Mexico's old ruling party seeks momentum in elections besieged by drug gang hits, scandals

CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico (AP) — A dozen Mexican states held elections Sunday after a campaign marred by assassinations and scandals that displayed drug cartels' power. The party that ruled Mexico for 71 years hoped to capitalize on frustrations over the bloodshed and gain momentum in its bid to regain the presidency in two years.

The elections for governors, mayors and local posts are the biggest political challenge yet for the government of President Felipe Calderon, who is deploying troops and federal police to wrest back territory from drug traffickers.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held on to power for seven decades through a system of largess and corruption that many considered a quasi-dictatorship, has recovered popularity amid frustration with Mexico's surging drug gang violence.

The party, known as the PRI, held up the assassination of its gubernatorial candidate in the northern state of Tamaulipas as evidence Calderon has failed to bring security despite the presence of thousands of troops in drug trafficking hot spots.

Torre, who had been widely expected to win in the PRI stronghold, was killed Monday along with four companions. The day before, he had pledged to make a security a priority in Tamaulipas, a state across the border from Texas that has been torn by a turf battle between two cartels.

Even Calderon said the ambush of Torre's campaign caravan showed cartels are trying to sway the elections. Torre was the second candidate killed in Tamaulipas: a member of Calderon's own conservative National Action Party was gunned down in May after ignoring warnings to drop his campaign for mayor.

The prospect of the PRI regaining the presidency in 2012 would add uncertainty to the future of Mexico's drug war, backed by millions of dollars in U.S. aid and marked by an unprecedented increase in the number of drug suspects extradited to the United States for prosecution under Calderon's party.

Calderon urged Mexicans to vote and show they will not be intimidated. But many say they are afraid. Scores of election workers have quit in Tamaulipas, often because they were afraid to show up at polling stations.

The PRI nominated Torre's brother Egidio to run in his place. But many voters felt the cartels had snatched their right to choose — a new low in a state where henchmen extort businesses and people avoid highways where caravans of armed men travel openly.

"After what happened you don't even know that to think," said Jose Rodriguez, 52, a street vendor who had planned to vote for Torre. "I had already decided who to vote for, but after what happened I don't know."

National Action leaders have long insinuated that the PRI protects drug traffickers in Tamaulipas, the birthplace of the Gulf cartel, which is now waging a turf battle with its former ally, the Zetas gang of hit men. They said they couldn't find anyone to run for mayor in some Tamaulipas towns because of drug gang intimidation.

Drug scandals also have hit elections in Quintana Roo, home to Cancun, and the northern state of Sinaloa, the cradle of the cartel by the same name.

In Quintana Roo, Cancun Mayor Gregorio Sanchez was arrested last month on charges of protecting two cartels, ending his campaign for governor for a leftist party. He says the charges as politically motivated.

In Ciudad Juarez, former Mayor Hector Murguia of the PRI led polls despite facing allegations of ties to drug gangs ever since the director of police operations in his first administration was sentenced in 2008 to prison in Texas for facilitating marijuana smuggling.

In Sinaloa, a scandal broke out when the newspaper Reforma published a photograph of PRI candidate Jesus Vizcarra Calderon attending a party many years ago with drug kingpin Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada.

Vizcarra has dodged questions about whether Zambada is the godfather of one of his children.

National Action has allied with leftist parties to try to oust the PRI from some of its strongholds. Polls suggest the strategy has the best chance of succeeding in the southern state of Oaxaca, one of the few states where the election has not been dominated by the drug war.

The state was shaken by five months of deadly protests over allegations that Gov. Ulises Ruiz of the PRI rigged his 2004 election victory.

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Alexandra Olson reported from Mexico City.