The Michoacán Debacle: Fault Lines Ahead of the Mexican Presidential Election

Surrounding the November 13 elections in Michoacán, one mayor was shot dead, fifty candidates from several parties stepped down due to threats, an indigenous community boycotted the election and instituted their own electoral processes, and an entire city’s police force resigned.  In the last five years, Michoacán has seen some of the worst gang violence in the country outside of the border region and has been heavily militarized. Both institutionalized political pressure and “narco-influence” have continue to call in to question the possibility of free and fair elections in Mexico.


On December 28, Mexico’s Federal Electoral Tribunal (TEPJF) annulled the recent mayoral election in Morelia, Michoacán, as the ugly fallout to the state’s gubernatorial and local elections in November continues. Opposition parties have called for the rest of the results to be thrown out as well – an unlikely prospect – amid a slew of controversies that hint at turmoil to come in this year’s presidential race.

The TEPJF annulled the victory of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)’s Wilfrido Lazarus in Morelia based on two counts of illegal campaigning. Not only had PRI candidates appeared on local television following campaign closing, but a Mexican boxer sported the party’s logo on his trunks in a high-profile fight in Las Vegas the night before.

Ostensibly, the elections in Michoacán represented another significant victory for the PRI, with the party’s Enrique Pena Nieto a strong favorite to take the presidency on July 1. However, they also illustrated all too well the difficulty of holding fair elections in a region of the country plagued by corruption and organized crime.

Heading into the November 13 elections, the favorite for governor was National Action Party (PAN) candidate María Luisa Calderón Hinojosa (nicknamed “Cocoa”), the sister of Mexican President Felipe Calderón. The Calderón family hails from Michoacán and was determined to prevent the PRI from taking yet another state ahead of 2012, to the point that opponents accused the federal government of interference.

Calderón lost to the PRI’s Fausto Vallejo Figueroa by just 2.7% of the vote and immediately cried fraud, citing ballot irregularities and intimidation of voters by criminal gangs. On November 9, four days ahead of the election, national daily La Jornada had published a photo of Fausto Vallejo handing out cash to voters in Zicuirán.

The real loser, however, was the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), which had held the state since 2002 and lost eleven municipalities along with the governorship.

In Mexico, political candidates question the legitimacy of each other’s victories with alarming speed and regularity. The mistrust comes from the 71 long years (1929-2000) of PRI dictatorship, when elections were formally held but usually rigged. During its dynasty, the PRI managed to retain control of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, and win every general election by at least 70% – despite being almost universally loathed by the Mexican people.

Threats and Violence

Yet the concerns over the election results in Michoacán go much deeper. On November 2, the PAN Mayor of La Piedad, Ricardo Guzmán Romero, was shot dead by gunmen while handing out campaign flyers around town. In all, up to fifty candidates from several parties stepped down after threats from criminal organizations. Just days after the elections took place, the entire police force (38 men) of the town of Carácuaro resigned following a series of threats and ambushes.

Michoacán, a beautiful, heavily-forested state in southwest Mexico, close to Mexico City, is also prime drug-trafficking territory. For several years, the bizarre La Familia Michoacana – a drug cartel-cum-religious cult preaching family values and clean living – dominated a state where marijuana and methamphetamine production is big business. The half-brother of the now former PRD governor, Leonel Godoy Rangel, is currently on the run following his impeachment from Congress for links to La Familia.

In the last five years, Michoacán has seen some of the worst gang violence in the country outside of the border region. The state has been heavily militarized since President Calderón sent 6500 troops there in 2006 as the first offensive in his self-declared “Drug War”. In the most notorious example of violence, a gang tossed two grenades into the zócalo, or main plaza, of Morelia during Independence Day celebrations in 2008, killing eight people.

Early last year, La Familia underwent a split after its eccentric leader Nazario Moreno González (“El Más Loco” or “The Craziest One”) was killed in a shootout with federal police. There are now two factions disputing criminal control of the state – a group still calling itself La Familia, linked to Los Zetas, and a new group called Los Caballeros Templarios (The Knights Templar) associated with the Sinaloa Cartel.

Following the elections, the newspaper Milenio produced an audio recording which it claimed contained the voice of a high-ranking member of La Familia urging local villagers to vote for the PRI. At that point, the PAN and the PRD demanded that the entire state elections be annulled, a proposal that is unlikely to bear fruit because of finances.

The Felipe Calderón administration understandably points to “narco-influence” as a serious concern ahead of the 2012 presidential election. Indeed, it’s impossible to imagine the elections not being influenced by the money and intimidation tactics of criminal organizations – whether it be cash lavished upon candidates, bullets aimed at candidates, or threats levelled at either.

It’s a drum that Calderón has been beating loudly as July 2012 nears, using Michoacán as an example. Yet the idea that the PAN is somehow above such influence is misleading when it has been so closely associated with “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel, the wealthiest drug-trafficking organization in Mexico. “El narco”, as both the trade and the groups associated with drug-trafficking are referred to in Mexico, doesn’t discriminate along political lines.

The PAN itself was widely accused of fraud in the 2006 presidential election when Felipe Calderón narrowly defeated PRD candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, resulting in “Occupy”-style protests throughout the country by PRD supporters. López Obrador will run again this year, but both parties seem more concerned about the return of the PRI, which holds a 30-40% lead in most recent polls.

Cherán’s Example

On January 1, all but two of Michoacán’s 113 municipalities changed hands, the exceptions being Morelia and the small, largely-indigenous community of Cherán. The 12,000 residents of Cherán boycotted the elections altogether due to the lack of support local and state authorities had given them in the face of constant attacks by criminal gangs.

Cherán made international headlines last year when residents took up arms and erected barricades to keep out illegal logging gangs preying on the community’s timber industry and backed by gunmen who allegedly represented one of Michoacán’s drug cartels. The town will instead hold its own autonomous elections based on the indigenous “usos y costumbres” method widely practised in the state of Oaxaca.

As reported by Upside Down World contributor Ela Stapley, a majority of Cherán residents voted to adopt the traditional system, which was reluctantly recognized by the state electoral institute and involves residents nominating their own representatives to form local councils.

Given the murkiness of the official state elections, many around Michoacán and the rest of Mexico may wonder why they don’t do the same.