Ballots and Bullets in the Heat of Mexico’s Drug War

In the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, a culture of crime, cartels, and corruption is turning an upcoming vote into chaos.

Mexican soldiers and forensic personnel work at a crime scene in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas State, Mexico on November 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO/Raul LLAMAS        (Photo credit should read RAUL LLAMAS/AFP/Getty Images)
Mexican soldiers and forensic personnel work at a crime scene in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas State, Mexico on November 7, 2015. AFP PHOTO/Raul LLAMAS (Photo credit should read RAUL LLAMAS/AFP/Getty Images)

REYNOSA, Mexico — A Mexican Navy helicopter pursues two SUVs carrying armed suspects through the outskirts of Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas. Schools and local businesses are placed on lockdown as marines arrive to secure the area. Finally cornered in a public plaza, the eight suspects abandon their vehicles and take aim at the chopper with automatic weapons. The marines aboard quickly return fire, killing eight gunmen.

Such a dramatic showdown would make headlines almost anywhere else in Mexico, yet in Tamaulipas state, which lies across from southeast Texas on the country’s oil-rich Gulf Coast, it was just another April afternoon. The Tamaulipas Coordination Group, a joint security body composed of local and federal forces, released a single official statement to confirm the incident took place. In recent years, Tamaulipas has earned a bloody reputation as one of Mexico’s deadliest and most politically opaque states, where information regarding law enforcement and military operations is closely guarded and the media is cowed by threats from organized crime.

Tamaulipas is one of 14 Mexican states set to hold local and gubernatorial elections on June 5 and one of five in which the National Electoral Institute, the country’s independent electoral authority, has issued warnings for the possibility of violence and fraud. And with good reason. Ahead of the last gubernatorial race in 2010, front-runner Rodolfo Torre was shot dead in an ambush by masked gunmen on the eve of his probable victory. The motive for the hit has never been determined.

In many ways, Tamaulipas is a microcosm of the challenges facing Mexico’s troubled democracy, which finally emerged from one-party rule in 2000. In 2012, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the country’s former ruling dynasty, returned to the presidency following 12 years of governance by the National Action Party (PAN). When President Enrique Peña Nieto took office, he vowed to turn the page on a bloody chapter of Mexican history dominated by drug violence.

Few states offer a more damning example of the failure of consecutive administrations to tame the mayhem than Tamaulipas. The result of this year’s gubernatorial race may be historic: The PAN’s Francisco Cabeza de Vaca, a senator and former mayor of Reynosa, is polling ahead of Baltazar Hinojosa of the PRI, which has governed the state uninterrupted for more than 80 years. Allegations of high-level corruption among the incumbent party in Tamaulipas are rife. Two former recent governors, Tomás Yarrington and Eugenio Hernández, have been indicted by the U.S. Justice Department for laundering money from the cartels, while two other officials are officially under investigation in Mexico. All four remain fugitives.

“There are few states in Mexico where corruption is believed to be so widespread and the ties between leading public servants and organized crime so deeply rooted,” Jesús Cantú, a political analyst at the Technological Institute of Monterrey, told Foreign Policy. “The dominance of a single party and a mafia-style approach to politics has prevented the emergence of strong institutions compatible with democracy.”

Like many Mexican border states, Tamaulipas has a long and storied history of organized crime. As early as the 1940s, legendary gangster Juan Nepomuceno Guerra led a criminal dynasty dedicated to drug trafficking, gambling, and other rackets. According to Carlos Flores, an expert on Tamaulipas at the Center for Investigations and Superior Studies in Social Anthropology in Mexico City, the lack of transparency in state politics due to one-party rule led to a symbiotic relationship between public officials and organized crime. “There are many cases over the years of relatives and business associates of gangsters holding public office at a time when a single party allocated municipal and congressional seats,” he told Foreign Policy. “In few places in Mexico is the evidence so clear.”

In the 1980s, Juan Guerra’s nephew, Juan García Ábrego, forged ties with Colombian drug traffickers and founded the Gulf Cartel, which, according to the U.S. government, trafficked billions of dollars of cocaine across the Mexican border every year. At the same time, Mexico was rapidly democratizing on the back of landmark electoral reforms, and local politics became more competitive. Several parties, notably the PAN, began to win municipalities in Tamaulipas. “Today, you have a problem with ‘disorganized’ crime and decentralized corruption,” Jesús Cantú said. “As politics has become more competitive, the cartels have begun to compete more fiercely for protection.”

Crucial to the current violence was a 2007 split between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, the former’s highly trained armed wing, which produced an ongoing fight for territorial control. In 2014, President Peña Nieto launched “Plan Tamaulipas,” the latest of several federal interventions involving the military and federal police. Yet the insecurity continues. In recent years, several well-known businessmen in the state have been kidnapped by the gangs, a number of them murdered despite the payment of ransom. In 2010, the corpses of 72 undocumented migrants were found in a mass grave in the rural municipality of San Fernando. The victims were kidnapped from a passenger bus as they headed to the U.S. border and executed after they allegedly refused to pay protection money.

The man tipped to finally defeat the PRI in Tamaulipas, Cabeza de Vaca, has promised increased investment in education and job creation and greater coordination with federal authorities as a way out of the crisis. Yet both Cabeza de Vaca and his rival, the PRI’s Hinojosa, have accused each other of complicity with the mafias. Hinojosa has repeatedly cited a 30-year-old incident when Cabeza de Vaca, then 19, was arrested in Texas on firearms charges. On May 7, the PRI suspended three of its municipal candidates on allegations that they had been bribed by organized crime to defect to the PAN. Cabeza de Vaca and the party’s national leadership deny the claims.

“The cynicism of the PRI knows no limits,” PAN national chairman Ricardo Anaya said in a statement following the allegations. “If any party has historically been linked to organized crime in Tamaulipas, it’s the PRI.”

Concrete evidence of criminal influence via campaign donations in Mexican elections is scarce, yet transparency regarding the source of funds is near-nonexistent. Edgardo Buscaglia, a senior research scholar in law and economics at Columbia University who has observed elections in several Mexican states, said evidence of vote buying in rural communities in Tamaulipas and intimidation of the electorate by organized crime groups is commonplace. “Elections in Mexico are extremely competitive nowadays, but the institutions responsible for adjudicating them are weak,” he said. “It leaves the door open for organized crime to capture the process.”

Many residents of Tamaulipas said they see little difference between the parties competing in the state. “I’ll vote on June 5 because I believe in exercising my right to do so, but I don’t think that anything will change in a hurry,” said Felipe Cortés, a restaurant owner and father of three in Reynosa, declining to name which party he favored. “The challenges for whoever wins are too great.”

The June 5 state-level elections will be a litmus test for the strength of Mexican democracy as the country heads to a presidential election in 2018, yet few are likely to be as controversial as the race in Tamaulipas. “Right now, Mexico is a democracy without the rule of law,” political analyst Jesús Cantú said. “The result, in states like Tamaulipas that are particularly vulnerable to corruption, has been chaos.”

Photo credit: RAUL LLAMAS/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Imison is a Mexico City-based journalist covering politics, economics, and crime. Twitter: @paulimison