MORELIA – It's routine preparation for a campaign stop for Guillermo Valencia, who is running for mayor in Morelia, capital of the troubled Mexican state of Michoacan. Bodyguards ride in cars ahead and behind him and before reaching the rally, he stops by a relative’s house to strap on a bulletproof vest.
Only a driver accompanies Valencia in his own armored SUV. Other campaign aides have been scared to ride with him since a May 8 attack that wounded a bodyguard and his private secretary and left his previous campaign vehicle riddled with bullets.
He was lucky not to join the 34 formal or would-be candidates who already have been killed in the run-up to Mexico’s June 6 midterm elections, which will choose mayors, governors and the lower house of Congress.
“There’s a smell of gunpowder,” Valencia jokes. “Who is going to want to go around with me?”
The May 8 attack came on the night that Mexican boxer Saúl “Canelo" Álvarez defeated Billy Joe Saunders, thrilling Mexican crowds. Valencia decided to stop and see the bout at a friend’s home, leaving his secretary and bodyguard in an SUV parked on the street.
Moments later, a car pulled up and two young gunmen wearing jeans and sneakers leaped out. One poured bullets into the SUV with a rifle. Another with a pistol went around to finish off anybody trying to flee the vehicle. The attackers then jumped back in their car and fled. Miraculously, both members of Valencia’s team survived, though they were wounded. Officials have made no arrests.
Valencia, 40, is a hefty 6 foot, 4 inch (1.93 centimeter) former legislator who is running for mayor on the ticket of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. The leader of a crime victims’ advocacy group, he also once served as mayor of his hometown of Tepalcatepec, near the border with Jalisco state. The local gang there has been fighting the Jalisco cartel for years.
Tepalcatepec is so completely dominated by the drug gang that when soldiers and marines swooped in in 2018 to arrest its leader, residents surrounded the military personnel, demanding his release. The gang leader was eventually let go.
Valencia was stripped of office in Tepalcatepec by the state legislature in 2014 after seeming to disappear for months but he denies any connection to the local gang.
“Time has shown that I never had anything to do with those people,” Valencia said. “Proof of that is that years have passed and I have led my life in peace, fighting for victims’ rights.”
It's possible that the powerful Jalisco cartel is convinced that Valencia, as a Tepalcatepec native, is in the pocket of their rivals. Valencia’s supporters say that one of the men seen in a video of the May 8 attack is a Jalisco cartel hitman. Or the cartel may just want him out of the way.
Experts say drug cartels in Mexico often attack innocent candidates to force them out of races and leave the way clear for cartel favorites.
That tactic has often worked. At least 18 candidates or primary candidates have dropped out of races this year across Mexico because of fear, threats or violence, according to the Etellekt consulting firm.
Etellekt said the overwhelming majority of the 34 slain candidates were vying for local posts like mayor or city council. Experts say drug gangs want to place sympathetic candidates in town halls so they can operate without interference from police and extort money from local businesses and government budgets.
On May 13, a former state prosecutor was gunned down on a street while running for mayor in the northern border state of Sonora. And on Tuesday, Alma Barragán was killed while campaigning for mayor of Moroleón in violence-plagued Guanajuato state.
Francisco Rivas, director of the nongovernmental National Civic Observatory, said criminals use violence as “a control mechanism … to discourage the public from going to vote or to control candidate’s decisions.”
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has started a program to protect candidates, acknowledging that the violence is alarming. The government has assigned armed bodyguards to some candidates, like Valencia.
The president said that in addition to scaring off candidates, the cartels want to scare away voters to make it easier to manipulate elections.
“When there is a lot of abstentionism, the mafias dominate the elections,” López Obrador said.
But even with government protection, Valencia fears that cartel gunmen will try to finish the job they botched on May 8.
“There is a job that was left undone, and they’ll look for a way to finish it,” Valencia said. “Maybe one day somebody will smile at me and I’ll give them a hug and he’ll take out a pistol and shoot me because there are a lot of people who would do that. In Mexico, a life is worth nothing. They’ll kill you just because, and more so if they get money for it.”