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Voting Amid Violence

Political Violence: A Tool for Claiming Turf in Guerrero

Vania Pigeonutt

This essay is part of the Voting Amid Violence project.

On October 27, 2015, a little over a year after 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teachers’ college were disappeared in Iguala, Héctor Astudillo was sworn in as the 83rd governor of the state of Guerrero. He took office amid violence, criminal conflicts, social mobilizations and political instability. The previous elected governor—Ángel Aguirre—had resigned following the Iguala disappearance, and an interim government under Rogelio Ortega had governed the state until Astudillo’s election.


Such situations were not new in the state. In 1996, Aguirre had himself replaced Rubén Figueroa Alcocer, who had stepped down following the 1995 Aguas Blancas massacre. But if violence had a political cost, the dynamics seemed to be changing.


Following the events of September 26, 2014 in Iguala, Guerrero became the focus of national and international media attention. The Ayotzinapa case revealed rampant collusion between organized crime and local political structures. The former PRD mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca, and his wife, Ángeles Pineda, were allegedly leaders of the Guerreros Unidos criminal group, which was responsible for the disappearance. The PRD would pay a price for this at the polls.


In 2015, political violence intertwined with criminal violence. For years in the state, regional bosses who had used violence to control politics in rural fiefdoms such as the Figueroas in the north, or Aguirres in the Costa Chica, were becoming increasingly numerous and visible. Political violence was becoming a resource to conquer territories where social movements were pressuring for justice.


With Ayotzinapa making the marriage between politics and crime impossible to ignore, the state government was knocked on its heels. And in this unsettled situation, new cacicazgos—those violent political fiefdoms—were born, and the state’s arms race continued. Since 2013, a new boom of civilian self-defense groups had occurred, and over time, these came to mimic the behaviors of criminal gunmen. These were hardly ideal conditions for an election.


Both before and after the elections of 2015, Guerrero was in turmoil. One of the most shocking occurrences was the murder of Ulises Fabián Quiroz, the PRI’s candidate for the municipality of Chilapa—a place with high levels of homicides, disappearances, and political assassinations. It was apparent that the challenge was to win the election without dying in the process.


Ayotzinapa fundamentally undermined the credibility of the PRD in the state, eroding the popularity of a party that had been born of leftist political movements during the years of authoritarian government and had paid for its opposition to the PRI in blood: many party activists were murdered. The tragedy also delegitimized the federal PRI government of Enrique Peña Nieto, which as tasked with overseeing the elections.


Citizen rejection of the process was thus widespread. The Movimiento Popular Guerrerense (MPG) for its part, attempted to obstruct the elections until the Ayotzinapa students were returned alive. The group, which was comprised of activists, members of a teachers’ union, and other historical dissidents, failed to block the election entirely but did succeed in forcing the annulment of votes in Tixtla, hometown to 14 of the missing 43.


In La democracia no se construyó en un día, the president of the National Electoral Institute (INE), Lorenzo Cordova and political journalist Ernesto Nuñez recount the tension of those days. “On March 26, 2015, six months after the disappearance, a delegation of parents, lawyers, students, and activists arrived at the offices of the INE. Their buses parked around the building on Viaducto Tlalpan and Periférico Sur, blocking traffic. The group demanded a meeting to deliver a document demanding the cancellation of Guerrero’s elections.”


In the letter the activists delivered to the INE, they demanded fundamental changes: “First, it is necessary to restore the social fabric, eliminating clientelistic processes around elections, which means the death of political parties, because there will no longer be an exchange of votes for handouts.” Instead of conventional elections, the letter goes on to propose the naming of popular councils following the rules of indigenous self-governance and usos y costumbres. These changes fell on deaf ears, however, and the elections proceeded.


In Guerrero there were dozens of protests at both the local offices of the INE and the state electoral institute. Election officials were detained and dozens of electoral announcements were marked with the protest slogans “Fue el estado” and “Nos faltan 43.”


Even with Peña Nieto’s political capital spent, Astudillo was able to win a resounding victory in 2015. The governorship that the PRI had lost in 2005 to the PRD candidate Zeferino Torreblanca—a loss that ended 72 years of PRI rule in the state—was recaptured thanks to Ayotzinapa and the total collapse of the PRD’s credibility in the state and its manifest links to organized crime.


As Guerrero’s citizens prepare to vote in 2021, Ayotzinapa remains an indelible reminder of impunity and the state’s pervasive political violence.

Political Violence: A Tool for Claiming Turf in Guerrero

Photo: Félix Márquez

2021: High Risk in 31 of Guerrero’s 81 Municipalities

For many years, Guerrero has been one of the most heavily armed and militarized states in Mexico. It is also plagued by structural poverty that affects many, in rural, often indigenous areas such as La Montaña. Even the illicit cultivation of opium poppy and marijuana has not improved the conditions for more than 150,000 families who engage in the activity. As a result, solutions to the state’s structural poverty are the eternal campaign promise. Now, with the 2021 elections approaching and the state’s political parties in disarray, social justice is hardly a central focus for candidates.


The leading candidates for the governorship are Evelyn Salgado, Morena’s candidate and the daughter of Félix Salgado Macedonio, who was blocked from the candidacy due to campaign violations and allegations of sexual abuse; and Mario Moreno for the PRD, running in alliance with the PRI in a strange union of former enemies. But neither the two gubernatorial candidates, nor the candidates for the state’s 80 municipalities, 28 local congress seats, and 9 federal congress seats are able to campaign freely in the state.


Between 2015 and 2018, there have been 25 assassinations and four enforced disappearances of political leaders and community activists, a situation that has continued in the current electoral cycle with at least four mayoral candidates being killed and others suffering attacks of threats, such as Avelina López, Morena’s candidate for the mayorship of Acapulco; and Erick Ulises Crespo in Cocula.


In 2018, Guerrero was the state with the most political assassinations. That year, the Etellekt consulting group tallied 20 murders, nearly a quarter of all candidates killed nationwide. It was a dangerous place to campaign, and in some regions, the risk was extreme. Seven candidates were killed in four central region municipalities alone: Chilapa, Chilpancingo, José Joaquín Herrera, and Tixtla.


The state government produced a risk map that year, marking 18 municipalities in red, for high risk. For 2021, the map shows 31 municipalities in red. The violence is not just ongoing, it is diversifying. Old problems have returned, like clockwork. And the number of armed actors is increasing.


This election, only two candidates are receiving 24-hour security protection from the state police: the Movimiento Ciudadano candidate for the mayorship of Cocula, Erick Ulises Ramírez Crespo, and the Morena candidate for a state congress seat from Chilapa, Diana Itzel Hernández.


The two cases are distinct. Ramírez Crespo, the former mayor of Cocula who is alleged to have ties to organized crime, was attacked when gunmen opened fire on one of his campaign events, though nobody was injured. Diana Hernández is the daughter of the social activist Ranferi Hernández Acevedo, a renowned critic of the Figueroa family’s power in the state and who was murdered in 2017. Her district is one that has been controlled by the “Los Ardillos” criminal group since 2015, and where there are ongoing disputes with rival organizations.

Elsewhere in the state, other high-risk municipalities include Tlepehuala, Arcelia, Coyuca de Catalán, and Zirándaro, where La Familia Michoacana is active. In Zirándaro, a municipality with high rates of internal displacement, conflict, and opium poppy cultivation, there is also an ongoing dispute between La Familia and the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG).


That context contributed to the decision by Gregorio Portillo Mendoza, the mayor of Zirándaro for Morena, to resign his candidacy for a seat in the state congress. After an “express kidnapping” by an armed group, despite the presence of two National Guard bodyguards, Portillo Mendoza chose not to risk the election.


Other high risk municipalities in the current map include the municipalities of Iguala, Cocula, Huitzuco, Teloloapan, Apaxtla de Castrejón, and Cuetzala de Progreso. In these six northern region districts, the “Los Tlacos” criminal group is engaged in a turf struggle with “La Bandera,” a fragment of the older “Guerreros Unidos” organization, according to analysis by Amapola: Periodismo Transgresor.


Federal authorities also include the municipalities of Taxco, Buenavista de Cuéllar, Tetipac, and Pilcaya on the list of high-risk areas. These districts border Morelos and Mexico State, where La Familia Michoacana is active. Numerous politicians in these areas have been threatened by criminal groups, such as the former mayor of Taxco, Salamón Majul, or the PRI-PRD candidate for state congress from Taxco, Flor Añorve Ocampo.


Guerrero’s recent electoral history is the story of two, often competing, demands. On the one hand, a struggle for social justice, and on the other, the often-deadly pressure applied by organized crime.


For Fernado Pineda Ochoa, a former guerrilla fighter, and current historian at the Autonomous University of Guerrero, the struggle is ongoing: “We can’t lose sight of the fact that democracy does not belong to anyone… it is a form of participation that allows those at the bottom to shape the future.”

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Vania Pigeonutt is a founder and editor of Amapola Periodismo. Her reporting primarily covers social and political issues in Guerrero.

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.

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