Voting Amid Violence
Political Violence: An Epidemic that Kills the Vulnerable
Alejandra Ibarra Chaoul
The camera comes into focus, as Nevith Condés Jaramillo begins to speak: “What we have here today, you see, is this massive hole here. It looks like a meteorite crashed here yesterday.” It is the night of August 23, 2019 and Nevith is filming what would be his last broadcast for El Observatorio del Sur. In the video, which was published on Facebook, Nevith stands next to a giant pothole that stretches across half of the rural road near the Rincón de López neighborhood.
In the video, you can see a group of residents gathering near the reporter, complaining about the state of the road. This was hardly surprising, since Rincón de López was well known to regional politicians for being a difficult place, where people frequently organized to demand the resolution to problems. As Nevith interviews him, a community leader explains that the pothole had been there for 15 days, after rains had washed out the ground under a 90-meter stretch of road. The residents had asked the local government for help but had not received a response.
The broadcast lasted nine minutes and 13 seconds. It was short, but direct in its denunciation.
“Listen… it sure is messed up to go to the department of public works and say ‘hey, help us out,’ and have them tell you ‘y’know, we can’t,’” Nevith declared. The only option the town gave the residents was to spend a portion of their budget designated for “priority projects,” which was excessive given the nature of the damage. What the community wanted was to save the money collected in taxes for “priority projects” for something that deserved it—and for the local government to fix the shoddy paving. Before ending his report, Nevith summed it up, declaring that “as it is, this administration has undertaken countless projects in this municipality, and they’re collapsing.”
During his career as a local journalist, Nevith covered daily events in the municipality of Tejupilco de Hidalgo, in the southern part of Mexico State. Before covering the damaged road in Rincón de López, Nevith had published a pair of videos on half-built schools.
Nevith’s work cannot be understood apart from local politics. Infrastructure and public works are always political. It is the politics of budgeting, allocation, earmarking. It is the politics of designing bidding processes, inviting participants, and supervising the company that wins the bid. It is also the politics of corruption, the use of discretionary funds and siphoning of resources. It is politics because, in essence, it is the most direct and tangible way of calculating rights and demanding accountability in how representatives spend tax money.
The morning after the video of the pothole, the body of Nevith Condés Jaramillo was found dead in the community of Cerro de Cacalotepec. He was 42 years old, and had been stabbed repeatedly.
Nevith never held elected office. He was not a career politician. The nature of his work, and of his life and death, was nevertheless deeply political.
The first time the reporter was threatened was in October of 2017. The state health minister was visiting Tejupilco and the local congressman from the PRI was giving him a tour of the regional hospital. Nevith had waited for the delegation outside the hospital doors, hoping for an interview. But rather than answering his questions, the politicians quickly reentered the building. Indignant, Nevith filmed their evasion, and began interviewing a group of people outside the facility who complained that the hospital lacked even basic items like painkillers. “See how it is? This is why they come… to run away from us,” Nevith commented on his Facebook page.
The hospital incident occurred a few months before campaigns for the 2018 elections were set to begin, and politicians had begun to negotiate candidacies. And the PRI congressman who had accompanied the minister, Anthony Domínguez Vargas, was maneuvering for his party’s nomination for mayor of Tejupilco. Nevith’s critical reporting did not help Domínguez in the slightest. In the end, though the PRI awarded the nomination to someone else, the young politician jumped parties and became the mayoral candidate for Morena instead. And in the middle of this campaign, Nevith was threatened again.
The journalist denounced the harassment, decrying how fake accounts and bots sought to intimidate him on social media, and blamed Domínguez Vargas personally for the attacks. But it was little use. The politician won his election, and from town hall, doubled down on his bullying: as mayor, he now demanded a public apology from Nevith.
It is true that the mayor sought to protect his image in order to stay in office, and that the reporter’s work made that difficult, but—like many things in Mexico—the equation is never that simple. Local politics in Tejupilco cannot be understood without discussing organized crime.
According to testimonies from residents, organized crime in the region controls all basic consumer goods—from chicken and eggs to construction materials like cement and gravel. Everything carries a “tax” imposed by the cartel, according to locals. Only merchants who have received authorization from the cartel are allowed to sell goods. That permission, in turn, only comes in exchange for payment of a fee. Consumers pay the “tax” to merchants, and merchants pay the fee to the cartel to survive.
Moreover, people claim that merchants are not the only ones being extorted by organized crime. The municipal government is also obligated to pay a regular fee to the dominant cartel to keep the peace. For this reason, town employees sometimes go months without receiving their salary, knowing that to complain would mean losing their jobs. This is why when there are political campaigns in the region, the candidates are careful to negotiate with “the mob” the terms of the “arrangement” before reaching office. Perhaps the negotiation even decides the outcome of the election.
What is certain is that in this high-stakes thicket of economic and political pacts, where paying extortion means preserving a business or a political project, a journalist can become more than an irritant. Even more so if that journalist was denouncing local problems and connecting with residents. Especially if that journalist was furious at seeing public money disappearing into criminal coffers, with schools still half-built, hospitals without medicine, and streets with potholes as big as craters.
When Nevith said, in his last report for El Observatorio del Sur, that there were “countless unfinished projects,” it was August of 2019. The next elections would be held in 2021 and it is likely that Domínguez Vargas was thinking about ensuring his reelection as mayor of Tejupilco. And beyond reelection, he was surely thinking about his political future.
He was young, and if he played his cards right, with his reelection he could help his party—the party of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—take control of municipalities in Mexico State that had been traditionally controlled by the PRI. Bit by bit, the whole state could flip to Morena. And that could catapult the mayor’s career to the state level and, if he were lucky, onto the national stage.
In thousands of Mexican municipalities, violence is a zero-sum equation: there are no winners, unless there are also losers. In this calculus, there are groups that monopolize the sources of power: public officials who have a monopoly of political power; wealthy families of merchants or landowners who have a monopoly of economic power; and organized crime that has a monopoly of violence. Then there is the rest of the community that belongs to none of these groups and does not have a monopoly of anything. This zero-sum equilibrium becomes even less tenable during electoral cycles, and the risks for those who upset it increase exponentially.
Nevith shifted the scales, giving voice and agency to the dispossessed. And an act as fundamentally democratic as encouraging civic participation by providing unfiltered information could not be calibrated in a place like Tejupilco de Hidalgo, where democracy is the one thing that does balance. In this way, political violence, like violence against journalists or femicides in Mexico, attacks the most vulnerable.
In the case of candidates, public officials, and local journalists, the violence they face may intensify during election season, but it is always there, lurking. And it is political.
Note: Anthony Domínguez Vargas is standing for reelection as mayor of Tejupilco on June 6.
Alejandra Ibarra is a journalist and author. She founded and directs Defensores de la democracia. Her podcast, Voces Silenciadas explores the life of Nevith Cóndes Jaramillo.
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.