Voting Amid Violence
Criminal Capture: The Other Electoral Phenomenon
Amalia Pulido Gómez
Political violence has been the protagonist of the current electoral process. According to Lantia Intelligence, there have been more than 100 incidents of political-electoral violence as of March, 2021. That is to say, more than 100 political actors have been victims of attacks, aggressions, threats, and murders. Political violence is not a homogenous phenomenon, however: it responds to dynamics and political structures that are unique to each of the regions where it occurs (Trejo and Ley, 2021). In the majority of cases, it is impossible to ignore the role of criminal organizations in these events.
It is not surprising that organized crime seeks to influence and manipulate politics, particularly at the local level. In the context of high levels of criminal competition, and where the economic stakes are measured in millions, it is in the interest of criminal organizations to manipulate and control local governments. Ensuring the backing of local governments allows criminal organizations to control municipal police, extract rents from the state, and have access to other benefits such as contracts and influence over infrastructure projects.
In electoral cycles, organized crime uses two main strategies to assert control over local politics. The first strategy is violence, which has received the most attention due to its lethality and impact. The second strategy is the capture of candidates, ensuring that elected authorities are under criminal control before they even take office. In this text, I will explain this mechanism, its implications, and offer an analysis of the capture of candidates in the current electoral process.
To maximize profits, operate without restrictions, and continue illegal operations, criminal organizations need to ensure that state protection mechanisms not only allow their survival in the criminal marketplace but also allow them to consolidate their positions as hegemonic organizations by eliminating rivals (Snyder and Durán, 2009 Moncada, 2021). To establish these networks of protection, one of the mechanisms that organized crime employs is the capture of candidates during electoral cycles. Just as these criminal groups threaten and attack candidates who are not affiliated with them, they seek to establish pacts with candidates who, if they win, will favor the interests of these organizations. The two strategies are not exclusive. It is highly probable that in plazas that are vitally important, criminal organizations attempt to reduce uncertainty by both using lethal violence against candidates and establishing agreements with others.
Nevertheless, although the number of candidates with reported criminal ties continues to increase, the phenomenon has not been analyzed extensively due to the scarcity of information about the practice. The implications for journalists who expose these situations can be fatal, and what we are able to glimpse is only a very small piece of the picture.
Although the criminal capture of candidates does not have the lethal repercussions of political violence in the short term, it is a phenomenon that similarly has profound impacts on democracy and governability. One need only recall the example of the Ayotzinapa in 2014, when the collusion between local authorities and organized crime played a fundamental role in facilitating the atrocity. On the local level there are multiple examples of the symbiosis between authority and criminality. That is to say, the boundary between the political and the criminal is almost non-existent. Having mayors who are controlled by organized crime has serious repercussions for the levels of impunity, corruption, and civil rights for citizens.
In regions where local authorities are captured by organized crime it is highly probable that freedom of expression is nonexistent, and in the medium term that there will be elevated levels of violence due to criminal disputes. Criminal capture is not just a problem in Mexico, either. In other countries in Latin America, such as Brazil and Colombia, it has been found that criminal leaders on occasion even decide party nominations (Desmond 2018).
Capture of local politics extends beyond elections. The selection of candidates is the first arena where organized crime attempts to capture the state. Once organized crime selects the preferred candidates, it employs several strategies to maximize the probabilities that those candidates will win. That is why candidates with these affiliations have higher chances of victory in elections. It is worth noting that, beyond the hefty financial contributions that organized crime can make to campaigns, in certain regions the groups have an important social base that can be mobilized to support candidates as well. This compounds the fact that organized crime will also eliminate or intimidate any candidates who prove intractable. The impacts on governability and democracy are apparent. Candidates who are captured by organized crime and triumph owe their victories not to the electorate, but to the criminal group that backed them.
Photo: Michael Lettieri
In the current electoral cycle there are 21 candidates who have been identified as having some linkage with criminal organizations. Based on this information, we are able to create a profile of the phenomenon. Slightly more than half (55%) of the candidates with criminal connections were seeking election to municipal presidencies (the equivalent of mayor); 22% were candidates for governor, and the rest for either local or federal congress. Those numbers underscore the fact that local government is the highest prize. These cases occurred across 10 states, with Guerrero and Puebla having the highest levels with 24% of the total.
In the case of Guerrero, four organizations have been identified as having ties to candidates, which reflects the reality of the state and the diverse criminal disputes that are occurring across different regions. In the case of Puebla, these connections are with local criminal groups. In the case of Mexico City, which is also worth noting, it is the Unión Tepito that has captured candidacies.
As previously mentioned, there are various obstacles to an in-depth analysis of this phenomenon. The first is information. That there are reported cases in only 10 states does not suggest that capture is not occurring elsewhere. Rather, a possible explanation is that in states where no cases have been registered the phenomenon occurs less frequently and the cases do not attract media attention due to criminal control of the press or for fear of retaliation.
On the other hand, it is also probable that in regions where there is hegemonic criminal control, these cases do not become public. That is to say, where there are no rival organizations, the situation is less apparent and there is a sort of status quo where organized crime arranges candidacies in concert with the political class and with an eye toward popular opinion. It is significant that in states such as Jalisco or Sinaloa there are no reported cases. Nevertheless, in both places there is a dominant criminal group.
Criminal capture is a reality that erodes democracy in Mexico. Like electoral violence, the capture of candidates compromises the quality of democracy and the capacity of the state relative to criminal groups. It is essential to examine this phenomenon, and its effects, above all, on the local level. Without an efficient coordination between different spheres of government, electoral institutions, political parties, and security structures, criminal capture will continue to be a reality in every electoral cycle. It is necessary to establish protocols to detect these cases and impose consequences. Political parties, electoral authorities, and security institutions have the responsibility of guaranteeing citizens access to quality candidates. Without this, Mexico will continue to be an incomplete democracy.
Arias, Desmond. 2018. Criminal Enterprises and Governance in Latin America and the Caribbean. Cambridge University Press.
Moncada, Eduardo. 2021. “Resisiting Protection: Rackets, Resistance and State Building” Comparative Politics.
Snyder, Richard y Angélica Durán-Martínez. 2009. “Does illegality breed violence? Drug trafficking and state-sponsored protection rackets”. Crime, law and social change 52(3): 253-273.
Trejo, Guillermo y Sandra Ley. 2017. “High-Profile Criminal Violence: Why Drug Cartels Murder Government Officials and Party Candidates in Mexico” British Journal of Political Science .
Amalia Pulido Gómez is a professor in the División de Estudios Políticos at CIDE. Her work examines political systems, criminal violence, and comparative democratization processes.
Voting Amid Violence
Voting Amid Violence is a project of the Mexico Violence Resource Project. It has received support from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. To download a PDF mini-book of the essays, click here. For more information about the Mexico Violence Resource Project, visit our About page by clicking here.