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Violence and the vote: Criminal organisations vie for influence ahead of Mexico’s elections

Organised criminal groups seeking political influence have long driven an increase in political violence during Mexico’s elections. With violent incidents already surpassing those recorded in the 2018 general election and with a month still remaining before the polls, 2024 is likely to be the most violent election year yet, writes Shannon Lorimer.

As Mexico approaches general and local elections in June 2024, criminal organisations seeking to widen their political influence have targeted aspiring and incumbent politicians alike. This has manifested as intimidation, kidnappings, and assassinations, resulting in a surge in political violence that has already exceeded levels seen in previous election years. An increase in political violence during campaign seasons is not uncommon in Mexico, but with so many positions in contest in 2024, including the presidency, all 500 members of congress, 128 senators, several governorships, state-level legislative seats, and officials for 1,580 municipalities, the stakes are even higher. This time around, associated political violence will also be exacerbated by the current criminal landscape in Mexico, which includes an increased number of smaller criminal groups battling for influence and territorial control at the local level.

An increasingly fractured criminal landscape

Violence in the lead-up to the polls has been a mainstay of elections since former President Felipe Calderón launched his military campaign on drug cartels when he took office in late 2006. The country’s war on drugs that followed has fragmented criminal organisations in recent years and has completely reconfigured the criminal landscape. By removing several bosses of the biggest organisations, the landscape has shifted from one with fewer, monolithic organisations into one characterised by numerous splinter cells operating throughout the country. These groups are more reliant on a range of illicit activities to generate revenue that has created intensified fighting between both small and large gangs for control over territory and for securing political influence. Now, cartel efforts to determine who will serve as mayor, for example, either by removing the opposition or by running their own candidates, have compounded in a record number of political violence incidents.

The country’s war on drugs that followed has fragmented criminal organisations in recent years and has completely reconfigured the criminal landscape.

Unprecedented political violence

For 2024, levels of violence have already surpassed those of previous years. Between 1 September, the start of the political campaigns, and 1 April, political violence had affected at least 399 people connected to the elections, with suspected criminal organisations having killed nearly 30 aspiring political candidates. In comparison, 299 people were affected during the 2021 legislative vote; while itself no small number, forecasts for the remaining month until this year’s elections project 2024 figures to reach 500 people affected by political violence by the day of voting.

It is clear that the occurrence of local elections drives up violence, with some 389 people targeted in the 2018 general election when ballots were also cast across multiple levels of government, for example. This is in large part because a larger number of smaller, and often less sophisticated, criminal groups target local authorities as a means to increase their local influence. In fact, according to the most recent statistics, candidates aspiring to hold municipal positions account for 73 percent of political attacks linked to criminal groups.

Some incidents of campaign violence are driven by other factors, including rivalries or interpersonal disputes. However, criminal organisations are the most common perpetrators, aiming to gain influence over a range of community issues and public decision-making powers, by removing rival candidates and paving the way for candidates who will enable their operations or, in the very least, allow them to act with impunity. Widespread corruption facilitates these relationships, especially in municipalities located in or near drug tracking routes that are dominated by cartels, including the states of Guanajuato, Guerrero, and Michoacán. Criminal organisations in municipalities in these states have frequently employed targeted violence, including assassinations, to gain political capital and secure their operations by preventing interference in their activities. This violence is especially pervasive in municipalities with weaker incumbents who are more likely to lose power. And, beyond the elections, shifts and subsequent disruptions to existing relationships between officials and cartels are frequently accompanied by violence amid clashes between criminal groups as they seek to negotiate arrangements with new officials.

A grim outlook

With one month remaining until voters head to the polls, this year’s elections look increasingly likely to catalyse further political violence, particularly around election day, as multiple splinter criminal groups compete for territorial control and access to power and impunity for illicit operations. This violence will continue to discourage both voter and candidate participation, reinforcing the sway criminal groups hold on Mexico’s landscape.

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