Voting Amid Violence
Ballots or Bullets: The Logic of Corruption and Candidacies in Sinaloa
Marcos Daniel Vizcarra Ruiz
Criminal participation in Sinaloa’s political and electoral process is an open secret.
There are meetings, agreements, pacts. It is not a mystery, but you cannot say it.
There is no shortage of motives. For leaders of criminal groups, it is of utmost importance to have loyal politicians in order to ensure illicit operations, and also to guarantee the control of territory and the protection of illegal businesses.
And this year, the stakes are high. On June 6, 2021 voters in Sinaloa will choose a new governor, 18 mayors, 40 state congress seats, and 7 federal congressional positions.
The negotiations follow rules of politics that are hardly new. To promote the preferred candidates, these shadow figures can provide money and encourage participation in meetings, everything to ensure that votes are delivered.
It is not surprising that the candidates, at least publicly, deny these connections. But they are there.
According to documents from the State Security Council in Sinaloa, a group that includes state police, national guard, the army, and the marines, there are at least six candidacies that have been imposed as “political favors” and which represent arrangements to maintain territorial control for criminal groups.
Party officials indicate that “the ultimate electors,” are the criminals, those who control land, buy and produce semi-synthetic and synthetic drugs, who are protected by gunmen and have on their payrolls hundreds of lookouts who serve as their eyes and ears. These youth transit the state on motorcycles with counterfeit license plates, most of which were stolen.
These criminal groups, divided into factions, also pay municipal and state police to do the same tasks, but with the advantage of greater information through official radio networks. In Sinaloa there are at least 300 accusations against police officers for such abuses, but not a single one has been prosecuted, and regulations prevent them from being fired—at worst they are shifted to administrative tasks.
Part of this strategy is political control. And for that, in municipalities across the state, criminals seek to impose candidates.
The case of Sinaloa is distinctive, but it is not unique. According to the federal security minister, Rosa Icela Rodríguez, “In the states of Morelos, Guerrero, Michoacán, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Sinaloa, and Jalisco, we see more risk that aspirants and candidates are coopted by criminals. That is why we say that organized crime and white collar crime have a varied repertoire for influencing elections, whether by strategies to ensure candidates’ complicity, or by applying violent pressure.”
The warning is hardly straightforward, since this year’s elections will decide the outcome in 500 federal congressional seats, 15 governorships, more than 900,000 municipal presidencies (mayoral positions), 1,063 state congress seats and more than 17,000 other local offices—a total of more than 21,000 positions.
The method for imposing and coopting those in public office is grounded in scare campaigns to intimidate both the political class and the general public. Control comes from assassinations, threats, corruption, imposition, and financing.
As the security minister notes:
Cooptation occurs through meetings with precandidates, collusion with parties or local governments, and offering financing before the electoral process begins, through cash donations, protection, or other resources—including human resources—to support campaigns.
In some regions, these efforts are intended to ensure total influence over the designation of candidates for municipal offices, which ensures control over finances and allows for extorsion—bribery and other payoffs from both the government and contractors.
According to the Sinaloa security council, which includes state and federal authorities, in the 2021 electoral process there are candidates who have been coopted by organized crime, though this information is not made public.
It would hardly be the first time, there are dozens of histories of candidates who were imposed, and some of them have become part of the criminal lore that contributes to the stigma surrounding Sinaloa.
Photo: Félix Márquez
The Lucero Sánchez López Case
A former beauty pageant winner, Lucero Sánchez became the youngest state congressperson when she was elected in 2013 at the age of 23. Backed by an alliance between the PAN, PRD, and the Partido Sinaloense, she represented the municipality of Cosalá, a small region south of Culiacán.
Her political career would be short; she served only one term and had never held office prior—excluding her selection as queen of the mardi gras carnival in Cosalá.
Today, Lucero Sánchez is a prisoner in the Metropolitan Correctional Center in San Diego, accused of conspiring with the Sinaloa Cartel to traffic drugs and launder money. Her arrest had been a stroke of luck for authorities: she attempted to enter the United States without knowing her visa had been cancelled.
In the case file, an informant from the “Sinaloa Cartel” alleged that Sánchez had been with Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera when he nearly escaped capture in February, 2014—fleeing from a safehouse through a tunnel.
The file also describes Sánchez as a woman who bragged of being the drug trafficker’s girlfriend. Using a fake name, she visited him while he was a prisoner in the Almoloya prison.
The night of July 7, 2013, when Lucero Sánchez learned that she had been elected, there was a party in Cosalá—but none of the parties that had nominally backed her were there to celebrate. Her victory had been, for all intents and purposes, as an independent candidate, even if she would join the PAN caucus once in congress.
Her election was remarkable, an astonishing path from political anonymity to the second-highest vote total in the history of the municipality. She had won 4,167 votes—a sum that equaled 33% of registered voters in the municipality.
The Sinaloa state daily Noroeste later documented that Sánchez’s campaign could have been backed by Gúzman Loera, after obtaining anonymous reports from residents about a possible relationship—but nobody in Cosalá would speak openly about the link.
Other anonymous testimonies indicated that from a young age Sánchez had worked in the sierra. She served as a cook, preparing tortillas for fieldworkers who cultivated marijuana and opium poppy. It was there that she met the Sinaloa Cartel boss who would have backed her candidacy as queen of the mardi gras carnival in Cosalá.
Mexico’s federal attorney general’s office documented several meetings between Gúzman Loera and the state legislator, including his presence at a party hosted by Sánchez López’s sister.
Intercepted phone conversations from September 2013 between members of El Chapo’s ‘second circle’, which were released during his trial in 2017, also reveal the legislator’s participation in at least two operations to manage funds for narcotrafficking, with sums of 500,000 and 380,000 dollars. In these operations, Sánchez used the alias “Piedra,” while her sister used the name “Caro.”
Sánchez pled guilty to the charges in the United States, agreeing to testify against Gúzman Loera in exchange for a reduction in her sentence.
Political Violence Foretold
In its Third Report on Political Violence in Mexico 2021, the Etellekt consulting group observes that Sinaloa is at risk for high levels of violence. At the extremes, this could include assassinations of politicians, above all members of the opposition. The state is currently ruled by the PRI.
Such was the case in the murder of José Carlos Trujillo García, a city councilmember from the Partido de Trabajo in Navolato, who was murdered after leaving city hall on November 10, 2020. The 30-year-old was ambushed while walking to his car in the city center and shot at point-blank range.
For officials, much of the attention is on the rural, mountainous regions of the state. According to state security minister Cristóbal Castañeda Camarillo, in the municipalities of Concordia, Rosario, Cosalá, Culiacán, Badiraguato, Sinaloa, and Choix there are high probabilities of conflict between criminal groups.
There is recent precedent for violence: In March of 2020, criminal groups murdered Luis Alberto Monárrez, a former police officer who was Morena’s candidate for town councilperson in Tepuche, a community to the north of Culiacán. The next day, Jovel Pérez Meza, Tepuche’s municipal chief of police was also killed.
The violence in this region combined with the events of June 24 in Bagrecitos, a nearby community where 16 people were brutally murdered—two of whom simply had the misfortune to cross paths with the Sinaloa Cartel gunmen who carried out the attack.
The Seven Threats
Over a month of campaigns, violence has become a principal factor for candidates.
Electoral authorities confirm seven reports of threats received by candidates in Salvador Alvarado, Navolato, Culiacán, Mazatlán, Concordia, and Escuinapa. Of these, Castañeda Camarillo notes that the reports are “principally threats or regarding the presence of armed individuals who obstruct candidates’ activities.”
According to campaign officials from Morena, Movimiento Ciudadano, and Redes Sociales Progresistas, some of these complaints include attacks on campaign teams and candidates.
In Sinaloa officials have launched an operation to try to limit criminal confrontations that could affect the electoral process in rural regions. The effort focuses on the south of the state, where criminal groups have been more active, leading to conflicts. Attacks on military and police units have left several officers wounded.
The special operation has resulted in a number of arrests, and the murder of Joel Ernesto Soto, the state police chief who was killed while traveling in an unmarked vehicle in an attempt to avoid recognition. Authorities offered little information on the attack, other than to note it was carried out by an armed group.
The assassination followed a series of incidents involving the state police, above all in areas north of Culiacán. After armed groups launched the attacks, police responded with arrests and seizures of weapons, vehicles, and packages of synthetic drugs.
This violence is the other side of the electoral coin in Sinaloa, where criminal participation is as complicated as it is alarming.
What is a vote worth? According to the Sinaloa State Electoral Institute, the same as any other vote. Even the vote of a criminal boss? Absolutely, they say, a vote is a vote. But in Sinaloan politics, that logic is deceiving.
In this state, politics go hand in hand with the economy, society, and the criminal world. It is the order that was established according to those who, by force of arms, acquired territory and sought means of controlling their prizes.
Marcos Vizcarra is a Sinaloan reporter specialized in coverage of human rights. He is a member of Revista Espejo and has collaborated on the various projects examining disappearances.
Voting Amid Violence
Voting Amid Violence is a project of the Mexico Violence Resource Project. It has received support from the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at UC San Diego. To download a PDF mini-book of the essays, click here. For more information about the Mexico Violence Resource Project, visit our About page by clicking here.