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In the run-up to Mexico's elections, a string of political assassinations raise alarms

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Mexico has a general election in about a month, ending a campaign season marked by record levels of violence. Some 30 candidates have been assassinated over the past year. NPR's Eyder Peralta takes us to one of Mexico's most violent towns, and we should note you'll hear some gunfire in his report.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Back in April, Gisela Gaytan was just kicking off her campaign for mayor of Celaya. She had just released her first ad, which talked about how Celaya was overwhelmed by violence. Members of dueling cartels had been running around beheading rivals, extorting businesses.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GISELA GAYTAN: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Today, we feel like survivors, she says. That day, she campaigned at a market on the outskirts of the town of Celaya. She promised things would change if she was elected. Video taken by a bystander shows her leaving the market, walking on a street among her supporters, when gunmen opened fire.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

PERALTA: Gaytan died on the scene. Political campaigns did stop briefly in Celaya. But about a week later, we find Magdalena Rosalez (ph) at her party offices. She's running for Congress for the same party Gaytan belonged to. And now the offices are surrounded by more than a dozen heavily armed paramilitary police. Rosalez says the party asked her to suspend the campaign.

MAGDALENA ROSALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "I'm a bit foolhardy," she says. "So I said, we can't allow this to put fear in us. We can't allow paralysis to take over." So far, four people have been arrested for the murder, but they haven't been charged, and they might never be, because in Mexico, nearly all murders go unpunished. Rosalez, a doctor turned politician, views Gaytan's killing with clinical detachment.

ROSALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: It's not the worst thing human history has witnessed, she says.

ROSALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Politics is about power and how power is distributed in this society, she says. In Western societies, power is won through elections. The assassinated mayoral candidate, she says, represented a potential shift. For the first time in 30 years in this region, the ruling party was at risk of losing power to the party of Mexico's president.

ROSALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: And the fear that deals between government and powerful people could crumble, she says, leads some to commit despicable acts. Her staff signals that it's time to go. She's about to head to her first public rally since the assassination. The armed men take their place. I ask Rosalez if she's not scared.

ROSALEZ: (Speaking Spanish, laughter).

PERALTA: I am, she says, but I just have to hold it in.

In a violent country, Celaya, a metro area of half 1 million, is one of the most violent places. In 2022, for example, more people were killed in Celaya than in the whole of Britain, a country of more than 67 million. Tiziano Breda (ph) studies political violence at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. He says Celaya is a perfect example of the vivid criminal competition happening in Mexico. Breda says, this is concentrated in a few states.

TIZIANO BREDA: But it's growing, and it's getting worse.

PERALTA: In the not-so-distant past, this violence in Mexico was mostly tied to the drug trade. But in recent years, criminal organizations have moved into all kinds of businesses from extortion to monopolizing the avocado trade or their tortilla stores or the beer business - all of them possible reasons for an assassination.

BREDA: So in the territories that certain groups control, it goes down really to who has the contract to pick up the trash or, you know, the organization of events.

PERALTA: In Celaya, most of the politicians we spoke to were either at a loss or too scared to say what triggered or who ordered the assassination. Juan Miguel Ramirez (ph) was selected by his party to take the place of the assassinated mayoral candidate. We spoke at his house, surrounded by armed security forces.

JUAN MIGUEL RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "It was a terrifying attack because other people said they shot at me, but their gun jammed," he says. Some of the gunmen told other politicians, we'll be back for you. Ramirez shakes his head. He has no idea why an attack like this happened. There are only theories that maybe it was orchestrated by rival politicians or even her own party. Others say it was the cartels.

RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He says neither police nor the local government have the power or the means to confront the cartels, "so we can't explain why they saw her as a threat." I stop him. I tell him, shouldn't a candidate for mayor instead be saying that he will run the cartels out of town?

RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "It's not our responsibility," he says. I tell him, how is that not your job?

RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: It's not our job to launch a frontal attack against the cartels, he says. He explains that they can help state and federal authorities. But them alone - they are overwhelmed by organized crime. It is impossible to take them on.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).

PERALTA: Magdalena Rosalez, the congressional candidate, does manage to pull a small crowd together for a rally. She told them there would be heavily armed men protecting them. And as she shakes hands, more than a dozen national guard troops patrol her surroundings. They have automatic weapons. So many police here have been killed that all of them also protect their identities by donning full face masks.

ROSALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Rosalez gives a typical stump speech, promising security, promising change, but then a man interrupts the rally.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Why don't you go around town without protection the way we do, he says? He's indignant.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Maybe then you'll finally realize that we need your help. Then again, maybe nothing will change, he says. The current mayor's son was assassinated, and yet he did nothing to stop the violence.

ROSALEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: You're right, Rosalez replies. I didn't want security, but my party told me that we can't afford another dead candidate.

Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Celaya, in Guanajuato, Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.