Mexico political parties duel over drug cartel influence

MEXICO CITY — A scandal deepened Wednesday over drug traffickers' political influence as a losing party in a recent state election accused the party it lost to of ties to gangsters.

The scandal, sparked by the release of a crime boss's taped phone conversation, underscored concerns that drug cartels may influence presidential elections in July.

A chief of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, which lost the Nov. 13 governor's race in Michoacan to the candidate from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, accused the PRI of carrying out a "narco-campaign" that is a harbinger of the 2012 election.

"Let's avoid that the next president of the republic be decided by organized crime," said Jesus Zambrano, national head of the PRD, adding that the nation faces the risk of turning into "a mafia state."

The charges came after the Milenio television network aired a recording of a phone conversation in which a Michoacan crime boss is heard threatening people in the Michoacan town of Tuzantla if they did not support the local PRI mayoral candidate, who eventually won.

"A family member will be killed of whoever votes for the PRD," Horacio Morales Baca, the No. 3 leader of La Familia, a once-strong Michoacan gang, is heard saying on the recording. If anyone protests, he added, "their houses will be burned down with their families inside."

Michoacan, on Mexico's central Pacific coast, is heavily penetrated by organized crime. It is the home of President Felipe Calderon, whose sister ran for governor on the ticket of the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, and narrowly lost.

Both the PRI and the PRD came out muddied by the audio recording. Morales Baca said La Familia had information that the PRD candidate for governor, Silvano Aureoles, received $2 million from a crime group that calls itself the Knights Templar, which split off from La Familia and is now locked in a feud with it.

The federal state attorney's office said Tuesday night that prosecutors were probing any role gangsters may have played in the run-up to the state election.

Aureoles denied receiving any campaign money from gangsters and said Mexicans should be worried that the PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 years before losing power in 2000, is leading by more than 30 percentage points in polls for the 2012 presidential race.

"If this is the PRI that will govern Michoacan, which PRI will govern Mexico?" Aureoles asked.

The PRI party chief in Michoacan, Antonio Guzman, said Tuesday that "no one in our party has, or will have, any relationship to organized crime."

Mexicans voice deep frustration that Calderon's war on crime groups has caused murder rates to soar. The government has not reported a death toll since late 2010, putting it then at 34,612. Independent reports say the toll may have surpassed 50,000.

Calderon warned in late September in an interview with The New York Times that "there are many people in the PRI" who are inclined to strike deals with crime bosses.

"This is the mentality that goes around in many of them, although I don't say all of them," Calderon said, according to a transcript released by Los Pinos, the presidential office, on Oct. 16.

The head of the Chamber of Deputies, Emilio Chuayffet, dismissed PRD demands that he annul the Michoacan election, saying he would do so only if 20 percent of ballot boxes were affected by tampering.


Corruption in Mexico casinos takes a toll in U.S., too

Mexico says its arrests weaken top crime gangs

Troubled gun sting renews suspicions of U.S. role in Mexico's violence

Check out this McClatchy blog: Mexico Unmasked

Follow Tim Johnson on Twitter

Related stories from McClatchy DC