Tijuana, Mexico – When he’s walking the streets of Tijuana, Mexico, and campaigning for votes in the upcoming June 5 elections, the independent frontrunner for mayor comes across a lot of sceptical ‘tijuanenses’. In his 5-second pitch, Gaston Luken Garza tells them: “This is a new option. We’re not from a political party. What an independent serves is to say goodbye to the parties. This is your chance of firing these guys that aren’t up to the job.”
He says that he is the outcast – that he is not part of one of the two major political parties, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the National Action Party (PAN), that have piloted Mexico for eight decades towards the corrupt, cartel-infested country it’s known as today.
Describing the process of turning someone into a believer, he says, “It’s easy in two ways: One because [being an independent is] new, it’s different – it’s attractive.”
“The other one is that I know political parties well – I’ve worked in two of them, I’ve been an electoral authority at the National Electoral Institute – so I know that the change that is coming and that is needed will not come from them,” Luken Garza says.
The beginning of an era
In 2014, Mexico passed a legislative reform that widened the playing field for independents to run for government for the first time starting in 2015.
That year, Jaime “El Bronco” Rodriguez, a gruff cowboy who made big promises on governmental reform and vowed to put Nuevo Leon’s then governor Rodrigo Medina de la Cruz in jail, gained international headlines for becoming the first independent governor in Mexico.
It was a win that marked the beginning of an era.
In a country where 91 percent of citizens distrust political parties, and drug cartels work with the government for control over state territories, the Mexican citizenry sees a disconnect between their vote and the trajectory of their governments.
Then, in 2015, Mexico saw its highest national turnout for a midterm since 1997, and perhaps not coincidentally, Rodriguez’s Nuevo Leon state was one of the leading states in the country with a 58 percent turnout – 11 points above the national average of 47 percent.
‘A wealthy businessman’
Cesar Faz, founder of Tijuana political advocacy group, Republica de Baja California, and a member of Luken Garza’s campaign, doesn’t think he won on his non-party candidacy alone. “[Rodriguez] was a populist in the way that populists as political figures are a reflection of the people’s personalities. Trump is a populist. [Cesar] Chavez is a populist. El Bronco is a populist.”
“Gaston is not a populist,” interrupts Luken Garza. His team recognises that, as a wealthy businessman, he may not resonate with Tijuana’s poorer populations like El Bronco’s toughness resonated with a state that’s considered an epicentre of Mexican machismo.
Their biggest hurdle this Sunday, when Baja California and 13 other states in Mexico vote to elect a surfeit of state deputies, mayors and governors, will be another kind of voter disconnect.
“People vote to a lesser extent because of a disillusionment with the political class. Many believe that ‘all [politicians] are the same’ and not worth voting for,” says Victor Alejandro Espinoza, a political professor at the School of the Northern Border, or Colef for short in Spanish, in Tijuana.
That’s why Luken Garza’s win, and any other independent wins across the country this Sunday, will carry more weight than the triumph of El Bronco in Nuevo Leon.
If he takes Tijuana, one of the world’s busiest border towns and part of the United States’ largest binational territory, it’ll add steam to the likelihood that Mexico’s new wave of independents can deliver a viable candidate to the 2018 presidential elections.
A new brand
Luken Garza has worked for both the Baja California and federal electoral bodies, and in 2009 he stepped beneath the umbrella of the National Action Party (PAN) to become a federal council. Prior to that, he helmed Proxima SA with his father, a Mexican business guru, Gaston Luken Aguilar. The company was a joint venture that partnered with San Diego’s Sempra Energy to pipe natural gas into the Baja California capital, Mexicali, in the early 2000s.
Locals in Mexicali and Tijuana might know him best because of his first foray into entrepreneurship: “La Baguette”, a bakery chain he started in the area in 1985 when he was 23 years old.
As a businessman, Luken Garza knows that you’re only as attractive as your brand, and he’s managed to turn his campaign into one.
His social media presence is run with the fitness of a well-funded start-up by a fleet of young, hip ‘tijuanenses’.
An army of more than 700 young volunteers have helped him make history twice in less than a year: once when becoming the first independent to announce a bid for the Tijuana mayorship in September 2015, and second when presenting enough public signatures to the local electoral board to secure his spot as the first official independent candidate in April this year.
On the last day of campaigning on June 1, at a rally just outside Tijuana’s city hall, a stream of people surrounded Luken Garza as the event tapered off to grab last-minute selfies with him. He’s charming like an actor in his golden years, and the people in this city mostly respond well to his name.
But not everyone is on board. Oliver Castaneda, 30, the owner of Aether Cafe, thinks Luken Garza’s campaign is a case study of slick marketing. He has little faith that Garza, or any other new candidate for that matter, can revolutionise the political environment in Tijuana once he steps into office.
“They’re rich people,” he says. Like Rodriguez in Nuevo Leon, Castaneda says, Luken Garza is a wealthy businessman who had the money to run for an independent candidacy without the financial backing of traditional parties. “They’re actually in politics for business themselves.”
“If you approach the campaign with a businessman image, maybe we can start trusting you more. Say, ‘I’m going to make some money, and I’m going to leave some money for the rest of the people.’ But if you come around and say, ‘I will change TJ’ in a kind of moralist way – that’s the thing I don’t believe in.”
For Alfredo, a salesman in the Hidalgo Market in central Tijuana, assessing the current candidates can be done in one swoop – an echo of the types of responses Luken Garza’s team faced day after day when campaigning on the streets last spring.
“They’re all the same,” he says, waving off this reporter and refusing to add more to the response. “All the same.”
“There’s a huge difference between hatred and apathy,” says Luken Garza. “Hatred is easier to be an ally and to convert it into a positive thing than apathy. [C]onsciously, not voting to them is a way they’re saying ‘I’m screwing [traditional political parties].’ But eventually, these are the people that are getting more screwed than anyone else.”
‘We are sick of PRI and PAN’
A political campaign is only as successful as a win for its candidate, and his team is optimistic that there will be an upset in his favour at the polls this weekend.
In Tijuana, he’ll face hill after hill if he takes over city hall. A new drug trafficking cartel calling itself Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generacion is grasping for power over Tijuana in the face of the Sinaloa cartel, which has held sway over Baja California since driving most of the original Tijuana Cartel out in 2010.
Last year, the city had the second-highest number of homicides in all of Mexico, up from 7th place in 2011.
As Tijuana rolls out its new bus rapid transit system in the fall this year, private transportation companies, known by locals in the city as “transportation mafias” because of their close ties with PRI and PAN, may continue to act out in rashes of violence because of what they see as the monopolisation of their industry.
His biggest threat is the political establishment itself.
Since Rodriguez took Nuevo Leon last year, at least eight states in Mexico have enacted what are being called “anti-Bronco” laws that add layers of bureaucracy to the nomination process for independent candidates. While he’s stepped past all the major hurdles at this point, these laws indicate a trend of increasing pushback from the political elite.
During the final campaign rally for PRI’s mayoral candidate Rene Mendívil Acosta on June 1, speakers for the party told the crowd that Luken Garza had stepped down from his candidacy and given his vote to the PRI.
At the same time, blocks away, Luken Garza was celebrating with a small but invested audience at his house, brimming with optimism that his campaign would get the win.
“You’re an independent, so the political parties are against you, congress is against you, the government is against you, the president is against you – everyone is against you,” says Luken Garza, repeating the common rejections he faces from his sceptics.
“But we say, well, they have to comply with their job [as a democratic government]. They have to deliver their obligations to us.”
That might be more of a hope than an actual path to recourse in a country known for being one of the most corrupt in Latin America.
But Luken Garza’s vivacity, and the electricity surrounding independent politics in Mexico today, is part of what has equipped him with hundreds of youth volunteers and an engaged social media following. He may not think he is a populist, but the small movement welling up around him suggests that he is indeed popular to some.
“We’re sick of PRI and PAN because they’ve never tried to support the poor,” says Salina Manza, 56, outside a Luken Garza’s rally in Tijuana.
“We want a change, and we’re voting to bring that change. We have faith that he’ll help us.”