Christian Palma, Eduardo Verdugo, Dario Lopez-Mills, Associated Press
In this combo of three pictures are Mexican presidential candidates Enrique Pena Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), top, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), center, and Josefina Vazquez Mota, of the National Action Party (PAN), campaigning in different locations in Mexico in June 2012. Mexico is holding its presidential election on Sunday, July 1.

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.

Mexico election

About 80 million Mexicans are eligible to vote at more than 143,151 polling places for president, 500 members of the lower house of Congress and 128 senators. Voters will also select Mexico City's mayor and governors in the states of Chiapas, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Morelos, Tabasco and Yucatan. Here's a look at the presidential candidates. The president is elected for a single six-year term and cannot stand for re-election.

ENRIQUE PENA NIETO, 45: The telegenic former governor married to a soap-opera star has led polls throughout the race and the final pre-election polls showed him with a lead of 8 to 17 percentage points. Opponents say he has received behind-the-scenes support from disliked former leaders of his party, and from Mexico's two market-dominating television networks, allegations he denies. He has suggested allowing private investment in Mexico's state-run petroleum company and deemphasizing arrests of drug-cartel bosses in favor of reducing violent crimes that most affect ordinary citizens.

ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR, 58: The candidate of the Democratic Revolution Party is a former Mexico City mayor and leader of the country's main leftist movement. He led massive street protests in 2006 and declared himself to be the legitimate president of the country after narrowly losing to current President Felipe Calderon. The protests cost him support among many Mexicans, and he softened his rhetoric in the three-month campaign that ended Wednesday, saying he wanted to build a "Republic of Love" marked by peace and reconciliation. He hardened his attacks on the PRI in recent weeks, however, and has been running second, well behind Pena Nieto. Lopez Obrador says he wants to keep Pemex state property, make Mexico self-sufficient in energy and food production, and fund new social spending and jobs programs by cutting waste and corruption, not raising taxes.

JOSEFINA VAZQUEZ MOTA, 51: The candidate of the National Action Party is a former secretary of education and social development in the conservative administrations of President Vicente Fox and his successor, Calderon. She has struggled to distinguish herself from Calderon while maintaining the support of the party's power structure. The first days of her campaign were marred by organizational mishaps and speaking gaffes, and she has slid into third place in most polls. She has pledged to continue Calderon's war on drug cartels, increase penalties for public corruption and ease rules on hiring and firing employees in order to spur economic growth.

GABRIEL QUADRI DE LA TORRE, 57: The candidate of the New Alliance Party, which has links to the powerful teacher's union. His support remains in the single digits, although it saw some growth after strong debate performances.