This essay was originally published as part of the Voting Amid Violence project.
Political violence is intrinsic to the Mexican state and its history. Born of an armed revolution, forged in assassinations, and sustained by massacre, politics in modern Mexico has always intertwined with the threat or reality of violence. It is a grim tradition that indelibly marred the democratic transition; a legacy that not only defines the country’s past, but its present.
There is no shortage of explanations for why politicians in Mexico—both candidates and elected officials—are now being killed at alarming rates, and in many ways, these theories ring true. Shifts in the nature of organized crime that resulted in atomized leadership structures, more predatory behavior, and more conflict-prone drug trafficking, help illuminate why groups would seek to assert control through violent means. But while material explanations provide some insight into current motivations for violence, when divorced from both history and its insights, they provide an incomplete framework for understanding political violence.
Three questions help provide a fresh perspective on the current panorama. First, what are the stakes of politics and why are the outcomes of elections worth killing over? Second, outside of electoral cycles, how do local contexts shape longer term patterns of violence against a variety of actors who are targeted for political reasons? Lastly, what is the impact of this violence on both governance and democracy? Such an examination requires taking a broader view of political violence and its causes.
For the bulk of the twentieth century, elections in Mexico were supposedly low-stakes affairs, with winners predetermined and victory ensured by well-oiled authoritarian machinery. This prevailing myth, however, not only obscured repressive violence across the country, but also continues to distort our understanding of elections after a supposed democratization. The reality is that even under single-party hegemony, political and electoral competition within the structures of the political system was often fierce and occasionally violent. For years, dissidence often emerged from frustrated efforts to obtain nominations; the schism of 1988 only mirrored on the national level a situation that had occurred regionally for decades.
This suggests that the symbolic dimensions of elections are as relevant to political violence as the material ones. When rival congressional candidates in 1940 engaged in shootouts over who would control polling places, their motivations had little to do with budgets or crime. When armed groups sought to disrupt local elections a quarter-century later, they did so because disrupting elections was a powerful symbolic act, even when the outcome of those elections was not necessarily a reflection of popular will.
Democratization did not fundamentally upend these dynamics. As political liberalization crept across the country in the 1990s, and local dissidents found the opportunity to change the party color of a municipality—if not the nature of the political game there—contestation around elections remained an often violent process. The quashing of protests following elections in Michoacán and Guerrero in 1989 and the murder of hundreds of PRD activists across the country were continuations rather than novelties. Just as there was no hard break in these practices with the supposed fall of the PRI regime in 2000, there was no hard break with the start of the supposed Drug War. If contemporary political violence has new drivers and different contexts, it also has more than a century of history that forces us to consider why elections are worth killing over.
From this perspective, elections matter because they confer legitimacy to power, and that legitimacy has meaning beyond its practical implications. That is to say, a criminal group or a local cacique can control a natural resource, coerce a municipal government into implementing certain projects, or subvert local police forces through threats all without interfering in elections. And indeed, interfering in elections may bring unwanted outside attention—which was precisely why violence around elections was used with a modicum of discretion during the twentieth century. Having power legitimized through elections, even if they are tainted by coercion, makes it easier to subsequently consolidate that power precisely because the symbolism is potent. That is to say, organized criminal groups may care about electoral outcomes for reasons that are not dissimilar to other political actors, and less about subverting the state for illicit gain.
Contemplating a wider range of motivations for political violence supports also expanding the definitions of what it entails. There has been no shortage of violence that is political—Acteal, Aguas Blancas, Atenco, to begin alphabetically—but such incidents of high-profile repression do not necessarily provide a foundation for explaining more common phenomena. A framework that also considers violence against individual civil society actors who are not formally part of the political system proves instructive. In many communities the boundaries between journalism, activism, and politics are porous, and over the past decade these killings have served as a bellwether of current trends.
Mexico is, by any measure, among the most dangerous countries worldwide for journalists and community activists. While these conditions are not new—the Committee to Protect Journalists tallied 11 killings between 1994 and 2000, and under the PRI regime journalists faced regular harassment and intimidation—in more recent years the pace of violence has been extreme. Between 2006 and 2010 CPJ recorded 35 murders, with 73 more in the last decade. A substantial percentage of these cases are local journalists whose work focused on prosaic local issues: paving, streetlights, garbage collection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Article 19 finds that around half of all aggressions against journalists come from public officials and security forces, not organized crime.
The political dimensions of these cases are often clear. Moisés Sánchez built a popular following in Medellín de Bravo, Veracruz by decrying the poor state of municipal governance in broadsheets, broadcasts from a car-mounted megaphone, and on social media. Challenging authorities over crime, unpaid pensions, and unmet campaign promises meant conflict with ambitious politicians, and Sánchez had a tense relationship with mayor Omar Cruz Reyes. After the journalist was abducted and murdered in 2015, investigations tied Cruz Reyes to the killing, with local police officers allegedly responsible. Yet the case remains largely unresolved, and Cruz Reyes’ party—the PAN—continues to hold power in the municipality, a bastion in a highly contested state. As the 2021 elections approach, at least one opposition candidate for the mayorship of Medellín has been attacked, and another has been threatened.
This type of political violence is as corrosive to democracy as are assassinations of candidates or officials. That it is perpetrated by political figures underscores that symbolic dimensions of politics are intertwined with material motivations. Within this local ecosystem of violence, journalists and activists are killed not because they are direct threats to fiscal control, for example, but because exposing corruption threatens the legitimacy conferred by elections. In this sense, both a longer history and a broader view is instructive here.
Yet at the same time, the increase in violence targeting activists and journalists has indeed overlapped chronologically with increasing criminal violence, suggesting that fundamental changes in the dynamics of local politics have occurred since the start of the drug war. But those changes may not be wholly linked to organized crime either: the combination of social media and heightened electoral competition creates a dangerously unstable environment. The process of political opening is fraught, and in many regions incomplete. It is worth remembering that political alternation did not occur in Veracruz until 2016.
A broader view of the origins and victims of political violence also contributes to understanding its consequences. Conflict during the democratic transition was not a morality play: repression of opposition actors should not obscure the fact that many opposition actors themselves were members of local political groups that had seen their electoral ambitions frustrated and in defecting from the PRI they did not cast off violent practices. This is to say, measuring the effect of political violence is challenging precisely because its omnipresence makes the exercise a theoretical one.
It may well be that widespread assassinations of candidates and officials are, in historical perspective, a transient trend; the presence of violence in local politics is not. A reduction in attacks on officials might result from any number of shifts in organized criminal behavior or patterns of negotiation and communication—it would not signal, in itself, an advancement of democracy.
Rather, the long term construction of violence as a political resource, and its application against community leaders and those who push for transparency, has meant that the challenge is greatest outside of election cycles. Elected officials, whether or not they are linked to organized crime, have strong incentives to deliver tangible benefits to constituents. Similarly, organized criminal groups generally attempt to cultivate and maintain a social base. The risk to democracy and governance is thus less that officials will funnel municipal budgets into the pockets of criminals once elected than it is that they will continue to practice political violence with impunity well beyond June 6.