Mexican mayor slain ahead of elections

MORELIA, Mexico (AP) — The mayor of La Piedad had already seen his police chief killed when he too was fatally ambushed by gunmen as he campaigned for President Felipe Calderon’s sister and other candidates in the upcoming state elections.

Luisa Maria Calderon is vying for governor in the Nov. 13 elections in Michoacan, the Calderon family home state where her brother five years ago launched the drug war and where many say the political system has the country’s worst infiltration of drug cartels.

The killing late Wednesday of Mayor Ricardo Guzman, 45, could be the latest in a string of drug cartel threats all political parties say have occurred against candidates, and pose the specter that Mexico’s drug violence will interfere with democracy and next week’s vote.

“I don’t think he had any political enemies,” said Luisa Maria Calderon, who along with her brother represents the conservative National Action Party. But when asked by local media Thursday if she thought a drug gang may have been involved, she said “probably.”

“He stayed to defend his city from the incursion of organized groups, and his police force had suffered casualties,” she said. “He told me ‘I’m going to stay in my city, to protect it.’”

PAN youth official Jhonatan Garcia, who was with Guzman during the attack, reported that a hand holding a pistol emerged from a black SUV and fired directly at Guzman as he handed out campaign material for Calderon and the man running to succeed him in front a fast food restaurant, according to a Twitter Garcia posted.

Michoacan state prosecutor Jesus Montejano said the black Jeep Liberty had plates from the neighboring state of Jalisco, which La Piedad borders. Drug cartels have “been very active” in the area around La Piedad, where three cartels — the Zetas, The Knights Templar and the Jalisco New Generation gangs — fight for the hilly, forest-covered territory that forms a key transit route where the three gangs’ turf intersects. Montejano said investigators were trying to determine if a drug cartel was involved in the killing.

Gunmen killed La Piedad police chief Jose Luis Guerrero in March, just a couple of months after he took the job; shell casings from AK-47 assault rifles, the cartels’ favored weapon, were found littered at the scene. His successor, Miguel Angel Rosas Perez, was recruited from the better-trained federal police, but he too came under attack in July, when more than 40 armed men pulled up to his police station in a 10-vehicle convoy, sprayed his station with gunfire, and then lobbed hand grenades at it.

Though he survived, at least six municipal police chiefs have been killed in Michoacan in 2011. Twenty-five mayors have been killed in Mexico since December 2006, when the drug war began.

La Piedad has been hit deeply by the violence, said municipal policeman Jose Castro. The local force beefed up security Thursday for Guzman’s funeral, which was attended by top PAN political figures.

Castro called the mayor “someone who really looked out for people, who was really dedicated to his work.” He also said groups of drug cartel gunmen roam the outskirts of the township.

The Knights Templar, and their predecessor, La Familia, appear to be deeply involved in Michoacan politics, boosting their favored candidates by pressuring opponents to drop out of mayoral races, running for legislative seats themselves or through proxies and sponsoring public marches and protests, according to party leaders and state security officials.

The Knights Templar is a pseudo-religious gang specializing in methamphetamine production and smuggling, extortion and other crimes.

Victor Lopez Landeros, the spokesman for the Michoacan State Electoral Institute, says problems are limited to a few of the state’s 113 townships, and expressed confidence the elections can be held normally. But leaders of the state’s three main political parties — the PAN, the Democratic Revolution and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI — all say they have mayoral candidates who have dropped out of races. Though the candidates cite health and other reasons, party leaders suspect at least some resignations were the result of drug cartel threats or fear of threats.

Cartel pressure largely appears focused on mayoral candidates, who are pushed to drop out of the race to benefit a candidate favored by the cartels.

“Organized crime is getting involved in discouraging (mayoral) candidates,” said PRI gubernatorial candidate Fausto Vallejo. “And that is not only happening to the PRI, but in all of the three political parties.”

Michoacan “appears to be the state that is most infected with narco-politics,” said political analyst and columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio. He noted that while mayoral candidates, and even one gubernatorial candidate, have been killed in other states, nowhere is the cartel pressure on candidates so systematic as in Michoacan.

Gunmen believed to be working for cartels also kidnapped workers carrying out opinion polls on the Michoacan elections in late September. While all nine workers were later released, the incidents increased concerns about disruption — either overt or covert — of next Sunday’s vote.

Labor Secretary Javier Lozano had few doubts about what the effects of Guzman’s killing would be. In his Twitter account, Lozano wrote, “this cowardly crime seeks to discourage citizens from voting in the Nov. 13 elections.”

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