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‘Huge incentives to kill’: Mexico crime groups target election candidates | Global development

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Tuesday started off like any other day on the campaign trail for José Alberto Alonso, a union leader running for mayor in the Mexican beach resort of Acapulco: he kissed his family goodbye, boarded his Nissan Extreme SUV and headed off to start knocking on doors.

But barely 200m from his home, a motorcycle closed in and the pillion passenger pulled a handgun, peppering the car with bullets. Alonso’s bodyguard returned fire, and the attackers fled. The candidate had escaped injury, but was later sent to hospital suffering from stress.

“When you get into politics, you know there could be repercussions, but never to this degree” said Alonso, 36, from his sickbed.

The candidate of Fuerza por Mexico for mayor of Acapulco, Jose Alberto Alonso Gutierrez, speaks from the hospital where he is recovering, about the attack against him.
The Fuerza por Mexico candidate for mayor of Acapulco, Jose Alberto Alonso Gutierrez, speaks from the hospital where he is recovering from the attack. Photograph: David Guzmán/EPA

Mexico has suffered an especially bloody and violent campaign season ahead of midterm elections on 6 June when the country will renew its 500-seat lower house of congress, pick governors in 15 of its 32 states and elect hundreds of mayors and local legislators.

At least 34 candidates have been murdered since campaigning started on 6 April, while dozens more have been targeted and attacked. Mexican authorities have logged 398 threats or attacks on candidates.

Much of the violence occurs in states like Guerrero, south of Mexico City, where numerous crime factions battle over the opium poppy trade and run extortion rackets and kidnapping rings in Acapulco. Few cases are ever solved, though the federal government has been providing protection to candidates in rough corners of the country.

Forensic investigators work at a scene where assailants left a package and a threat message taped to the gate of the house of Leticia Castillo, a candidate of the Social Encounter party (PES) for the local congress, in Ciudad Juárez last week.
Forensic investigators work at a scene where assailants left a package and a threat message taped to the gate of the house of Leticia Castillo, a candidate of the Social Encounter party (PES) in Ciudad Juárez earlier this month. Photograph: José Luis González/Reuters

“Criminal groups have learned their lesson over the past few years that no matter what they do – including killing candidates or attacking public institutions – there are no consequences,” said Falko Ernst, senior Mexico analyst for the International Crisis Group.

“If we look at the performance of Mexican judicial institutions in actually solving the murders of politicians, it’s pretty much zero. That creates huge incentives to kill candidates and get away with it.”

Many of the attacks target candidates for local government as criminal groups seek to increase their territorial control.

“The point of gaining control over the next mayor is to assure that this mayor guarantees access to two prize resources: public money and the police,” said Gema Kloppe-Santamaría, a Mexican crime investigator at Loyola University Chicago.

Campaigning has been suspended in dozens of municipalities around the country due to violence. The ruling Morena party stopped campaigning in the southern part of the state of Mexico – the country’s most populous region, which wraps around Mexico City – after an ambush in March killed 13 state and federal police officers.

Morena’s party president Mario Delgado tweeted on Friday that he and two other politicians were intercepted by gunmen with assault weapons in the state of Tamaulipas, a hotbed of organised crime, but released unharmed.

“There are some municipalities where you campaign, but can’t talk about municipal matters, others where you can bring in a campaign team, but can’t hold rallies,” said Isaac Monroy, the Morena delegate in state of Mexico.

The attacks have been brazen. Earlier in May, a former state prosecutor was gunned down on a street while campaigning for mayor in northern Sonora. On Tuesday, Alma Barragán was killed while holding a rally in the conflict-riven state of Guanajuato.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador says his government is providing protection for candidates. But he also accused the media of sensationalising the murders to make his government look bad.

Criminal groups often offer public servants the choice of “silver or lead” – take their bribes or face death.

“There’s a lot of blackmail, and those who say no end up like this,” said Ramón Bernal García, a former detective running with the small Fuerza por México party near Mexico City. Some violence and intimidation is also down to rival political parties, Bernal said.

A bodyguard of Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia, takes his assault rifle from the back of the armoured SUV they travel in, during one of Valencia’s campaign stops in Morelia, Michoacan state.
A bodyguard for Institutional Revolutionary Party mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia takes his assault rifle from the back of the armoured SUV they travel in, during one of Valencia’s campaign stops in Morelia, Michoacan state. Photograph: Marco Ugarte/AP

Alonso never received any threats, although he says in retrospect there were signs of trouble. Campaign signs bearing his boyish face were stolen and vandalised. Some campaign staff received veiled warnings to stop their work.

He was still unable to say what motivated the assassination attempt – especially as Fuerza por México, the party he helped found, is contesting its first election and polling in the low single digits nationally. But he said he was determined to stay in the race.

“I’ve received a lot of kind messages from people who are fed up with crime,” he said. “It hit me today because I’m a candidate, but I’ll be a spokesman for all those suffering violence here in Acapulco.”



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Kill the Bill and period protests: human rights this fortnight – in pictures | Global development

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‘No embargo’ on meetings with Putin, EU says

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EU leaders are free to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin despite his threats to start a new war with Ukraine, the EU foreign service has said. “There is no embargo on contacts and visits between member states and Russia. Each member state decides … on their own judgment,” the EU foreign service told EUobserver. The comment follows reports Croatia invited Putin to visit and that Hungary’s leader will meet him.

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Vulnerable Malians could ‘pay the price’ of heavy sanctions, warn aid groups | Global development

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More than a dozen aid organisations have called for humanitarian exemptions to heavy sanctions imposed on Mali after the military leadership postponed planned February elections.

The EU has announced support for the sanctions imposed earlier this month by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which include closing borders and a trade embargo.

But this week, 13 international groups working in Mali warned of devastating consequences for the population, a third of whom rely on aid.

Humanitarian access is hindered by the Malian interim authorities’ decision to reciprocate border closures with Ecowas member states, except Guinea.

Thousands of people demonstrated against the sanctions last week in the capital Bamako, carrying placards saying “down with Ecowas” and “down with France”.

The country is in the grip of the worst food insecurity in 10 years.

A joint letter signed by the NGOs, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Care and the Norwegian Refugee Council, said: “To continue their work effectively, humanitarian actors must have unfettered access for the transportation of life-saving goods including food and medicine, as well as guarantees that they can transfer funds into the country without violating the sanctions.”

Mali’s current insecurity dates back to early 2012 when northern separatists rebelled against the government. Islamist militants that initially allied with the separatists, including Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, ultimately hijacked the rebellion.

France, the former colonial ruler, made a military intervention in 2013 on the government’s side against the militants. The UN has also deployed an estimated 18,000 peacekeeping staff, in what was called its most dangerous mission.

The Malian military, led by Col Assimi Goïta, has conducted two coups in two years and reneged on promises to hold new elections. The junta’s most recent power grab, in May 2021, was the fifth coup since Mali’s independence in 1960 and it has been unwilling to commit to transition to civilian rule, despite international pressures.

Postponement of elections has been blamed on Islamist insecurity, an impasse that has deepened with the arrival of private military contractors belonging to the Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group. European states have condemned Wagner’s presence, concerned it will enable the military to hold on to power.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said this month that EU sanctions on Mali were in part in response to the involvement of Russian contractors. France is withdrawing troops, but 14 other EU members, led by Sweden, had established a taskforce to replace them in a three-year mandate. As tensions intensified over the Wagner Group, Sweden said last week that it had decided to withdraw its troops.

France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has been vociferous in its support of sanctions but Russia and China have blocked the UN security council’s move to follow suit.

Ecowas has frozen financial aid and Malian assets at the Central Bank of West African States.

Elena Vicario, director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Mali, said: “Malians are already bearing the brunt of the humanitarian catastrophe, punctuated by horrifying attacks against civilians. Sanctions must not hold us back from delivering essential assistance in a country where drought, rising insecurity, and the economic impacts of Covid-19 are already pushing millions of Malians over the edge.”

Franck Vannetelle, the IRC’s country director in Mali, echoed Vicario, saying: “Despite more than a third of the country’s population being dependent on humanitarian aid, organisations working in Mali already face severe access constraints. It’s imperative that the international community keeps responding to people’s urgent needs, and that any new sanctions have concrete humanitarian exemptions. These must be monitored and implemented, or the most vulnerable people in Mali will pay the price.”

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