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Voting Amid Violence

Narcopolitics Becomes an Institution in the Land of the Tarahumara

Patricia Mayorga

This essay is part of the Voting Amid Violence project.

Her coverage of precandidates with links to drug cartels during the 2016 electoral process put Miroslava Breach Velducea in the crosshairs. Four years after she was murdered on March 23, 2017, the political-electoral-criminal system she described remains intact.


Breach was not the only victim. Entire communities are suffering the effects of political violence. In her reporting, Breach made these stories visible, reporting in La Jornada about human rights abuses in the Sierra Tarahumara, abuses that touched both indigenous and mestizo groups.


Those abuses are tied to a system of government that is, in its very nature, intertwined with organized crime. To govern in the Sierra Tarahumara, political parties make agreements with representatives of locally powerful groups—even when those individuals display little party loyalty and have known connections to criminal groups.


During the current electoral process, the topic of narcopolitics has ceased to be taboo. Candidates speak openly about it when promising to restore security in the region and the state of Chihuahua. Citizens will walk through a minefield when they cast their ballots on election day. In the process, they will chose a new governor, 67 mayors, 67 councilpersons, 33 state congresspeople, and 9 federal congresspeople.


A Shameful Legacy

In 2016, on the list of candidates for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), several individuals were identified as having ties to cartels. One of them was the precandidate for the mayorship of Chínapas, Juan Salazar Ochoa, nephew of Crispín Salazar, the leader of the “Los Salazar” criminal group which is tied to the Sinaloa Cartel.


Chínipas is located in the Sierra Tarahumara, on the border between Chihuahua and Sonora. For years, the region has been controlled by Los Salazar, according to testimony from state and federal authorities during the trial of Breach’s killers. In the runup to the election, levels of violence in the area have spiked, and forced around 500 families to flee into Sonora.


Another candidate with known links to organized crime in 2016 was Silvia Mariscal Estrada, mother-in-law of Arturo Quintana “El Ocenta”, who led the La Línea faction of the Juárez Cartel. Quintana was arrested in 2018.


Bachíniva is located in the northwest of the state, an area dominated by La Línea, and in recent years there have been ferocious battles for control of drug trafficking through the region. Bachíniva and Chínipas were governed by the PAN. The two precandidates were replaced, once their connections to drug traffickers became public.


In Chínipas, the candidate who replaced Juan Salazar was Jesús Ramín Quinto Agramón Varela, who was also close to Los Salazar, and in 2018 the PRI nominated Salomé Ramos Salmón, the current mayor who is seeking reelection in the 2021 electoral cycle.

Ramos Salmón is the brother-in-law of Jesús Alfredo Salazar Ramírez “El Muñeco”, who was arrested in 2012 and is currently fighting extradition to the United States. The criminal leader is accused of various murders, including the killing of activist Nepomuceno Moreno in 2011, and the disappearance of journalist José Alfredo Jiménez Mota in 2005.


“El Muñeco” is the son of “Don Adán” Salazar Zamorano, head of the Los Salazar who was arrested in 2011. He was succeeded by “El Muñeco” who was then replaced by his brother after his arrest in 2012. Adán Salazar Ramírez remained head of the organization until 2016, when he was murdered. The current leader is Crispín Salazar Zamorano, Don Adán’s brother.


Crispín Borunda is the alleged mastermind of Breach’s murder, but has not been arrested. Last December, the former PAN mayor of Chínipas, Hugo Amed Schultz, was arrested and accused of being complicit in the killing of the journalist.


As a result, the PAN did not nominate a candidate to govern the municipality this year. Of the eight parties that are competing on the state level, only three registered candidates in Chínipas: Movimiento Ciudadano, Morena, and the PRI.


In the years when the PRI openly nominated candidates with close ties to criminal groups, it also controlled the statehouse. That governor, César Duarte Jáquez, is now imprisoned in Miami, where he is fighting extradition to Mexico to face charges related to corruption and embezzlement.


Currently the PAN’s candidate for the governorship is María Eugenia Campos Galván, who was previously a state congresswoman during the second half of Duarte’s government. Campos Galván is being investigated for allegedly receiving illicit funds during that period, through Duarte’s “secret payroll.”


Duarte utilized the “secret payroll” scheme to buy the support of legislators, party leaders, religious figures, and journalists. The list included politicians from every party.

Among those implicated in the scandal are Cruz Pérez Cuéllar, currently Morena’s candidate for the mayorship of Juárez. He had previously been a leader of Movimiento Ciudadano under Duarte, and prior to that the leader of the PAN in the state before being removed from the role.


Armando Cabada Alvídrez, the former unaffiliated mayor of Juárez is also implicated, and repaid 4 million pesos last year to the state attorney general’s office to avoid arrest. He had been a journalist during Duarte’s government, and is currently a local congress candidate for Morena.


During Duarte’s government, and in the first two years of the current governorship of Javier Corral Jurado, there were a substantial number of candidates and officials murdered in the Sierra Tarahumara. Since 2018, however, a tense peace has prevailed and during the current electoral cycle, however, there are no reports of violence. Since Corral took office in 2016, however, overall levels of crime and impunity have increased.

Narcopolitics Becomes an Institution in the Land of the Tarahumara

Photo: Marcos Vizcarra

Narcopolitics Normalized

In 2018 the political tidal wave that swept the country, carrying Morena to power in many places, did not reach the Sierra Tarahumara and the northwest corner of Chihuahua. There, the triumphant candidates were backed by the PRI and PAN, and some were suspected of having close ties to criminal groups.


Narcopolitics became normalized, despite the allegations, because the crime lords control life in the mountains. Those who attended campaign rallies or cast ballots passed by men carrying rifles who offered “suggestions” about who to vote for at the polling places they controlled. There were “express kidnappings” of activists who supported parties opposed to the PRI, among them the case of Guachochi. In some of these episodes the coercion was captured on video.


Since that year, criminal groups chose to support some candidates from the PAN, due to the widespread rejection of the PRI in certain municipalities, while in other districts they continued to support the party.


In the Sierra Tarahumara during the current electoral process, there are at least six municipalities where there are between 1 and 3 mayoral candidates due to the difficult conditions: in Morelos, there is only one candidate, from Morena. Carichí, Cusihuiriachi, Chínipas, Guazapares, Moris, and Urique, each have three candidates.


There are public complaints of candidates who are relatives of criminal leaders in several municipalities, but the allegations have not had an effect.


In the municipality of Buenaventura, the mayor is Miriam Aras Caballero, who has been publicly identified in local media as having close ties to La Línea through her brother. She is currently a PRI-PRD-PAN alliance candidate for a federal congressional seat.


In Urique, the mayor is seeking the PAN’s nomination. Mayra de Jesús Díaz Gutiérrez is the sister of Pedro Díaz Gutiérrez, who is linked to the leader of the Sinaloa Cartel group in the area, Noriel Portillo “El Chueco” who is on the state’s most wanted list. Pedro Díaz himself is implicated in the murder of US citizen Patrick Braxton and linked to mass disappearances from the mining sites in the municipality. His relatives have been PRI mayors, and the party has traditionally governed the municipality. In 2018, however, the family decided to align with the PAN.


Another example is the municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo, which is part of the Golden Triangle—the drug producing region encompassing the mountainous regions of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, and Durango. There, the PAN nominated Jesús Velázquez Rodríguez, the former PRI politician with ties to drug trafficking. He is more popularly known as a narco-actor, due to his roles in films about trafficking such as “La Ram Blanca,” “Plomo en la Sierra”, and “La Manzana de la Discordia.”


Velázquez Rodríguez was a close associate of César Duarte but chose to leave the PRI claiming he felt betrayed, and received the PAN’s nomination. The PRI meanwhile selected Julio César Chávez Ponce, who also is alleged to have links to the region’s criminal group.


In one of his messages to the voters of Guadalupe y Calvo, Chávez Ponce reproached Jesús Velázquez for returning to seek the mayorship after previously holding the position three times and having been absent from the region for an extended period.

In referring to his rival from Morena, Chávez Ponce claimed that he was inexperienced and immature, warning in a video that “Pablo Subías… he’s a good kid, that’s true. A humble kid, clean, straightforward, but immature. If they try to extort him, if there’s a dustup, a fight between gangsters… he’ll crap the bed. Because he doesn’t have experience, and they’re going to eat him alive. He’s not cut out for it, honestly.”


In this, Chávez Ponce acknowledged the violent realities of the municipality. What he left unsaid was that the powerful presence of organized crime there made democracy an elusive prospect. When few candidates participate, and those that do seem to represent a constituency that carries guns, elections will not offer citizens true choices. And the governments that emerge from such situations will fail to protect those citizens from abuse.


This was the reality that Miroslava Breach refused to ignore.

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Patricia Mayorga is a correspondent for Proceso. Her work has included reporting on human rights abuses, indigenous groups, and politics in Chihuahua.

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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