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Feature 052316 Yagoub

Monday, May 23, 2016

Mexico's 2016 Elections, Local Corruption and Organized Crime

By Mimi Yagoub (InSight Crime)

The expulsion of three mayoral candidates in Tamaulipas state by Mexico's ruling party amid allegations they are working with organized crime highlights a well-established trend in which Latin American drug lords have set their sights on city hall.

Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional - PRI) President Manlio Beltrones announced the suspensions via Twitter on May 7, saying the candidates had been "threatened or bought off by organized crime." The only evidence Beltrones offered was that the candidates had switched sides. He said they had been forced to support the rival National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional - PAN).

"The PRI will cancel the registrations of three mayoral candidates in Tamaulipas, threatened or bought off by organized crime," Beltrones published on his Twitter feed, adding that the candidates had been forced to support the rival National Action Party. The announcement comes only weeks before Mexico's local government elections, which are scheduled for June 5.

One of the candidates announced all threes' support for PAN's Tamaulipas gubernatorial candidate, Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca, during a campaign rally late in April, Milenio reported. All three are being investigated by the Special Prosecutor for Electoral Crimes (Fiscalía Especializada para la atención de Delitos Electorales - FEPADE), according to Excélsior.

García Cabeza de Vaca is facing his own accusations of organized crime links and of using these allies to pressure rival politicians -- allegations that his party has denied. Despite those allegations and the fact that Tamaulipas has been a PRI stronghold, the PAN candidate is reportedly favored to win the governor's seat in June.

See also: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

The PRI candidate for governor of Tamaulipas has also been a controversial choice. Baltazar Hinojosa Ochoa has been accused of receiving money from the Gulf Cartel while running for mayor of Matamoros in 2002, in exchange for allowing the cartel to pick his chief of police.

Tamaulipas is not the only state where campaigns have been tainted by corruption allegations. Carlos Joaquín González, a candidate for governor in the southern border state Quintana Roo, was recently accused of ties to organized criminal groups.

InSight Crime Analysis

Whether the current turmoil in Tamaulipas is a political smear campaign or real criminal ties, the involvement of organized crime in local-level politics is a very real concern. There are many examples in Latin America that illustrate the trend, and a number of reasons organized crime goes to the effort to corrupt the lower rungs on the political ladder.

One of the most important attractions of corrupting local government is that it affords criminal groups a measure of territorial control.

Dominating areas without the collusion of local authorities can require high levels of violence or sticking to ungoverned spaces where state forces are irrelevant. This is especially true for trafficking organizations, which can more easily carve out drug corridors if local authorities are on board.

Establishing corridors where government officials and authorities turn a blind eye to criminal movements is particularly important in border states such as Quintana Roo and Tamaulipas, where easier access to foreign soil and markets facilitates drug and human trafficking.

The El Salvador-based Texis Cartel has for years relied on high-level corruption rather than violence to ensure the safe passage of illegal drugs through Central America. Its influence over police chiefs, congressmen and other officials has made the cartel -- and its alleged leader, Jose Adan Salazar Umaña, alias "Chepe Diablo" -- famously immune to prosecution.

See also: Chepe Diablo Profile

Corrupting the mayor of an area essentially means exerting control over local police. There are countless examples of municipal security forces working for criminal gangs by providing intelligence, protection, or muscle.

One notorious example is that of police officers in the Mexican municipality of Iguala who were found complicit in the disappearance of 43 students in 2014. They were accused of handing the victims over to the drug trafficking gang Guerreros Unidos, a group allegedly led by the mayor of Iguala and his wife.

See also: Mexico News and Profiles

In another Mexico case, local police agents were arrested in January 2016 and charged with kidnapping five youths and handing them over to a criminal organization in Veracruz state.

In Peru, recently arrested drug boss Gerson Gálvez Calle, alias "Caracol," reportedly had at least 21 police agents on his payroll. These carried out operations against Gálvez's rivals and planted evidence to frame them.

As Alejandro Hope points out in his analysis of local corruption, even the poorest municipalities handle tens of thousands of dollars in government funds each year.

Diverting this money into criminal coffers through extortion or control over the municipal budget can be a comfortable source of income for local crime groups. In Colombia this is all too common, and guerrilla organizations are known to charge a percentage on state contracts in some regions.

In April 2016, a former governor of Arauca was sentenced to nine years in prison for allegedly granting a guerrilla group state contracts.

Political validation can be invaluable in maximizing criminal groups' power. Representative examples can be found in Colombia and El Salvador. The now-defunct Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia - AUC) had a phenomenal amount of support from local and state politicians of all ranks, largely due to their mutual opposition to guerrilla groups.

See also: AUC News and Profiles

This paramilitary umbrella organization had so much political influence that often local politicians would approach the AUC for support, rather than vice versa. Reports emerged of the AUC making pacts with thousands of politicians, and over 100 members of Congress have been investigated in what is popularly known as the "Parapolitics" scandal. The AUC's power eventually helped them negotiate an advantageous peace deal with the national government.

Corrupting local politicians can bring even bigger payoffs as they move up the ladder. Some mayors go on to become governors and congressmen; corrupting a small-time politician today could mean controlling high-ranking government positions tomorrow.

This may be one of the reasons Latin America is seeing criminal groups have their own members run for local office. Numerous crooked mayors across the region have recently been arrested for being leaders of criminal organizations.

Once a criminal organization has corrupted a local government, it is easier for it to expand its territory. This so-called "oil drop effect" sees groups consolidate control and subsequently "bleed out," spreading their power and influence to surrounding areas.

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This commentary, "Mexico Election Scandals Spotlight Importance of Local Corruption" by Mimi Yagoub, was first published in InSight Crime on May 16, 2016 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.

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