Although a democracy on paper, Mexico faces a substantial obstacle that drastically undermines the freeness and fairness of its elections. That obstacle is organized crime, particularly in the form of Mexico’s infamous drug cartels. Since their establishment in the 1980s, the drug cartels of Mexico have played an increasingly large role in Mexican politics. These cartels have cemented an iron grip on the Mexican government which they maintain through considerable electoral violence targeting both political candidates and the media. Such violence inhibits candidates opposing the cartels from entering office while simultaneously silencing critical journalists from speaking out against the criminal activities these groups engage in. With both elections and the media under the control of organized crime, Mexican democracy is effectively stripped of two of its most integral institutions.
Due largely to pervasive organized crime, violence has surged in Mexico. In fact, Mexico possesses “the ninth highest homicide rate in the world” with homicide being the number one cause of death for men aged 10 to 54 according to the 2021 Mexico Peace Index. While many of these murders are committed among cartel members, we increasingly see these killings enter the political sphere where they’re used to intimidate candidates, voters, and the media in a three-pronged attack on Mexican democracy.
The salience of electoral violence was particularly prominent in the country’s most recent Midterm election held in June of 2021. Intending to maintain their control over the political system, cartels engaged in a substantial number of violent attacks in the lead up to the election. Between the beginning of the electoral process in September of 2020 and the end of May, “there were 89 assassinations of politicians in Mexico and 782 crimes committed agianst them” with 35 of those killed being candidates running in the upcoming election. Moreover, many of these attacks, such as the May 13 assassination of Ciudad Obregón mayoral candidate Abel Murietta, were carried out in broad daylight directly in front of supporters. Murrieta had been handing out fliers on a busy street corner when he was approached by two men who then gunned him down and calmly walked away afterward as bystanders fled in fear.
Assassinations such as Murietta’s send a clear message to both politicians and supporters to not interfere with the cartel’s control. As candidates expressing opposition to the status quo are publicly murdered, others become more hesitant to stand up against organized crime out of fear of meeting a similar fate. Moreover, such violence perpetuates the country’s already rampant corruption as candidates choose to collude with the cartels to avoid their bullets. Therefore, the cartel’s violence coerces Mexican politicians to adopt the cartel’s interests rather than the people’s, effectively reducing “the capacity of citizens to make enforceable claims upon the government” (Lust and Waldner 2015).
In addition to political assassinations, we also observe a substantial amount of cartel violence perpetrated against journalists in Mexico. In fact, Mexico was named “the deadliest country for journalists in the Western hemisphere” by the Committee to Protect Journalists in 2020. According to Freedom House’s 2021 Country Report on Mexico, at least nine journalists had been killed in 2020, accounting for nearly one third of all journalists killed globally that year. Furthermore, journalists covering sensitive content such as crime and politics are especially targeted in these attacks. The November 9, 2020 murder of Israel Vázquez, who was killed in a drive-by shooting while investigating a tip regarding a bag of human remains being dumped along a roadside, serves as a prime example.
The cartels´ targeting of journalists indicates a clear undermining of free and independent media. Any attempt by a journalist to criticize organized crime, expose corruption, or support a progressive political candidate is met with serious consequences. Threats of bodily harm and even death force members of the Mexican media to either obey the cartels by self-censoring their content or dodge the latter’s bullets. Therefore, the drug cartels of Mexico have essentially reduced a free and fair media–a core component of liberal democracy–to a nonfactor incapable of serving the interests of the people.
With politicians and media members literally under fire from drug cartels, the electoral integrity of Mexican elections appears feeble at best, and nonexistent at worst. The cartels’ open attacks on these individuals indicates a blatant undermining of the freeness and fairness of Mexican elections, which are integral to the establishment and maintenance of democracy (Dahl 1972). Punishing defiant politicians and members of the media while leaving the rest too afraid to speak out, Mexico’s drug cartels dominate (and will likely continue to dominate) the state, eroding its democratic institutions through violence. As the cartels’ strengthen their grip on these institutions, they further weaken the Mexican state, which is becoming increasingly difficult for Mexican citizens to legitimately engage with. Such degradation may result in fleeting support for democracy among the Mexican people.