Juarez, Mexico – Covered in tattoos and working on a construction site in scorching desert heat is a reformed cartel assassin Luis (a pseudonym), who killed several men on orders from his bosses. “I was a bodyguard for one of the biggest gang members in Juarez,” he told Al Jazeera. “We killed people, sold drugs and ran operations from inside prison and on the streets.”
Luis was never interested in politics, but higher up the ranks of Mexico’s notorious drug gangs, it seems likely that major players want to influence their surroundings. “All political things are like the mafia,” Luis said. “I can tell you because I’ve been there.”
As Mexicans head to the polls, analysts and security officials are split on what role wealthy criminal syndicates play in the country’s political process. Along with picking a new president on Sunday, voters are electing: five governors, hundreds of congressional seats and nearly 1,000 local-level officials.
“We have to recognise the presence and action of criminal groups around the election, particularly in the local sphere,” Alejandro Poire, Mexico’s federal interior secretary, said on Thursday. “We are acting to contain it, to prevent it and to bring those responsible to justice.”
Deal with the devil?
Politicians from the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the group that governed Mexico for 71 years ending in 2000, are widely believed to have made pacts with drug cartels in their respective areas of influence.
“I think there was an understanding between the PRI and traffickers,” said Enrique Cardenas, director of the Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias, a centrist think-tank in Mexico City. “They might make some kind of an agreement [with cartels] to reduce the violence,” he told Al Jazeera, “but I don’t think the government will do it the way they did it before”.
With Enrique Pena Nieto, the PRI’s telegenic candidate who is widely expected to win the presidency, some voters are hoping the party can negotiate with cartels in an effort to stem violence, which has taken more than 50,000 lives since 2006. Others are dead set against the idea of making a deal with criminals, even if it were possible.
“The problem is that the state no longer has the negotiating capacity to make such a pact,” Hugo Almada Mireles, professor at the Autonomous University of Juarez, told Al Jazeera. “The state is fractured and there is mutual distrust among the security services.”
PRI officials, for their part, vehemently deny a pact with traffickers ever existed.
“Much of this [the idea of a ‘pact del narco‘] is based on perception,” Gustavo Sayago Reyes, under-secretary of information and propaganda for the PRI in Mexico City, told Al Jazeera during an interview at the party’s office. “We won’t have a pact with criminals. We have a constitution to uphold. We’ll continue fighting the drugs cartels with arms but in a more intelligent way. He [Pena Nieto] won’t drop the guard but he won’t act like the [National Action Party] PAN did during these last six years.”
If there is one thing almost everyone involved in divisive drug debates agrees on, it is that current President Felipe Calderon’s strategy – sending the military to battle drug gangs and attempting to arrest major leaders while seizing shipments – did not work.
Almost 80 million Mexicans are eligible to vote at more than 143,151 polling stations across the country. Almost half of voters are between the ages of 20 and 49.
Few believe that cartels can influence or bully the leading presidential candidates. At the state and municipal level, however, analysts say it’s a different story.
“At the regional level, they [narcos] either buy candidates or impose them directly by working within the internal campaigns of political parties,” a senior public security official in Mexico City told Al Jazeera on the condition of anonymity. “When this isn’t sufficient, they threaten voters and electoral functionaries directly.”
During the recent campaign in Emiliano Zapata, a small town in Morelos state, gunmen opened fire on the home of Saul Garcia, a social democratic mayoral candidate. They left a poster signed by La Familia, a cartel that mixes religious rhetoric and violence, demanding that Garcia pull out of the race, if he didn’t want his wife and three children to be murdered. He has vowed not to give up.
“The political elite in Morelos have had ties to the narcos for 30 years,” the security official told Al Jazeera, alleging that gangsters control several top officials.
“Cartels participate in the political process in Tamaulipas, Sinaloa and Morelos, but not here [in Chihuahua state where Juarez is located],” Federico Ziga, the former president of a restaurant industry trade group, told Al Jazeera. “Whoever wins the presidency must focus on fighting corruption.” As a businessman dependent on the tourist industry, Ziga has a vested interest that local government in his state is not associated with traffickers.
‘Silver or lead’
Gangsters operate on the principle of “plomo o plata” – silver or lead – a euphemism for accepting bribes or facing bullets to influence local elections.
With the help of politicians in some rural areas, the public security official said, gangs will organise “medical services” or parties to obtain names and ID numbers of area voters.
Because of secret balloting, they cannot tell if a particular individual voted for their chosen candidate, but “they will know if their candidate doesn’t win in a particular district” and will respond with collective violence to intimidate the population.
When asked if a pact between a new PRI government and gangsters could reduce violence, the senior security official simply said: “Yes.”
“It [trafficking] is the best business in the world. You can buy [drugs] for one peso in Mexico and sell them for $100” across the border.
– Guillermo Terrazas Villanueva
Across Mexico, it is widely rumoured that government officials favour the Sinaloa cartel, the country’s wealthiest and most established trafficking organisation controlled by Joaquin “El Chapo” (“Shorty”) Guzman.
The billionaire drug lord escaped from a Mexican prison in 2001 by hiding in a laundry truck. Prison officials are widely believed to have been complicit in the jailbreak, leading many citizens to conclude that Guzman has support from powerful figures within Mexico’s security establishment.
In a bizarre recent incident, navy commandos, considered the most professional and least corrupt of Mexico’s security forces, claimed to have arrested El Chapo’s son, Alfredo Guzman Salazar, with the help of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). But in a twist which led to swirling conspiracy theories about official collusion with the Sinaloa cartel, the navy later said they had only “caught” Felix Beltran Leon – an innocent 23-year-old.
“I think the arrest was part of a failed electoral plan,” Professor Mireles said. “The war on drugs is like an illusion.”
Mexican gangsters are thought to earn between $18bn-$39bn per year from selling their illicit merchandise north of the border, according to estimates from the US Department of Justice. That kind of money can buy plenty of favours. And cartels aren’t willing to accept local politicians, prosecutors, journalists or judges who could hurt their interests.
“It [trafficking] is the best business in the world,” Guillermo Terrazas Villanueva, a spokesperson for the Chihuahua state government, told Al Jazeera. “You can buy [drugs] for one peso in Mexico and sell them for $100” across the border.
In this respect, drug dealers are no different than any other businessmen – they want to protect and expand their profits and usually this means currying fear and favour with political officials.
“I suppose,” Villanueva said, “criminals are waiting to see who wins and if they can make an agreement with them”. That choice will determine levels of violence in Mexico for the next six years.