MEXICO CITY — A presumed drug cartel hit squad Monday killed the leading candidate for governor of a key state bordering Texas, putting a chill on Mexico just six days before local and regional elections.
Assailants fired on the two-vehicle caravan of Rodolfo Torre Cantu, a candidate in Tamaulipas state, as he was driving toward the airport in Ciudad Victoria to fly to one of his final campaign appearances.
Four of Torre Cantu's aides and supporters were also reported killed.
The slaying of Torre Cantu, a burly, white-haired 46-year-old surgeon, marked the highest-level political killing in Mexico since the assassination of presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994.
President Felipe Calderon convoked an emergency session of his top security officials and emerged solemnly to condemn the “cowardly assassination.”
“Organized crime will never achieve its objectives. It will not overcome our faith in democracy nor will it make us yield our confidence in the future of Mexico,” he said in a 10-minute televised statement to the nation.
Torre Cantu was the candidate for a coalition led by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000. He had a double-digit lead over his nearest rival for Sunday’s elections. The PRI has governed Tamaulipas state, which include the key border crossing points of Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros and Reynosa, for eight decades.
“Nothing will intimidate us,” PRI spokeswoman Beatriz Paredes said in a short statement about the killing.
Opinion polls say voters will punish Calderon and his ruling National Action Party in Sunday’s vote in anger over soaring drug-related violence in Mexico, which has cost some 23,000 lives since he took office in late 2006.
Elections will occur Sunday in 14 of Mexico’s 31 states. In 12 states, voters will choose governors, regional and municipal leaders. Voters will pick regional legislators in the other two states.
Torre Cantu had taught medicine, worked as a physician for the state oil company and won election as a federal legislator in 2009, the official Notimex news agency said. He had three children.
Tamaulipas has been the scene this year of violent drug-related clashes between the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas, a paramilitary-like group once allied with the Gulf Cartel but now on its own, with operations in Central and South America.
Why cartel gunmen targeted Torre Cantu was not clear. On May 13, gunmen killed Jose Mario Guajardo, a ruling party candidate for mayor in Valle Hermoso, about 30 miles southwest of Brownsville, Texas.
The motive of that slaying was also unclear, although analysts say drug gangs seek to intimidate the citizenry to more easily carry out their activities.
Mexico was shaken over the weekend by the slaying of popular singer Sergio Vega, known as “El Shaka,” a singer of ballads that often glamorized the drug trade. Gunmen attacked his red Cadillac Saturday night as he headed to a concert in Sinaloa state.
Just hours earlier, Vega told a website that he had not been killed, despite rumors to the contrary.
“It's happened to me for years now, someone tells a radio station or a newspaper I've been killed, or suffered an accident,” he was quoted as saying. “And then I have to call my dear mom, who has heart trouble, to reassure her.”
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