With gubernatorial elections coming to twelve Mexican states this Sunday, a definitive test for Mexico is taking place. By most accounts, the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, is riding a big wave of momentum, capitalizing on the public perception that the cataclysmic violence of the past few years is the fault of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war on the Mexican cartels. But more than for the parties themselves, the elections have become a symbol of whether or not Mexico can still hold its basic institutions together in the face of the threat posed by the rampant and insidious drug cartels.
As if designed to express this point, violence across the country has increased dramatically over the past few weeks. June 11th was the bloodiest day in the history of the recent drug war, with 85 people murdered throughout Mexico, including another slaughter in a drug rehab center in Chihuahua, where 18 people died. The violence culminated this week with the murder of Rodolfo Torre Cantu, a PRI candidate for governor in the state of Tamaulipas, which has become a war zone recently, with intense fighting between the dominant drug-trafficking groups in the region, Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel.
Torre Cantu's assassination was immediately met with shock and anger. Shot 40 times while riding in an SUV (with the image of his own face painted on the side), there's no mistaking a cartel hand in the audacious murder. This was the first major assassination of a political candidate in Mexico since the drug war began, and perhaps the most high-profile assassination since 1994, when presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was murdered. Torre Cantu was the major figure in the Todos Tamaulipas ("We are all Tamaulipas") campaign, which strove to unite citizens of the embattled state, whose streets have become battle zones for warring crime organizations, with cars and fires barricading streets and scores of gunmen firing on each other in daylight.
The crime instantly triggered a condemnation from Calderon, who used it as an example of the pervasive threat of the cartels to Mexican society and the need for the country to unite to deal with them as enemies of the state.
"Today," he said, "has proven that organized crime is a permanent threat and that we should close ranks to confront it and prevent it from repeating acts such as the cowardly assassination that shocked the country today. We cannot and should not permit crime to impose its will or its perverse rules."
Unfortunately, Torre Cantu's murder has not been the only homicide with political implications in the recent weeks, even though it may have been the most public. One of the leaders of the PAN, Pedro Brito Ocampo, was found murdered in an abandoned house in the state of Guerrero, the scene of another important election for a state plagued with narcoviolence.
And the mayor of the town of Guadalupe Distrito Bravo, a town in the Valley of Juarez, was murdered in the city a week and a half ago.
And on Wednesday, the decapitated body of an as-of-yet unidentified man was dumped outside the home of Juarez mayoral candidate Hector Murguia Lardizabal, a politician with the PRI. Five other Mexican governors have claimed to have received death threats in recent weeks, all of them PRI politicians.
In terms of assessing what this means, the motives behind these murders have first to do with groups of drug traffickers trying to ensure their influence in regions that are strategically important. While it's impossible to speculate on the exact reasons each of these figures were killed or threatened, it boils down to the problem of systemic corruption and the sway the cartels hold with politicians. The cartels are accustomed to being able to control people in positions of power with the traditional offer of 'Plato o Plomo'-'silver or lead.' Either politicians take money from the cartels and work with them or they are killed. In the current climate, with the state bearing down on them and becoming a more legitimate threat to their existence, it could be that their 'with us or against us' philosophy is more ruthlessly and publicly on display.
It's safe to say Rodolfo Torre Cantu may have made the more dangerous choice. The Zetas and the Gulf Cartel are fighting for control of the state, and Torre Cantu's work to unite its citizens, who have been cowed into hiding in their homes during the day, is an affront to their magnanimity. He was the leading candidate to win, and his agenda may have been seen as a threat.
The larger implication of his murder is the threat it represents to the actual function of democracy in Mexico. The cartels, probably due to the pressure exerted by the government and its war on drug trafficking, are acting out more brazenly than they ever have before. Committing high profile murders and leaving bodies in the street with limbs and heads removed has become the standard action for groups that used to try to disappear people so that they would never be found.
It's an attack on democracy and the population's role in shaping their own fate. Torre Cantu's murder is a signal sent to the citizens of Tamaulipas: no one on the side of government or the law can protect you. It's a blatant attempt to scare people away from the polls on July 4th, and it's also an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the election in general. And that is an extremely dangerous proposition. If the cartels can succeed in puncturing a basic function of government in the hearts and minds of the people, then what hope can they have for Mexico or themselves?
This sort of sentiment is summed up in the general opinions of the Mexicans who complain about Calderon and the PAN. Their belief that the inescapable violence is the fault of Calderon's war on the cartels, rather than the fault of the cartels actually committing the crimes themselves, shows that the cartels have to some extent already achieved their goals of subjecting the population to their rule-or at least conditioning them to their existence in public life. It's as if they're saying, "If we leave them alone, they'll leave us alone."
The question of how to deal with this sort of threat is a tough one, and rather than militarize election day, the Juarez police force has decided to maintain a low presence, choosing to stay away from the polls for fear of scaring or intimidating voters any more than they already are. The El Paso Times reports a Juarez elections department official saying: "Police could scare people away, and instead of people feeling comfortable, they could feel that they will be inspected or detained. We want people to be happy so they can go out and vote." It's a psychological retaliation to the psychological blows of the assassinations.
And maybe this a manner in which we can assist Mexico in fighting the cartels. In all of the ways the US is tied up with Mexico–through trade, business, immigration and security concerns to name a few–at some point a threat to democracy in Mexico has to be viewed as a threat to our own interests. We can't simply ignore it anymore.
This fact seems to be subconsciously manifesting itself along the border lately. It can be seen in the huge uproar over the border crosser shot and killed by Border Patrol along the Rio Grande a few weeks ago. Just Wednesday, shots from a murder occurring near the border in Juarez sent bullets through the windows of El Paso City Hall. We've intervened in other nations countless times on the basis of the idea that "a threat to freedom anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere," and nowhere is that threat more real or close to US citizens, businesses and actual territory than in Mexico. It's something that requires a closer look from foreign policy strategists, our own lawmakers and the United Nations, to see if we can help Mexico assert its authority as a democratic institution.
John Murray is a lover of obscurity. He lives and writes in Arizona.