Political candidates in criminally strategic states like Chiapas, Guerrero, and Michoacán saw an outburst of violence this election cycle in Mexico, underscoring how organized crime groups and other power brokers try to influence voting to maintain control despite political reconfigurations.

By the time voters elected Claudia Sheinbaum as Mexico’s first female president, election observers recorded 129 political violence events targeting officials during local, state, and federal elections, for which more than 20,000 posts were up for grabs when campaigning started in early September 2023, according to data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

The scale of violence, which included 102 political assassinations, as well as kidnappings, forced disappearances, attempted murders, and attacks on family members, campaign staff, and official infrastructure like ballot boxes, made this election season particularly concerning, Tiziano Breda, ACLED’s Associate Analysis Coordinator for Latin America, told InSight Crime.

“The violence was due to two main reasons: the magnitude of the election, with it being the biggest in the country’s recent history, and it’s also the consequence of how Mexico’s criminal landscape has evolved into a growing number of fractured groups with diverse economic portfolios competing for influence, and therefore exacerbating violence,” he said.

Past elections have also been marked by extreme violence. The country logged 145 politically motivated murders of individuals directly linked to the electoral process during the 2018 presidential election and 88 during the 2021 gubernatorial elections, according to data compiled by the Mexican think tank Laboratorio Electoral.

SEE ALSO: Mexico’s 2024 Election Could Spark Violent Criminal Realignments

Just five states — Chiapas, Guerrero, Michoacán, Oaxaca, and Veracruz — accounted for half of all election-related violence logged by ACLED this year, which overwhelmingly targeted those vying for local political office.

Each of the worst-affected states is home to multiple organized crime groups with varying degrees of firepower and sophistication, whose criminal interests coexist and overlap with local economic and political dynamics. That fosters violence that isn’t always related to organized crime.

From the blurred lines between criminal and political violence in the southern border state of Chiapas to the outsized role organized crime groups played in local elections in states long plagued by criminal groups — such as Guerrero and Michoacán — InSight Crime looks at criminal dynamics in three of the states impacted most by political violence this election cycle.

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Widespread political violence clouds historic Mexico election

More than 129 instances of political violence against officials were recorded nationwide this election cycle, causing some experts to call it the country’s most violent political transition

June 2024 | Source: ACLED

Chiapas

Since around 2021, Mexico’s powerful organized crime groups have grown in strength in Chiapas, which sits on the Mexico-Guatemala border in what has long been a strategic corridor for drugs and migrants moving north toward the United States. 

This election cycle, much of the violence in Chiapas has been linked in some way to the increasingly intense battle between factions of the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) over these drug and migrant smuggling routes.

Many local communities have found themselves caught in the crossfire. In May, armed assailants massacred 11 civilians from a single family who refused to work for either of the crime groups.

SEE ALSO: What Is Behind the Criminal Conflict Raging in Chiapas, Mexico?

But the distinction between criminal and political violence is often hard to pinpoint, and sometimes non-existent.

“Both criminal groups and political groups can decide who competes and who does not, so it is very difficult to establish a clear line between what is criminal and what is political,” said Manuel Pérez Aguirre, a political scientist who coordinates electoral violence research for the Colegio de México’s Violence and Peace Seminar.

There is a long history of political and social unrest in Chiapas that predates the latest flare-ups in organized crime-related violence. Fighting between the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG only adds to those pre-existing tensions, according to Breda, the ACLED analyst.

“A lot of it stems from intercommunal conflict centered around land, and in some cases, it is related to a deeply embedded political culture and leadership style,” he told InSight Crime.

The Sierra Madre region of Chiapas, for instance, is rich in minerals like silver, gold, iron, lead, and zinc, according to government data. This has spurred conflict, especially during times of political change, among community members who oppose exploiting those resources and the crime groups, politicians, and international companies that stand to benefit from their extraction.

Guerrero

In a state like Guerrero, in Mexico’s hot and humid south, the CJNG, Guerreros Unidos, Viagras, Rojos, Tlacos, Ardillos, Familia Michoacana, and Tequileros are among dozens of armed groups fighting it out. They may all use violence to co-opt local elections for a plethora of motives.

First and foremost is security. Controlling local politicians not only helps crime groups buy protection and influence, but it can also allow them to steer local law enforcement against their criminal rivals.

SEE ALSO: Criminal Violence Paralyzes Mexico’s Southern State of Guerrero

“Municipal authorities have a say in planning and implementing security strategies at the local level,” Breda told InSight Crime. “To control and co-opt who is elected at that level means more leniency for the group in charge.”

This aids their criminal activities, which extend far beyond controlling drug trafficking routes. In Guerrero, crime groups run lucrative local extortion markets, street-level drug sales, and siphon profits from infrastructure projects and the state’s agricultural and mining sectors.

“We’ve increasingly seen crime groups also aim to control or get a slice of those [state] resources,” said Breda.

Election violence is nothing new in Guerrero, especially in the major seaport of Acapulco, the southern state’s largest city and often one of the country’s most violent. It is directly connected to Mexico City via a federal highway and is an important target of control for both politicians and criminal groups.

Organized crime has long relied on the Pacific coast city to receive cocaine shipments sent from South America, while also exploiting the economic activity generated from tourism to run extortion rackets and launder money.

Michoacán

In recent years, the CJNG has expanded from the northern reaches of Michoacán into the so-called Tierra Caliente region, a strategic corridor for synthetic drug production and agricultural work. Former President Felipe Calderón dispatched thousands of soldiers across this state nearly two decades ago to mark the start of the Mexican government’s ill-fated “war on drugs,” which continues today.

Since then, the CJNG’s incursion has further complicated the dynamic alliances that exist between political powerbrokers, security forces, and crime groups like the New Familia Michoacana, the Viagras, and remnants of the Knights Templar, which have at times operated together alongside other independent groups as the Carteles Unidos.

Political transitions are a particularly violent time for these reconfigurations. At the end of February, two candidates vying to become the next mayor of Maravatío in northern Michoacán were shot and killed less than 12 hours apart. By the following month, more than a dozen aspiring municipal presidents had chosen to withdraw their candidacies due to death threats from organized crime groups.

This year, some locals told InSight Crime they felt like the electoral violence was non-stop.

“The criminal groups want to have absolute control over the populations and appoint candidates who are obedient to them,” said a local priest working in this contested area, who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity due to security concerns.

Co-opting local politicians has become one of their main criminal activities alongside extortion, he added, which not only affords them protection from security forces but also influence over how municipal resources are managed.

While municipal budgets may not be significant compared to state or federal funds, being able to dictate how they are spent can be important for local criminal actors.

“You have millions of pesos at your disposal with few controls and little accountability when it comes to enforcement,” said Pérez Aguirre, the political scientist.

Alongside drug trafficking and extortion, criminal groups have realized they can use their municipal leverage to establish their own type of “shadow government,” he added. This creates an even greater incentive to use targeted violence to sway the outcome of those elections.

Far from the state capitals and urban centers that are the focus of international attention, priests like the one InSight Crime spoke to in rural Michoacán are struggling to see a path forward.

“Almost every day there are murders, disappearances, and kidnappings,” he explained. “It’d be better for many people to just leave.”

The violence continued even after the polls closed on June 2. Yolanda Sánchez Figueroa, the municipal president of Cotija, was killed near the town’s main plaza just one day later, less than a year after CJNG operatives had kidnapped her in neighboring Jalisco.

The elections might be over, but the transition of political power later this year when newly elected officials, as well as President Claudia Sheinbaum, take up their posts, suggests the violence might not be.