Alexandre Meneghini, Associated Press
EMILIANO ZAPATA, Mexico — Before the sun climbed above the hills around this central Mexican town, Saul Garcia and his family awoke to the sound of bullets piercing the front gate. A masked motorcyclist had opened fire on their brick home, leaving behind a poster signed by the La Familia drug cartel, warning the mayoral candidate to withdraw from the race or the gang would kill him, his wife and three children.
Garcia, a candidate for the local Social Democratic Party, didn't pull out. A state police officer now follows Garcia 24 hours a day while he courts voters on the steep and narrow streets of Emiliano Zapata, a suburb of Cuernavaca in the state of Morelos.
As Mexicans head to the ballot box Sunday, drug cartels are registering their votes with scare tactics and cold, hard cash to make sure whoever is elected doesn't interfere with their lucrative operations. The focus is usually on local politics, where officials and their police departments can cause problems, or smooth the way, for gangs moving drugs or shaking down businesses. It's also easier to influence a local race than an extensive, well-financed national election in the glare of media coverage.
Drug cartels aren't political, they're practical. Officials from all three major parties have been accused of drug gang ties, or have come under attack. Gangs support candidates they can buy off or a scare off — and government officials say they're fighting back.
"We've said for several months that we have to recognize the presence and action of criminal groups around the election, particularly in the local sphere, " Mexico's federal interior secretary, Alejandro Poire, said Thursday. "We are acting to contain it, to prevent it and to bring those responsible to justice."
Garcia says he doesn't know why he was targeted.
"I don't have enemies," said Garcia, whose home was attacked April 30. "When I realized they were threatening me and saying I had to quit I thought, 'But wait, we are free to vote and to be elected.'"
Election violence this season has flared in Morelos and in other states where voters will choose six governors and hundreds of mayors and councilmembers. While the federal government does not track the number of candidates threatened, there have been scattered reports of attacks or threats against politicians and campaign workers in several states, including a gubernatorial candidate in Morelos.
A Morelos state official who was not authorized to talk to reporters said La Familia is seeking to control small towns like Emiliano Zapata since taking a beating in its home state, neighboring Michoacan. There, the cartel has been wounded by government attacks and an internal split.
In Michoacan state elections last fall, an anonymous newspaper ad threatened members of the governing National Action Party to stay home on election day in a town whose mayor already had been killed. Shadowy groups intimidated candidates into dropping out and used roadblocks and phone threats try to control the vote. Pollsters were kidnapped and released unharmed only weeks before elections.
There have also been attacks against candidates in the drug-plagued state of Guerrero, though it is not clear who was responsible.
Poire, the interior minister, met with Morelos Gov. Marco Adame on Wednesday to coordinate security efforts for elections day and promised an immediate response to any emergencies that threaten the voting process.
Drug cartels have bribed officials for decades, paying off governors, mayors and other public officials as part of the cost of doing business. The Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ruled Mexico for 71 years, and in those days, cartels didn't need to pay attention to the electoral season.
But the party's ouster in 2000 created a power vacuum and left territory and elective offices up for grabs. Since then, candidates of all stripes have been accused of being bought by cartels.
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