Mexico's referendum on drug war yields mixed results

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 4, 2010 

MEXICO CITY — The political party that ruled Mexico for seven decades before voters threw it out a decade ago showed its strength in state elections Sunday where the dominant issue was the country's skyrocketing drug violence.

By Monday morning, preliminary results gave the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, victory in nine of the 12 states where voting took place.

But it also suffered surprising losses in the southern state of Oaxaca and the central state of Puebla, near the capital and was trailing in the Pacific coast state of Sinaloa. The PRI has governed all three states for more than eight decades.

The result was particularly telling in Sinaloa, one of the states with the worst violence and one where the PRI gubernatorial candidate, Jesus Vizcarra Calderon, refused to respond to reports that the godfather of one of his seven children is drug kingpin Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada, one of the leaders of the powerful Sinaloa Cartel.

Monday, he trailed by about 5 percent in the counting.

Four of the states that voted are in the country's north and have been the scene of pitched battles between drug cartels and Mexican government authorities that have claimed thousands of lives.

"We are very content. ... Our victory is truly crushing in the states where there were elections," PRI leader Beatriz Paredes said. Paredes only conceded a PRI loss in Oaxaca.

To thwart the once-dominant PRI, President Felipe Calderon’s center-right National Action Party, or PAN, formed an unlikely coalition with the left Revolutionary Democratic Party, and their leaders were jubilant at winning in Oaxaca and Puebla, and leading in Sinaloa, long time PRI bastions.

The results gauged frustration that many Mexicans feel over the unchecked violence and whether that will influence the presidential vote in 2012, which could allow the PRI to regain power following its rout in 2000 after 71 years of its rule.

Some Mexicans fume over President Felipe Calderon's strategy of all-out war with drug gangs, saying it has failed to bring security. More than 23,000 people have died since Calderon, the leader of the National Action Party (PAN), came to office in late 2006.

Leaders of the PAN and the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), which formed an unlikely alliance in some states, trumpeted their apparent victory in Oaxaca.

"Our alliance ... has obtained full success, an unquestionable triumph," PRD leader Jesus Ortega said. "The next governor will be Gabino Cue."

Paredes, however, did not concede a PRI loss in Oaxaca, setting the state up for the kind of post-electoral violence that has occurred repeatedly there since the mid-1990s.

One political analyst, Jorge Chabat, said the results underscored that "the PRI has very efficient electoral machinery." Sitting PRI governors "are very accomplished at getting out the vote. Sometimes their methods are not always democratic."

The polling unfolded in a tense landscape of escalating violence.

Presumed enforcers for drug gangs hung four bodies from overpasses before dawn in Chihuahua, the capital of the violence-wracked state by the same name that borders Texas and New Mexico. A local newspaper, El Heraldo, reported on its website that two of the victims may have been guards at a local prison.

In the capital of Tamaulipas, another border state, 30 bodyguards protected Egidio Torre Cantu as he cast a ballot. Torre's brother was the 2-to-1 favorite to win the governorship of Tamaulipas before gunmen ambushed his convoy June 28, the highest-level political assassination in more than a decade.

The brother assumed the candidacy on behalf of a PRI-led coalition.

Suspicion for the attack fell on Los Zetas, a powerful drug gang at war with its former ally-turned-rival Gulf Cartel that has turned Tamaulipas into a battlefield in recent months.

Federal police arrested Gregorio Sanchez, the PRI's candidate for governor of Quintano Roo, home to the resort of Cancun, on May 25 on charges he was linked to the Beltran Leyva and Los Zetas drug gangs. Even so, the PRI candidate who replaced Sanchez, Roberto Borge Angula, appeared victorious.

PRI governors currently hold 19 states. Early results indicated the party stood a chance of expanding that to 20 or even 21 states once final results are in.

That would give the PRI's likely presidential candidate in 2012, state of Mexico Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto, who already holds a lead in opinion polls, a further leg up in trying to recapture power for the party.

Chabat warned, however, that presidential elections often hang on the personalities of candidates rather than the strength of parties, making any forecasts about 2012 premature. Calderon's party has yet to settle on a candidate.

Elections at the state level have grown in importance as drug cartels have burrowed deeper into regional politics. Within state governments, authoritarianism and corruption have intensified even as political pluralism has taken root at the national level.

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Check out this McClatchy blog: Mexico Unmasked

McClatchy Newspapers 2010

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