of months and the words FM, initials for the pseudo-religious La Familia Michoacana in Spanish, are often found at murder scenes.
Local politicians from National Action, which has governed Morelos since 2000, have been accused of having links to the Beltran Leyva cartel. Adame's state police chief has been jailed on suspicion of ties to the gang, though he has not been convicted of any crime.
National Action is poised to lose the governorship on Sunday, so locals say the drug gangs are lining up behind candidates from the other two major parties.
Democratic Revolution's gubernatorial candidate, Graco Ramirez, says people in remote areas are telling him that gangs have threatened them to stay home on election day. He complains that gunmen approach his campaign staffers while they are out distributing flyers.
"Drug gangs don't want me to become governor," he said, though he would not name which ones. "We would stop turning a blind eye to their activities."
Garcia, the mayoral candidate whose family was threatened, is running against Ramirez's party, however.
Another mayoral candidate for the Green Party in Morelos also has reported death threats and even a failed kidnapping attempt by a drug gang, though he did not say which one.
The president of Morelos' state election institute, Oscar Granat Herrera, said that drug cartels will not try to sway the vote. He said the cases of violence are rarely as clear as the shooting attack on Garcia's home in Emiliano Zapata. Even in that investigation, authorities have no suspects so far.
Nevertheless, Granat said, "We will heavily guard this election," so people will feel safe.
In Temixco, a rough suburb of Cuernavaca, teenage boys climbed to rooftops and leaned against light poles near a soccer field to watch gubernatorial candidate Ramirez speak on a recent afternoon.
Ramirez told hundreds of his supporters gathered that he is tired of having corrupt officers on the drug gangs' payroll.
"They come here and they kill and threaten those who file reports," he shouted before the crowd.
Several armored SUVs waited for the candidate outside. Security guards blocked Ramirez's followers trying to get a word or snap a picture with the candidate as he left. Reporters had to fight to stay close enough to toss questions.
"I want you to understand how critical the moment is," one guard said. "He could be killed here for God's sake."
Adriana Gomez Licon is on Twitter http://twitter.com/agomezlicon