Chilapa, Guerrero – “No more narco-elections!” shouted a small group of protesters gathered in the central square of the Mexican town of Chilapa, in the southwestern state of Guerrero, holding large prints of the faces of disappeared family members.
On May 9th, between 200 and 300 armed men turned up, faces covered, in the rural, mountainous, 30,000-strong city of Chilapa de Alvarez, disarming local police officers and taking over the town.
It’s only when the assailants left, five days later, that residents could start evaluating the damage. To this day, 22 men have been officially reported missing but locals say the tally could be worse, as many do not report missing family members out of fear for retaliation.
A few days earlier, on May 1st, a group of armed men ambushed and killed the mayoral candidate for the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI, center) on his way back from a campaign visit to an outside community. They shot him 15 times.
On the eve of Mexico’s midterm elections this Sunday, when residents in 16 of the country’s 31 states and the Federal District (Mexico City) will head out to vote for local and state officials, a surge in violence throughout southwestern Mexico has discouraged some from exercising their democratic duties.
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As of Friday afternoon, local media outlets had reported more than 70 attacks linked to the election campaign. Reuters counted at least seven candidates and nine campaign officials dead, with another 20 having been forced out of the race.
In Jalisco, the state that holds the fourth most populated city in Mexico, Guadalajara, authorities believe the Jalisco New Generation cartel to be behind an April ambush that killed 15 policemen and the gunning down of one of the army’s helicopters a few weeks later, which led to 16 fatalities.
“The elections encourage criminals to show the extent of their power,” Sandra Ley, a guest professor at Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE), told Fox News Latino. “They try to find out whether they will be able to corrupt the new elected officials, how to align themselves with the new administration,” Ley said. “It’s a crucial moment for them,” she added.
This is not the first time Chilapa residents are the victims of a violent turf war that began when dissident members of Los Rojos (the reds), the ruling organized crime group in this city, created its own gang, Los Ardillos (the squirrels). The territorial battle worsened a year ago, residents say.
Chilapa de Álvarez is the administrative center of a larger, homonymous municipality, which counts about 120,000 inhabitants, spread across several communities in the surrounding mountains. For generations, men have been cultivating marijuana and poppies up in the sierra.
Control of the city, perched 1,400 meters above the ground, is key to narco traffickers, who have no other routes but the one crossing the town to transport their cargos of illicit products. As the current mayor puts it: “Chilapa is the entry door to the mountains.”
In rural, agricultural areas with limited resources and far from the power of bigger cities, local political leaders can sometimes struggle to face issues as large and deeply rooted as organized crime. At times, there is little choice but to yield to the powerful cartels and understand, if not join, their economical interests.
As for local police forces, their low salaries have proved in the past to make them particularly vulnerable to corruption.
About 95 miles north of Chilapa is Iguala, another troubled Guerrero state, where 43 students went missing last September as they were protesting against president Enrique Peña Nieto’s highly unpopular education reform. According to the official inquiry, the students were arrested by local police officers from two neighboring communities and handed over to another local cartel, the Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors). The investigation revealed that the same cartel was wiring about $38,000 each month to complete the salary of police officers, using funds from the corrupt mayor’s office.
“There is no point voting if it’s to put a mayor that will be nothing but a porcelain puppet,” said a woman who asked to remain anonymous, the sister of one of the men who disappeared on May 10.
“They don’t do anything, no matter who is in power, they don’t do anything,” added another young woman at the protest, her one-year-old baby in her arms, whose 19 year old boyfriend was also taken during the mass kidnapping.
“The only thing that we will vote for in this election, is which cartel will govern us,” said a man who also lost two family members last year, found burnt and beheaded a few days after going missing. He said he will leave the state if the opposition wins the local elections, out of fear that the cartel allegedly backing up the candidate will kill him.
“If the opposition wins we will have to go, because when [the cartel] comes to power, they will kill the people who are protesting today. I am sure of it,” he said.