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Elections in Mexico besieged by war on drugs: Opposition PRI could win over Calderón

Tamaulipas Gov. Eugenio Hernandez (center) arrives for a news conference surrounded by his aides and bodyguards Friday at the state government palace in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico. The U.S. Treasury Department has listed the man as a key member of the Gulf or Zeta drug gangs. Mexico will hold local elections today after last week’s assassination of gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre, the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s candidate for governor of Tamaulipas state. The party, also knows as PRI, is favored to win most of today’s 12 state elections.

CIUDAD VICTORIA, Mexico — A dozen Mexican states held elections Sunday after campaigning besieged by assassinations and scandals that displayed drug cartels’ power. The party that ruled Mexico for 71 years hoped to capitalize on frustrations over the bloodshed and gain momentum in its bid to regain the presidency in two years.

The elections for governors, mayors and local posts are the biggest political challenge yet for the government of President Felipe Calderon, who is deploying troops and federal police to wrest back territory from drug traffickers.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party, which held on to power for seven decades through a system of largess and corruption that many considered a quasi-dictatorship, has recovered popularity amid frustration with Mexico’s surging drug gang violence.

The party, known as the PRI, held up the assassination of its gubernatorial candidate in the northern state of Tamaulipas as evidence Calderon has failed to bring security despite the presence of tens of thousands of troops in drug trafficking hot spots.

Leaders of Calderon’s conservative National Action Party, in turn, have insinuated the PRI protects drug traffickers in Tamaulipas, a state of cattle ranchers and oil wells across from Texas that is both a stronghold of the PRI and the birthplace of the Gulf cartel.

A new scandal enveloped outgoing Tamaulipas Gov. Eugenio Hernandez: On Sunday, federal prosecutors said they were questioning one of his bodyguards, Ismael Ortega Galicia, after the newspaper Reforma reported that the U.S. Treasury Department has listed the man as a key member of the Gulf or Zeta drug gangs. The former allies split this year and are fighting for turf in Tamaulipas.

Tamaulipas Public Safety director Jose Soberon said Mexican federal prosecutors had previously investigated Ortega and found no evidence against him. Officials at the Attorney General’s Office said they had no immediate information on that claim.

Soberon also said Ortega had traveled to the U.S. several times with the governor and had never been detained, despite the U.S. Treasury Department listing.

Rodolfo Torre, the governor’s hand-picked successor, was killed Monday along with four companions when gunmen ambushed his campaign caravan. The day before, he had pledged to make a security a priority, and supporters say that may have been what got him killed.

The PRI chose his brother, Egidio Torres, to run in his place. The new candidate arrived to vote in an elementary school wearing a bulletproof vest and escorted by heavily armed federal police in two trucks and a dozen bodyguards.

Turnout was thin in Tamaulipas. Dozens of poll workers quit in the last week, many because they were afraid to show up at voting stations.

Low turnout was widely expected to benefit the PRI, which has ruled Tamaulipas for decades and is better than other parties at mobilizing voters.

Fernando Larranaga, voting in the same elementary school as Torre, said he remained loyal to the PRI and hoped the new candidate would fulfill his slain brother’s promises of fighting poverty and improving health care.

“We once had peace here, but now there is no tranquility. They are trying to destabilize the government,” Larranaga said. “Things are not the same. You are afraid to go out into the streets, but life must go on.”

Calderon’s government has said Rodolfo Torres was an honest man with no corruption scandals in his past.

But even Calderon said the assassination showed cartels are trying to sway the elections.

Torre was the second candidate killed in Tamaulipas: a National Action member was gunned down in May after ignoring warnings to drop his campaign for mayor.

Many voters felt the cartels had snatched their right to choose — a new low in a state where henchmen extort businesses and people avoid highways where caravans of armed men travel openly.

“After what happened you don’t even know that to think,” said Jose Rodriguez, 52, a street vendor who had planned to vote for Torre. “I had already decided who to vote for, but after what happened I don’t know.”

Drug scandals also have hit elections in Quintana Roo, home to Cancun, and the northern state of Sinaloa, the cradle of the cartel by the same name.

In Quintana Roo, Cancun Mayor Gregorio Sanchez was arrested last month on charges of protecting two cartels, ending his campaign for governor for a leftist party. He says the charges are politically motivated.

In Ciudad Juarez, former Mayor Hector Murguia of the PRI led polls despite facing allegations of ties to drug gangs ever since the director of police operations in his first administration was sentenced in 2008 to prison in Texas for facilitating marijuana smuggling.

In Sinaloa, a scandal broke out when the newspaper Reforma published a photograph of PRI candidate Jesus Vizcarra Calderon attending a party many years ago with drug kingpin Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada.

Vizcarra has dodged questions about whether Zambada is the godfather of one of his children.

National Action has allied with leftist parties to try to oust the PRI from some of its strongholds. Polls suggest the strategy has the best chance of succeeding in the southern state of Oaxaca, one of the few states where the election has not been dominated by the drug war. READ MORE HERE.

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