Mexico’s presidential campaign has come and gone without any major acts of election violence, but this could simply be a sign that criminal influence on the vote has gone underground.
On July 1, Mexico elected Enrique Peña Nieto to succeed Felipe Calderon when the presidency changes hands on December 1. In addition, voters replaced the members of both Congress chambers, and selected new governors in seven states. Despite fears of criminal violence marring the election day amid all this turnover, the process went smoothly, both on Sunday, and, for the most part, throughout the campaign.
There were some provocative acts of violence (see InSight Crime’s map), but few could be clearly linked to organized crime and the elections. One of the few spectacular attacks in recent days — a bomb attack on the Nuevo Laredo city hall, which injured seven — occurred in a region where no elections were planned beyond the presidential race, so it’s not clear that there was a political motive for the bombing. In another of the incidents making headlines, Marisol Mora, the mayor of a small town in Veracruz, was abducted from her home last week, and found dead in neighboring Oaxaca days later. She had worked on the campaign of government candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota, who finished in third place, but there is little to suggest that the attack was provoked by the election.
Prior to election day, the government issued a map highlighting the regions with the most serious threats of campaign violence (see right). They had also promised to mount military patrols in some of the more turbulent regions, to discourage electoral manipulation. Whether or not it was because of these measures, the reports of criminal groups exerting influence on 2012’s elections have been tamer than any other in Mexico’s recent history.
A handful of episodes over the past few years have fueled worries about attacks on the democratic process. In June 2010, weeks before an election for the governor’s post in Tamaulipas, the leading candidate, Rodolfo Torre Cantu, was murdered in an incident most chalked up to one of the state’s two main criminal groups, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. In November 2011, reports emerged from Michoacan that members of the Caballeros Templarios gang had worked to boost the turnout for Fausto Vallejo, bringing about the surprise result: despite opinion polls that consistently put him several points behind his rival (and the president’s sister) Luisa Maria Calderon, Vallejo pulled off a narrow victory.
Why was this year’s election spared these splashy attacks and examples of criminal manipulation? One explanation is, as InSight Crime noted in the aftermath of the Michoacan election, that presidential and congressional votes are less appealing targets for criminal groups than the gubernatorial contests that sparked the incidents mentioned above. Congressmen in Mexico are constitutionally limited to one term, so there are no influential political lions operating from the legislature, and they don’t control police departments the way executive officials at every level do.
A presidential election, in turn, is simply out of reach for most criminal groups. With more than 40 million voters, the absolute margins of victory are so large even in closely fought elections that affecting the outcome is difficult. In addition, while he controls any number of agencies whose support would be a major asset for organizations like the Zetas, the president is far less accessible than a governor, which makes the victory of one candidate rather than another less important to the gangs. Furthermore, the level of media attention discourages deals with criminals; should emissaries of one presidential candidate sit down with a group of capos, there is a much greater risk of being caught.
Due to these factors, from the criminal’s perspective, buying off the subordinates responsible for implementing security policy is a safer move than trying to influence the impact of a presidential contest through intimidation or bribes.
Another, less optimistic explanation for the electoral season calm is that politicians are less inclined to resist the advances of criminal groups, so there is little need for acts of intimidation. Conversely, the criminal groups may have developed a better idea of how to surreptitiously put their thumb on the electoral scale. Rather than shooting candidates or leaving audio recordings revealing politicians’ deals with rival gangs, criminal influence is wielded where it is most effective: beyond the reach of the public eye.
While it doesn’t result in public terror or acts of violence, such a scenario is far from good news for Mexico.