Mexico's cartel violence haunts civilians as the June 2 election approaches

HUITZILAC, Mexico (AP) — Tailed by trucks of heavily armed soldiers, four caskets floated on a sea of hundreds of mourners. Neighbors peered nervously from their homes as the crowd pushed past shuttered businesses, empty streets and political campaign posters plastering the small Mexican town of Huitzilac.

Days earlier, armed men in two cars sprayed a nearby shop with bullets, claiming the lives of eight men who locals say were sipping beers after a soccer match. Now, fear paints the day-to-day lives of residents who say the town is trapped unwillingly in the middle of a firefight between warring mafias.

As Mexico’s expanding slate of criminal groups see the June 2 election as an opportunity to seize power, they have picked off more than 100 people in politically-motivated killings, including about 20 candidates this year, and warred for turf, terrorizing local communities like Huitzilac.

“The violence is always there, but there’s never been so many killings as there are today. One day they kill two people, and the next they kill another,” said 42-year-old mother Anahi, who withheld her full name out of fear for her safety, on Tuesday. “When my phone rings, I’m terrified that it’ll be the school saying something has happened to my kids.”

Cartel violence is nothing new to Mexico, but bloodshed in the country has spiked ahead of the election, with April marking the most lethal month this year, government data shows.

But candidates aren't the only ones at risk. Even before the election, it was clear that outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who had made pledges to ease cartel warfare, had done little more than stabilize Mexico's high level of violence.

Despite disbanding a corrupt Federal Police and replacing it with a 130,000-strong National Guard and focusing on social ills driving cartel recruitment, killings in April reached nearly the same historic high as when López Obrador first took office in 2018.

Authorities have declined to pursue cartel leaders in many cases. Cartels have expanded control in much of the country and raked in money — not just from drugs but from legal industries and migrant smuggling. They've also fought with more sophisticated tools like bomb-dropping drones and improvised explosive devices.

So far, those vying to be Mexico’s next president have only offered proposals that amount to more of the same.

“Criminal violence has become much more difficult to resolve today than six years ago. … You can’t expect a quick fix to the situation, it’s too deeply ingrained,” said Falko Ernst, a senior Mexico analyst for International Crisis Group. “It is going to be even harder to unwind now” than it was when López Obrador took power.

Saturday’s mass shooting in Huitzilac came after waves of other attacks, according to local media and residents. In recent weeks alone, local media reported that three people were slain on the highway running out of town, three more were shot outside a restaurant in a neighboring municipality, and in the nearby tourist city of Cuernavaca, hit men reportedly killed a patient in a private hospital.

Josué Meza Cuevas, Huitzilac’s municipal secretary general, said it wasn't clear what provoked the bloodshed, but many in the town attribute it to a turf war between the Familia Michoacana, La Unión de Morelos and other cartels, which has made the state of Morelos one of Mexico's most violent.

Huitzilac fell eerily silent as businesses shuttered and few dared to venture into the streets on Tuesday. Schools canceled classes “until further notice” amid requests from fearful parents.

Anahi, a longtime resident of the town, and her teenage children were among many families that hunkered down in their homes, too scared to wander out in the streets.

While Cuevas said “nothing like this has ever happened,” Anahi said she has long felt death breathing down her neck.

Located little more than an hour from the hipster bars and backpacker hostels in Mexico City, Huitzilac made a name as a town just outside the law's reach.

For years, it’s been at the center of a tug-of-war between a rotating set of cartels and gangs, making headlines in 2012 when police inexplicably pumped a U.S. Embassy vehicle with 152 bullets. When Anahi's car, her only means of work, was stolen from her garage last year, she said she didn’t dare report it because “they might do something to me.”

But Anahi said she’s never been as scared as she has been since local and presidential elections began to heat up in October.

“We’re going to ask at the school meeting that they do classes remotely until the elections are over so our kids aren’t in danger," she said. "What would happen if there’s a shootout and our kids are there?”

On Monday night, Anahi heard gunshots echo from town and saw armed men moving outside her window. Days before that, her son’s friend who once played at their house, was shot dead. Before that, her daughter’s friend received death threats on her phone.

Such bursts of violence are common before elections, especially in local races. At least 125 have been killed throughout the country this year in politically-motivated killings, according to the electoral violence tracker Data Civica, while even more have been threatened, attacked and kidnapped. A mayoral candidate in the southern state of Chiapas was killed Thursday.

That goes “hand-in-hand” with cartels warring for territory and attempts to terrorize communities into submission, said Ernst, the analyst.

“Elections are a high-stakes game for criminal groups,” he said. “You see upticks in violence as these groups are trying to position themselves to have a more stable negotiating position in the lead up to elections.”

In Huitzilac, armed National Guard soldiers shifted nervously on Tuesday as they guarded the side of the road. One soldier said that their units have faced a number of attacks since the bloodshed that took place last weekend. An armored vehicle drove past the small neighborhood bar where the eight men were killed, the facade dented by bullets, with candles and flowers laying on the ground below.

Marchers cried and prayed as they carried caskets through town, but dozens approached by The Associated Press fell silent and cast their eyes to the ground when asked how they felt.

“This is happening to innocent people now. And if you speak, they kill you,” said one middle-aged man in a cowboy hat sitting outside a funeral for four of the dead.

López Obrador's political ally and front-runner Claudia Sheinbaum faces off against opposition candidate Xóchitl Gálvez in the June 2 election and the winner will inherit a puzzle more complex than the governments before them, said Victoria Dittmar, a researcher at Insight Crime, a nongovernmental organization tracking organized crime. She noted that increases in forced disappearances and extortion by cartels were particularly worrying.

“They're going to have to dismantle these criminal organizations ... but they're more resilient and flexible, with more revenue streams," Dittmar said.

Meanwhile, voters like Anahi living under the chokehold of those mafias feel disillusioned. Anahi said she voted for López Obrador in 2018, because she hoped that he would usher in a new era of economic prosperity and reduce violence in areas like hers.

“With the violence, I don't know why my government, my president, don't come down with a heavier hand against these people,” she said, as she and her children sat trapped in their home. “I feel disappointed. I expected more.”