Why is Mexico’s election so violent?

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Mexico’s 2024 elections have become the most violent in its history, primarily due to the influence of powerful drug cartels.

This election is set to be Mexico’s largest, with nearly 100 million eligible voters. Beyond the presidency, 20,000 positions are at stake, including 128 senatorial and 500 congressional seats, according to Foreign Policy.

This year’s election is not only the largest but also the most violent. A think tank tracking the violence found that 34 candidates have been assassinated this campaign season. The latest incident occurred on Wednesday when the popular mayoral candidate Alfredo Cabera was shot in the head at point-blank range in front of hundreds of supporters.

In response to a question from the Truth Voices at a Foreign Policy live discussion, former Mexican ambassador to the United States Arturo Sarukhán told Foreign Policy Editor-in-Chief Ravi Agrawal that the current violence is unprecedented, placing much of the blame on Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and his Morena Party.

“We’ve never seen the number of candidates running for elected office killed as we have in this electoral process,” Sarukhán said. “There was another one last night. The tally is now up to 34 candidates for elected office, mainly at the municipal, local, assembly, and state level… because the public security paradigm that Lopez Obrador came into the presidency with is completely broken.”

“He came in running on a mantra of ‘hugs, not bullets,’ aiming to emphasize harm reduction and address some social dynamics that lead to violence and organized crime in Mexico,” Sarukhán explained. “But his ‘hugs not bullets’ paradigm has turned into a ‘hugs for thugs’ paradigm.”

He described the current situation as a “Pax Narca,” leading to rising cartel violence, which has, in turn, increased fentanyl trafficking into the United States.

Sarukhán noted that organized crime began to influence the electoral process in the 2021 midterms when it either suppressed or boosted the vote in favor of Morena, especially in northwestern Mexico.

He indicated that electoral violence is worst in jurisdictions on the northern border with the U.S., the Caribbean coast, and the south.

“Considering where drugs go north and guns come south, it becomes clear why organized crime decided to play a role in the elections in those states,” he added.

“The big fear with these 34 candidates murdered so far in this electoral cycle is that someday we may see organized crime rearing its head again, not just in terms of intimidating candidates they don’t like, but also in terms of suppressing the vote, as we did see in the midterms,” Sarukhán concluded.

Ana Quintana, Senior Policy Director with the Vandenburg Coalition, concurred with most of Sarukhán’s findings. Speaking with the Truth Voices, she attributed the blame to two aspects of Lopez Obrador’s tenure — his “hugs not bullets” crime policy and his chauvinistic attitude toward the U.S.

“But what can definitively be said, and empirically measured, is that since AMLO has come into office, the security situation in Mexico has worsened,” she said. “Cooperation between the United States has decisively disintegrated to one of its lowest points in decades, and I don’t see that improving.”

Quintana outlined several diplomatic incidents that have significantly harmed U.S.-Mexico relations. The strained relations, together with Lopez Obrador’s reluctance to combat the cartels, have deprived Mexico of an effective way to contain cartel violence. Between the two main issues with the Mexican president, however, Quintana sees the deteriorating relations with the U.S. as the major contributor to the rise in political violence.

“It’s not so much that AMLO is a leftist… he has left-leaning views,” she said. “But AMLO’s nationalism, prioritizing Mexico’s interests over agreements with the U.S., is more concerning for U.S. policy.”

Quintana cautioned against attributing every act of political violence to a grand strategy by the cartels, emphasizing the number of local disputes that have led to targeted killings. However, there is logic to the general strategy of the cartels. Some of their apparent preference for the Morena Party might stem from a desire to back the “winning horse,” but the party’s security policy largely benefits them.

“If I’m a member of a drug cartel, I’m thinking, ‘This is the individual… this is the party that controls the presidency and the majority of gubernatorialships, and I know these governors will be subservient to him,” she said, referring to Lopez Obrador, who is likely to remain the party leader for life. “If that’s AMLO’s view on security policy, no one will deviate from that. And so if you’re in the drug cartels, you’re thinking, this works out in my favor because I know I have a guy who has openly met with Chapo Guzman’s family, and has said he doesn’t want to work with the United States.”

Lopez Obrador’s successor, Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo, has vowed to continue his security policies, unlike her competitor, Bertha Xóchitl Gálvez Ruiz, who has called for a tougher stance against the cartels.

“We will deepen the strategy of peace and security, and the progress that has been made,” Sheinbaum said. “This is not an iron fist… This is justice.”

Violence has escalated significantly under Lopez Obrador’s tenure, with a quarter more murders than under his predecessor, totaling about 170,000, Bloomberg reported.

Paradoxically, Luis Rubio, chairman of the Center of Research for Development, told Foreign Policy that security remains the most critical issue despite Lopez Obrador’s enduring popularity.

“In terms of the polls, the most important issue is security,” Rubio said. “Mexicans suffer from extortion, assaults, and murders. The numbers are staggering in every one of those areas.”

Brady Knox
Brady Knox
Brady Knox is a breaking news reporter with a particular focus on Russia, Eastern Europe, and foreign affairs. Hailing from Pittsburgh, he graduated from Miami University in 2022 with a bachelor's degree in Russian, Eastern European, and Eurasian studies and political science.

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