Mayors in the crosshairs – the dangerous world of Mexican local government

According to data released earlier this week by Mexico’s National Institute for Statistics and Geography (INEGI), there were 20,525 registered homicides in the country in the last year.  At a per capita rate of 17 per 100,000, Mexico weighs in worryingly high up the rankings, though maintaining a marked margin below some of its Latin American neighbours. On a domestic level, the latest batch of stats marks the first increase in killings since 2011, the final year before the Peña Nieto government took drastic measures to curb rising violence.

Beyond the boundaries of the capital Mexico City and the notoriously violent State of Mexico that surrounds it, the state of Guerrero leads the table, followed swiftly by its northern neighbour Michoacán. Collectively, these states are known as the Tierra Caliente, notable for their arid climate and parched landscape. Now they seem hot for all the wrong reasons, with even President Enrique Peña Nieto admitting that the region presents significant challenges for his national security initiative.

Guerrero has already achieved some considerable notoriety. In September 2014, the town of Iguala in the northeast of the province attracted the attention and horror of international media when 43 students from a local agricultural college disappeared, allegedly at the hands of an unholy alliance of police and criminal gangs. The “Missing 43” – or rather, their remains – have yet to be found.

Not to be outdone, in 2014 Michoacán had its own dalliance with the Knights Templar, a narco-religious faction who revelled in their reputation as the “Cannibal Cartel” before being quashed by an alliance of armed vigilantes and federal forces.

But while the sensationalism may have subsided, the violence is no thing of the past. This Saturday saw the ambush and killing of Ambrosio Soto Duarte, the mayor of Pungarabato, a municipality on the Guerrero-Michoacán border. Earlier this month, Mr Soto Duarte had spoken out on Twitter against gang violence, revealing that he had been receiving death threats and calling on Mr Peña Nieto to take a tougher line.

The assassination of Mr Soto Duarte came mere hours after news that Domingo López González and Narciso Lunes Hernández, the mayor and deputy mayor of the indigenous community of San Juan Chamula, were among 5 killed in a shooting in the southern state of Chiapas.

In response to the latest shootings, the National Association of Mayors (ANAC) issued a statement, petitioning the government to provide greater protection for mayors and public servants. But Mexico is no stranger to violence against local officials and this is not the first time ANAC has made this plea. In January, following the death at the hands of gunmen of Gisela Mota Ocampo, mayor of Temixco, Morelos, the state governor revealed that 13 other mayors in Morelos had been subjected to threats and intimidation.

So why have the leaders of Mexico’s 2438 municipalities found themselves in the firing line?

Like so many of modern Mexico’s ills, the answer lies chiefly in organized crime and the ongoing War on Drugs. Increasingly in recent years, the narcos have sought to “diversify their portfolios”, moving away from the simple traffic of arms and drugs and into the world of local government.

Typically, this started off along classic mafia lines – the corruption and intimidation of municipal politicians and the running of protection rackets against civic authorities. During the chaos in Michoacán 2 years ago, local officials tell of how regional gangs would demand protection payments, carrying off as much as 10% of federally-dispensed funds. Town hall functionaries were hardly in any position to resist.

But the methods of the cartels are developing ever greater sophistication. Not content to extort local government, some criminal elements have sought to become local government, de facto and de jure. And “clean” politicians – Mr Soto Duarte among them – stand little chance in opposing them.

Take, for example, the now notorious example of Iguala, Guerrero. While months of federal investigation failed to shed much light on the fate of the 43 students, inquiries did reveal that María de los Ángeles Pineda Villa, wife of the town mayor, was a senior figure in the command structure of Guerreros Unidos, the gang suspected of carrying out their kidnapping and execution.

Unsurprisingly, infiltration of local government carries many benefits for criminal organizations in Mexico. Not only does it offer the cachet of officialdom, it is also immensely lucrative.

In 1984, the de la Madrid government pursued a then-popular policy of decentralization, amending the constitution to give municipalities freedom to administer finances and raise revenue. Although designed to put power back into the hands of the people, in the more chaotic parts of 21st century Mexico, the policy has served simply to deliver the apparatus of state directly to the door of those who wield most local power. With frankly depressing regularity, this has been the cartels, which have benefitted from an absence of centralized oversight in order to jam their fingers deep into the pie of local government, extorting procurement contracts and creaming off local taxes.

But subverting local government for their own ends offers Mexico’s criminal class another crucial advantage. Throughout the country, municipal policing falls under the remit of many town halls and thus, removing the mayor of a locality – by pseudo-democratic means or at the end of a gun – directly eliminates a major obstacle to criminal activity. Deprived of leadership, underfunded and unmotivated, local police are unlikely to put up much resistance.

The consequences for Mexico are all-too-well documented.  The body count rises – among local politicians and the civilian population – and investment is siphoned off or dries up altogether, suffocating development in the poorest and most violence-afflicted states.

To tackle the problem, Mr Peña Nieto would do well to heed ANAC’s call for greater security for local mayors. Having dedicated, on-the-ground politicians of any hue will be essential for driving through change at a local level and restoring popular faith in government, a sentiment that has been eroded by decades of violence.

More importantly, having a coherent strategy to deal with – or at least, suppress –the criminality is essential. In 2013, the deployment of the army onto the streets of 13 northern states brought a significant reduction in violence. A similar strategy might be employed to cool off the Tierra Caliente.

Looking longer term, re-centralization of policing and revenue-raising would be a viable policy initiative, taking these essential functions out of the hands of vulnerable local politicians and placing them under the umbrella of state government.  State-level management may indeed be imperfect, but the greater structural integrity of state government would permit it to effectively enact policy and uphold the law, with its relative proximity to the executive allowing for greater oversight.

Perhaps then can the elected representatives of the Mexican people begin to govern in peace.

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