Mexico's drug cartels make their violent power felt in run-up to poll

DRUG cartels fund a tenth of Mexico's economy. They have infiltrated many local and state police forces and staged assaults on army bases.

Now they are violently inserting themselves into politics, killing the leading candidate for governor of a northern state days before this Sunday's elections in 12 states.

The assassination of Rodolfo Torre in the border state of Tamaulipas on Monday capped the deadliest month yet in president Felipe Calderon's military-led offensive against drug traffickers. Carefully planned attacks - including an ambush that killed 12 police officers - have served as reminders that Mexico's drug cartels can get to anyone, anywhere, armed with sophisticated weaponry and billions of dollars to pay off informants.

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Mexican officials said Sunday's voting would go forward as planned, including in Tamaulipas, where Mr Torre's replacement as the Institutional Revolutionary Party's candidate had not even been named.

"Organised crime has voted," the national newspaper Reforma wrote this week. "What's the point of having elections when a de-facto power is imposing its will over the will of citizens?"

A new poll indicated that Mexicans are divided about whether Mr Calderon's government is winning the drug war, with slightly more inclined to believe it is losing.

About 29 per cent of those surveyed thought violence had increased in Mexico, because the drug traffickers were being forced to defend themselves against the thousands of soldiers Mr Calderon has deployed across the country, according to the Ipsos poll. Thirty-six per cent thought violence had increased because the government was losing the fight. Most of the rest blamed internal cartel strife.

Throughout Mexico, the cartels have had a strong impact on this year's campaigning. The mayor of Cancun, who was running for governor of Quintana Roo state, was arrested last month on charges of protecting two cartels. In Sinaloa and other states, assailants have lobbed grenades at party offices. And rumours abound about candidates who just might be on the take from one or another of the powerful drug organisations.

The assault on Mr Torre's campaign caravan was typical of a cartel hit. Gunmen intercepted his convoy as it headed to the airport, indicating that they knew exactly when he would be passing by.


The Zetas, former members of a Mexican military intelligence battalion sent to fight the cartels, joined forces with the Gulf cartel in the 1990s and increasingly began controlling life in Tamaulipas state. In addition to drug-smuggling, they began extorting money from businesses such as restaurants, car dealerships and scrap yards. They kidnapped people for ransom and charged "fees" to migrant smugglers and other drug traffickers. Newspapers stopped reporting on drug violence after reporters were threatened. More recently, heavily armed gunmen believed to be from the Zetas have staged attacks on security forces in Tamaulipas, setting up roadblocks and assaulting army garrisons. The bodies of Mr Torre and four others in the caravan lay strewn on the street, suggesting they had tried to flee.

Mexicans took the hit to be part of a feud between the Gulf cartel and the Zetas, a gang of hitmen who split from it and have been battling in Tamaulipas this year.

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The Zetas have grown into a formidable organisation in their own right, with operations reaching deep into Central America, and the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels have teamed up to fight their new common enemy.

Mr Torre was the second candidate killed in Tamaulipas in the run-up to the elections: Jos Guajardo Varela was shot in May after ignoring warnings to drop out of the race for mayor of Valle Hermoso. "The freedom that we had three, four or five years ago in Tamaulipas and in Mexico is gone," said Gustavo Cardenas, a former Tamaulipas senator who promised his family he would not run for office this year to avoid becoming a target.

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