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Dozens Of Candidates Killed Ahead Of Midterms In Mexico

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Mexican voters are heading to the polls this Sunday in what's expected to be the biggest election the country has ever held, with more people on the ballot than ever before. It's also becoming one of the bloodiest elections in Mexico. To date, 35 candidates have been killed. The president is not on the ballot for these midterm elections, but the vote is viewed as a referendum on his rule and whether his party can hold on to its supermajority needed to push through more of his populist plans. NPR's Mexico correspondent Carrie Kahn is with us now.

Hi, Carrie.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So as we said, these are the biggest elections ever held in Mexico. What is up for grabs this Sunday? What's at stake? And is the country prepared for it?

KAHN: There are a lot of races. The biggest prize - probably the 15 governorships. There's a race in almost half of all states. Every single seat in the lower House of the Congress is up for grabs and thousands of mayoral seats and state legislative posts. Mexico's independent electoral institution says it is prepared for this huge election, but violence might get in the way and keep voters away.

SHAPIRO: Yeah, the scale of violence is staggering - more than 30 candidates killed. What's behind this?

KAHN: The quick answer - organized crime gangs, cartels. They're growing in numbers and infiltrating more into politics. Falko Ernst is a Mexico City-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, and he says politics and crime have long been intertwined in Mexico.

FALKO ERNST: The difference now is that you have a greater amount of criminal actors out there all trying to push into the state, which provides a lot of points of friction, which explains why the competition over the state has become so overtly veracious (ph) these days.

KAHN: By most counts, there are now more than 200 crime gangs operating in Mexico. It's staggering. And the crime gangs want their candidates in power so they can control police forces and institutions. But also, we're seeing politicians use crime gangs to fund campaigns so they can get themselves in power and manipulate local contracting and help friends and family. The other thing is now that there's a lot of new parties on the ballot this year - so we have more political parties, more politicians and more criminal gangs.

SHAPIRO: I know you just got back from the state of Guanajuato where there's been a lot of violence, including a mayoral candidate who was killed in the middle of a rally. What did authorities there say about it?

KAHN: Just yesterday, they announced they arrested one man in the case, but they didn't give a motive or give any more details. That candidate was gunned down at this rally in the town of Moroleon, Guanajuato, and she's running in a small party and rising in the polls. And that party is not the party that runs the city now. And that's what we're seeing in a majority of candidates killed in this election cycle - is that they've been the opposition to the party in power. Her daughter, Denisse Barragan, spoke with me. She's now taking her mom's place as the candidate for mayor.

DENISSE BARRAGAN: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says she's scared, but she wants to fulfill her mom's pledge to help the people of Moroleon. Look - there's a lot of money in that town. The state has been besieged by violence of late. Two powerful cartels are vying for power and territory there. Authorities leaked information and said that the son of the candidate was a leader of one of those cartels. He denies the claims. So I can't tell you clearly what's happening, but there's a lot of money, power and violence in these disputes. But what is clear is that democracy is a huge casualty of all three.

SHAPIRO: And although the president's not on the ballot, what's at stake for him and his agenda?

KAHN: A lot, really. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is at the halfway mark of his six-year term. He's been a very polarizing politician there. He has great support among the poor. His polling numbers are around 60%. But this midterm election is really seen as a referendum on his rule. He came into office pledging to put the poor first and reverse a lot of the free-market policies that he says have ruined Mexico. And so we'll have to see how he does. So far, polls are showing he might hold on to his supermajority in the Congress.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Carrie Kahn.

Thanks a lot.

KAHN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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