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Feature 071414 Corcoran

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Politics of Organized Crime Killings of Mayors in Mexico

By Patrick Corcoran

At a recent meeting of the National Mayors' Association (Asociacion Nacional de Alcaldes – ANAC), the organization's president said that over the past 18 months the mayors of 16 Mexican towns had been murdered. Most were in the states of Michoacan, Guerrero, and Tamaulipas, all of which have struggled to prevent deeply ingrained criminal groups like the Zetas and the Knights Templar (Caballeros Templarios) from wielding political influence. 

The recent wave of killings is the continuation of a trend seen in the later years of the Felipe Calderon presidency. In 2010, at least 15 mayors were murdered across Mexico, most of them in a wave of killings during the latter half of the year. Three more were killed in January 2011. The pace slowed after that, but local political leaders have remained under constant threat as criminal groups pressure them for support, or punish them for aiding the enemy.

According to ANAC president Renan Barrera Concha, many of those killed had previously received threats from criminal groups. Some of the recent murders have become notorious, such as the killing of Edelmiro Cavazos, mayor of Santiago, Nuevo Leon; and of Maria Santos Gorrostieta Salazar, mayor of Tiquicheo, Michoacan, who earned fame for publishing photos of wounds from a previous attempt on her life. Others have flown under the radar, such as Gustavo Sanchez, a schoolteacher-turned-mayor who was leading the local government in Tancitaro, Michoacan when he was stoned to death in 2010.

InSight Crime Analysis

The waves of attacks on municipal officials, including many less-publicized murders of security officials, offer a brutal illustration of the inability of local governments to defend themselves against well-armed criminal groups. Unlike federal or state officials, local mayors are largely geographically stationary, and tend not to travel with large security contingents. Furthermore, municipal police forces are poorly paid and typically lacking in the esprit de corps of their state and federal counterparts, making them and their political bosses more susceptible to advances from criminal groups.

The murders of mayors also demonstrate the increasing focus of criminal gangs on influencing local government, as opposed to state and national government. While attacks on state and federal politicians have occurred, they are much less frequent. This is likely a product of both capacity and self-interest: launching attacks on governors or cabinet officials is not as easy, as such figures are generally better protected. Killing higher-profile officials also risks provoking a groundswell of outrage, provoking the federal government to concentrate its resources on punishing the perpetrators.

In contrast, bullying mayors is less risky, more easily accomplished, and offers more direct benefits to criminal groups.

The specific benefits that stem from influence over a local government are in large part the product of changing models in organized crime. Rather than deriving their income strictly from transnational drug shipments, a growing portion of Mexican criminal groups' revenue is now locally generated from retail drug sales feeding local consumers, car-jacking, extortion, kidnapping and other criminal activities. Heavy dependence on a local area as a source of revenue requires some level of support or tolerance from local political leaders.

One of Mexico's greatest long-term challenges in security policy is enabling local governments to better defend themselves. There are nearly 2,500 municipalities in Mexico, and the federal government has limited resources to deploy in the event of a crisis at the local level. An enduring public security balance is achievable only if Mexico can count on local governments as the first line of defense. Unfortunately, Mexico's modern political history has been built on a highly centralized governing ethos, thanks in large part to the settlement of the Mexican Revolution around the PRI party, where authority flowed from the top down, beginning with the presidency.

In that sense, endowing local governments with greater autonomy and capacity cuts against generations of established custom, and is therefore a titanic undertaking. Criminal groups continue both to resist this process and to exploit its tentative pace, as the growing list of murdered mayors amply demonstrates. 

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This commentary, "Killing of Mexico Mayors Shows Political Aims of Organized Crime," was first published in InSight Crime, on Jul. 9, 2014 and reposted per a Creative Commons authorization.  InSight Crime's objective is to increase the level of research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Patrick Corcoran (corcoran25@hotmail.com) is a writer and international relations student who specializes in Mexican affairs.

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