Mexican crime cartels muscle in on politics

Mayor Mota's death was meant to be a warning by the cartels to other mayors to give in to the criminals' demands, said Morelos state governor Ramirez.
Mayor Mota's death was meant to be a warning by the cartels to other mayors to give in to the criminals' demands, said Morelos state governor Ramirez.

Mayor's murder highlights gangs' latest money-grabbing target

MEXICO CITY • On the morning of Jan 2, a team of hired killers set off for the home of 33-year-old Gisela Mota, who only hours before had been sworn in as the first female mayor of Temixco, a sleepy spa town an hour from Mexico City.

Ms Mota was still in her pyjamas as the men approached her parents' house. She was in the bedroom, but most of her family was in the front room, cooing over a newborn.

As the family prepared a milk bottle, the assassins smashed the door open. Amid the commotion, Ms Mota came out of her bedroom and said firmly: "I am Gisela."

In front of her terrified family, the men beat Ms Mota and shot her several times, killing her.

Such violence has plagued areas of Mexico during the decade-long bloodbath known as the Mexican drug war. But her killing illuminates some worrying features of how this conflict is changing.

While the global media is fascinated by billionaire kingpins like Joaquin Guzman Loera, known as El Chapo, who was recaptured on Jan 8 after his second prison escape, the war is evolving far beyond the drug trade. Cartels now fight for political power itself.

After arresting two of the men suspected of killing Ms Mota, the police said the murder was part of a regional campaign by the Los Rojos cartel to control town halls and rob the towns' resources.

For a decade, Mexican troops have worked with United States agents to pursue kingpins, in what is known as the cartel decapitation strategy. Flamboyant gangsters with nicknames like "Tony Tormenta", "the Engineer" and "the Viceroy" have been shot down or arrested. El Chapo, or Shorty, has been detained twice in less than two years.

Yet while these kingpins rot in prisons and graves, their assassins have formed their own organisations, which can be even more violent and predatory.

The new cartels continue to traffic drugs, some switching from Colombian cocaine to Mexican heroin to feed an epidemic sweeping parts of America.

But they have also used their armies of assassins to move into new endeavours - rackets, extortion, oil theft, even wildcat iron-mining.

And they are now muscling in on one of Mexico's most lucrative businesses of all: local politics.

Ms Mota is not the first politician to fall afoul of the cartels' new business interests. In a Jan 11 news conference, the governor of Morelos state, Mr Graco Ramírez, revealed that Los Rojos had threatened 13 more Morelos mayors in recent months.

They are using the murder of Ms Mota as a sombre warning. It was a "deliberate and premeditated action that aims to sow an environment of terror, both among authorities and citizens", he said.

The cartel makes telling demands of the mayors, Mr Ramírez said, such as contracts for valuable building projects or the right to name the town police chiefs.

And they are forcing mayors to give them 10 per cent of their annual budgets. As Mexico's government provides much of the financing, this means the cartels are feeding from the federal pot - and in turn from the US, which provides the Mexican government with about US$300 million (S$432 million) a year in drug-war aid.

In the past, drug cartels handed out bribes. These days, they are making the mayors pay them. Politics is not just a way to help their criminal businesses; it is a business in itself.

And as they take control of these politicians, the cartels transform themselves into an ominous shadow power, using the tools of the state to affect anyone who lives or works in its jurisdiction.

With more than 2,000 mayors in Mexico, most of whom have little protection, the cartels have a big market to tap. The combined booty is potentially worth billions of dollars a year.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Mexican crime cartels muscle in on politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe