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Death and Corruption: Organized Crime and Local Govt in Mexico

Still from Kidnapping video of Teloloapan Mayor Still from Kidnapping video of Teloloapan Mayor

The gunmen caught up with the police chief of the small town of Puruandiro as he drove before dawn near the beautiful lake that dominates the area. Attacking with assault rifles and 9 mm pistols the gangsters, likely either from the locally dominant Knights Templar or from one of their rivals, shot more than 50 rounds into the chief and his car.

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The chief's murder saw his name added to the list of more than 1,200 municipal employees killed across Mexico's organized crime infested states in the past four years, according to a national organization of mayors. Victims include more than 43 mayors, scores of city council members, hundreds of municipal police officers, and other employees.

"No one can guarantee their own life," said Ygnacio Lopez, 61, mayor of a town a few dozen miles from Puruandiro, who launched a hunger strike in Mexico City last week to demand better security and greater tax revenue for Mexico's 2,457 municipal governments.

"You have to take precautions. We are on a knife's edge," Lopez told InSight Crime. "I can be talking with you here today and in a few weeks you can be reading news of my death."

More than ten months into the six year term of President Enrique Peña Nieto, who won office in large part by promising to quell the violence that has ravaged the country, great patches of Mexico still suffer under the yoke of organized crime. Under-financed, unprotected and overwhelmed, local officials find themselves among the more vulnerable victims.

Mexico's National Confederation of Municipalities contends that 40 percent of Mexico's towns and cities are under daily threat from organized crime. The gangs dictate whom the mayors hire as police chiefs, levy as much as a 10 percent tax on local government spending, and insist that their favored companies be given contracts.

Some mayors and other officials all too willingly agree. But few really have a choice. Ignoring the gangs' demands proves a quick way to end a career or a life.

The dangers officials face was laid bare in a harrowing YouTube video posted a year ago (see below).

"We want to have a peaceful town. Everything is in your hands," an off-camera voice tells the abducted mayor of the rural town of Teloloapan, tucked into the mountains of violent Guerrero state south of Mexico City. "We want you to commit to us."

Visibly terrified, Mayor Ignacio de Jesus Valladares readily agrees. His abductors reportedly were from the Familia Michoacana, one of south-central Mexico's more vicious criminal enterprises. Gunmen had killed more than a dozen Teloloapan police officers just a few months before Valladares was abducted and warned.

Elections may be fairer in today's more democratic Mexico but government is as beholden to de facto power as it has ever been. That reality underlies the self-defense militia movement that has swept parts of the Pacific Coast state of Guerrero and Michoacan, where both Puruandiro and Lopez's town, Santa Ana Maya, are located.

"You negotiated with the Templars and left Michoacan's towns to their fate," read banners at city hall in Tepalcatepec, a cattle town that expelled its mayor this spring.

"He filled the town with organized crime," Juana Francisca Reyes, a city employee and cousin of the exiled mayor, told Insight Crime. "We have been living with these people for years."

InSight Crime Analysis

Soon after entering office last December, President Peña Nieto pleaded with Mexicans to indulge him with a year to dramatically lessen the rampant murder, kidnapping, robbery and extortion that most affects ordinary citizens.

Less than six weeks remain of that year with the goal far from realized, and Peña Nieto's looking for an extension.

"Perhaps it will take time, perhaps it will be the efforts of various administrations," he told a Tuesday gathering of police officials and citizens groups that focus on security, adding that he hoped "the efforts made during this term will be an important contribution to achieving that objective."

While gangland murders have been dropping, according to widely challenged official figures, other crimes have been ticking along and in some cases rising. Of those non-lethal plagues, extortion has proved the most pervasive and likely the more impervious to a cure.

For some years now, Mexican organized crime has been about much more than smuggling narcotics to insatiable Americans. Local gangs, many of them allied with or directly employed by the bigger criminal organizations, have an array of hooks in a lot of people.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

The shakedown faced by the mayors is little different from that endured by homeowners, businesses and even tourists across the country. Perhaps what sets the mayors apart is gangsters not only demand a cut of the money, but also a say in how official affairs are run.

Such profit-sharing connivance once was the sole realm of political bosses. Now it's also the turf of crime lords who use the local politicians as expendable flunkies.

"They live every moment of their life with fear and terror," Leticia Quezada president of the National Municipal Confederation, an umbrella group that represents most the country's mayors, told Proceso magazine of the municipal leaders. "Now they can't even govern."

Mayor Lopez is unusual only because he's chosen to go public with his complaints. Convinced that police either can't or won't back them up most mayors, remain silent. State and federal campaigns urging people to report the criminals have been widely ignored.

It's a situation familiar to the majority of extorted citizens.

"It has been difficult because there are a lot of businesses that prefer to continue paying," Jorge Contreras, head of the Citizens Security Council in Ciudad Juarez, the manufacturing center bordering El Paso, told Insight Crime of the embedded extortion that's marked the relative peace which followed years of brutal gangland warfare. "They feel more protected that way."

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