A Day in the Life of a Mexican Mayor Candidate

Last Updated: June 16, 2024By

A Day in the Life of a Mexican Mayor Candidate

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Breakfast with Juan Miguel Ramírez, a mayoral candidate in Celaya, Mexico, gets a sudden interruption as the sound of army boots echoes down the stairs.

Soldiers have been stationed on the roof of Ramírez’s family home ever since he stepped in for Gisela Gaytán, the previous candidate who was tragically gunned down on the first day of her campaign in one of Mexico’s most perilous cities.

Gaytán was one of 30 candidates murdered ahead of Mexico’s June 2 election. Hundreds more have dropped out or requested protection as organized crime groups vie for government influence, eroding Mexican democracy.

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This violence partly stems from the massive scale of the elections, Mexico’s largest ever, set to determine the successor of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and over 20,000 other posts at federal, state, and local levels.

The Dangerous Reality for Local Candidates

All political parties are feeling the impact of this violence, but municipal-level candidates and officials are the hardest hit. This level is both the least protected and where criminal groups often make deals to tighten their grip on local territory and businesses.

In Celaya, a city of 500,000 people, various factions are battling for control. “It’s a battleground,” says Falko Ernst, a Mexico analyst for the non-profit Crisis Group. “It’s about more than drug routes—it’s oil siphoning, local extortion markets, and methamphetamine retail markets.”

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Since 2020, roughly one in every thousand Celaya residents has been murdered each year. It’s the most dangerous city for police officers in Mexico, with at least 34 officers killed in the past three years.

A Candidate’s Tragic End

Hours before her death, Gaytán had held a press conference outlining her plans to combat corruption and improve security in Celaya. She was running for Morena, President López Obrador’s party. Both Celaya and Guanajuato have long been under the control of the conservative Pan party.

At the time, Ramírez, who had helped design Gaytán’s platform, was working with her team at his home. They had their phones on silent. “We only got the news when someone came to tell us,” said Ramírez. “At first we didn’t want to believe it. Then they showed us a photo.”

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“Replacing her was a tough decision because Gisela’s murder was no ordinary killing,” Ramírez continued. “They put a bullet in her neck and then shot her multiple times. They shot her many times,” he repeated, lost in the memory.

Living Under Threat

The state attorney general has twice announced arrests of suspects, claiming to have dismantled the cell that killed Gaytán but without providing a clear motive. State governor Diego Sinhue has said all possible lines of investigation are being explored, including factions within Morena possibly unhappy with Gaytán’s selection.

“I haven’t received threats, but I sense a hostile atmosphere from the state government,” Ramírez said, describing the investigation into Morena as an attempt at “intimidation.”

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Family Campaign Amid Danger

Candidates are not the only targets. Last week, the father of Saúl Trejo, a Morena candidate for mayor in the nearby municipality of Tarimoro, was shot and killed. “Going after relatives is a way to pressure the candidate,” explained Alejandro, Ramírez’s son and campaign manager. “Maybe they want to avoid direct confrontation with soldiers, but they can get to you indirectly.”

Soldiers are guarding not just Ramírez’s house but also his daughter’s. Yet Alejandro remains calm about the risks. “We’re used to it,” he said. “Honestly, there’s a lot of joy when you’re out campaigning. But then sometimes I talk to the soldiers, and they mention little things. Like last night – we got in after midnight, and they told me a blue Kia had been following us. And suddenly, you’re aware of what’s happening.”

Beyond the Campaign Trail

Attacks on politicians are just “the tip of the iceberg” in criminal attempts to influence elections and infiltrate the state, says Ernst. Violence extends beyond campaigns, affecting journalists, activists, and religious leaders, says Sandra Ley from México Evalúa. This issue has worsened over the last several governments, ignored by all parties.

In parts of Mexico, criminal control is so strong it challenges the idea of free and fair elections. In Guerrero, organized crime groups control many aspects of life, including politics, economics, and social activities, says Mónica Meltis from Data Cívica. “They control when people can leave their homes. You have to ask who is being chosen to make government decisions. They are likely people with agreements with organized crime groups.”

Overall, political violence correlates with lower voter turnout, possibly reflecting voters’ beliefs that candidates are pre-selected by criminals or fear of violence on election day.

In Celaya, the impact of Gaytán’s murder will be clear on June 2. “It’s ugly to say, but with Gisela’s murder, Morena’s voting intention went up,” said Ramírez. “We’re telling people to go and vote like they’re going to the market or taking the kids to school. To go and vote like it’s just another day. To go and vote despite the fear we all have.”

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