Election day tensions high in Mexico cartel heartland

·3-min read

In the mountains of Mexico's Guerrero state, self-defense forces armed with rifles kept watch in legislative elections Sunday following a bloody campaign that claimed the lives of eight politicians in the region alone.

Yet for residents of the impoverished region, home to more than a dozen warring drug cartels, danger is a part of everyday life, not just on polling day.

Francisca Alvarido raised her eyebrows and widened her eyes when describing the insecurity that people in her community in the municipality of Chilapa face due to criminal gangs.

"The police are up there. They don't come down here," the 41-year-old Nahua indigenous woman said quietly, pointing to villages in the mountains.

A man leaving the polling station put on dark glasses and asked not to be named as he spoke about the fear gripping the region.

"There are many threats everywhere. It's terrible. There's no respect for anything. Everything is very difficult around here," he said.

Guerrero, located on Mexico's southern Pacific coast, is one of the country's most violent states because of gang turf wars over the trade in drugs such as opium and marijuana.

At least four candidates in Chilapa requested protection from the security forces due to death threats, according to documents from the Guerrero Electoral Institute.

- 'Divide the people' -

Even by Mexican standards, the run-up to Sunday's elections was particularly violent.

More than 90 politicians have been killed across the country since the electoral process began in September.

Of them, 36 were candidates or pre-candidates, mostly for municipal positions, according to the consultancy firm Etellekt.

Across Mexico, more than 300,000 people have been murdered in a wave of bloodshed since the government deployed the army to fight drug cartels in 2006.

In Guerrero and the neighboring state of Michoacan, self-defense groups emerged in 2013, saying the government had abandoned them to the cartels.

The Mexican government has blamed the political violence on drug traffickers trying to influence the outcome of the vote.

"Members of organized crime come to divide the people. They don't let them vote freely," said Isaias Posotema, a community police leader in Alcozacan.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador reassured Mexicans that security would be assured for election day, but tensions were running high.

The atmosphere "is not calm," said Jesus Placido, a member of another community police force in the area.

"We have constant attacks by the Los Ardillos (cartel) who want to displace more communities, take control and continue killing women, men and children, causing chaos and fear," he said.

In the community of Ayahualtempa, a self-defense force even gives weapons training to children to stand up to the cartels.

Although she recognizes the protection provided by the community police, 41-year-old Juanita Filomena said people were scared to go out to sell their wares for fear of being kidnapped or killed.

Holding a five-year-old girl by the hand, she pleaded for "a government that supports us."

jg-dr/st