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Mexico Votes: Security and Criminal Risks Surrounding Elections

Article written by Chris Dalby, Director of World of Crime


Mexico is a country of contrasts. On the one hand, its beaches, forests, resources, and workforce attract millions of tourists and billions of investment dollars. On the other hand, it continues to suffer tens of thousands of violent deaths a year from cartels who operate with almost total impunity. Elections are always a moment to pause, assess the past few years, and take stock of what challenges a country faces ahead. For Mexico, any such assessment paints a bleak picture.

Mexico Ahead of June 2024 Elections 

President of Mexico
Andrés Manuel López Obrador

The 2018 presidential election was a moment of great optimism for many Mexicans, especially those with poorer incomes. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, better known as AMLO, won the presidency, having broken a two-party duopoly that had ruled for decades. He promised his new party, MORENA, would begin to entrenched networks of corruption and collusion. He promised a break with the past, vowing to approach cartels with “hugs, not bullets.”

Although AMLO said on the campaign trail that he would refrain from using the Mexican army to go after drug traffickers, he found himself relying increasingly on their support during his mandate, leading some to claim he was building an authoritarian regime.  

No break with the past has come. While the annual homicide rate has dipped slightly, over 30,000 people were murdered in Mexico in 2023. At least 174,000 people have been killed and another 114,000 have disappeared during AMLO’s presidency. Kidnappings and extortion have risen at an alarming rate nationwide, posing a serious threat to both Mexican and foreign travelers. And the crisis of fentanyl, a devastatingly lethal opioid largely made in Mexico, has consumed the United States, killing at least 336,000 people in six years. 

Claudia Sheinbaum

The past is very much the present. Yet AMLO remains hugely popular. He’s losing out his presidency with approval ratings of over 60 percent. He has been praised for his ability to reduce poverty, doubling the minimum wage, improving pensions and creating infrastructure projects. His hand-picked successor, Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, is the clear polling favorite to win presidential elections on June 2. 

This electoral campaign has been marred by violence. While official statistics state 20 political candidates have been killed, human rights organizations say the number is closer to 40. Hundreds of other candidates have suffered attempted murders, kidnapping, death threats, and physical attacks.

Most of these happen at the local and city level. Controlling mayors, police chiefs, and governors is hugely lucrative for Mexico’s cartels. This not only allows them to act with impunity, but also to steal a large portion of government budgets and access state databases about different economic sectors to learn who to extort. Every election provides an opportunity for them to reassert this criminal governance, force new candidates into line, or brutally remove those who resist. 

Security Landscape  

Despite Mexico’s troubled reputation, investments and tourism continue to go up. Foreign direct investment reached over 33 billion euros in 2023, up 2.2%, while over 21 million tourists arrived from abroad, also a record. 

Dutch travelers have not been deterred, with hundreds of thousands visiting Mexico every year. This is despite the occasional tragic event, including the shooting of one Dutch woman in the popular Caribbean tourist resort of Tulum in 2021. So what is the security panorama ahead of elections? Which areas of Mexico are most affected?

There are three levels to this answer.

Traveling in Mexico

At the first level, while most of Mexico carries with it some level of criminal danger, the overwhelming majority of foreign travelers, whether going for business or pleasure, do so utterly unmolested.

Mexico City itself continues to provide endless options for discovery, cuisine, and culture. The beach resorts of the Riviera Maya on the Caribbean Coast Oaxaca to the south, and Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific bring in families, students, and retirees for whom cartel violence goes unnoticed.

The second level overlaps with the first. All of the areas mentioned above are rife with criminal activity, with the tourism trade at the heart of it. While most tourists are not bothered, the entire industry surrounding them has become a criminal bonanza.

In Cancun, Puerto Vallarta, and other beach towns, restaurants and hotels are routinely extorted to the tune of thousands of dollars a month, often by several different criminal groups competing to control the “plaza” or the area.

Fishermen selling seafood to restaurants which cater to foreign visitors are forced to sell their catch to vendors approved by the cartels, at prices set by the cartels. Refusal means death.

While many travelers sample Mexico’s tequila, they may not know that tequila producers are often under the boot of the feared Jalisco Cartel New Generation, or CJNG, and see their profits drained.

Areas to Stay Away From

There are times when the second level clashes brutally with the first. Earlier this year, three Australian and American surfers were killed in the northern state of Baja California. Shootouts at beach resorts happen with increasing regularity, with some assassins even riding up on jet skis, killing their target, and disappearing across the waves.

The third level happens in those parts of Mexico where tourists rarely go but businesses do. In Guanajuato, a central industrial area with a vast oil refinery and a booming automotive industry, a fight between the CJNG and the local Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel has made the state the deadliest in Mexico. Their battle has lasted longer than World War II.

Mexico’s two largest criminal groups, the CJNG and their enemies, the Sinaloa Cartel, are fighting from north to south. Tijuana, the main entry point for drugs into the US, has become one of Mexico’s most violent cities. And all the way to the south, the once-peaceful state of Chiapas has been transformed over the past two years. Tens of thousands of people have been displaced as both groups seek to control the flow of migrants and drugs entering Mexico from Guatemala.

Trucks carrying cargo from across Mexico to the US border are now routinely hijacked, their merchandise stolen, the vehicles taken away, and the drivers sometimes shot.

Mexico’s cartels have also been quick to jump on the profits to be made from the thousands of migrants entering the country from Central and South America, as well as China and African nations. With the US pressuring Mexico to stop migrants crossing the border, thousands of people are left at the mercy of kidnapping, extortion, sexual violence, forced recruitment, and murder.

Positive Outlook?

The above description paints a highly pessimistic picture, one where the mechanisms of criminality are so entrenched in Mexico that it becomes impossible to stop them. So are there any areas of hope? 

In the presidential election campaign, not many. Sheinbaum and her opposition rival, Xochitl Galvez, have provided very few details about their security plans. There is a fear among observers that Sheinbaum, like her political mentor, AMLO, will disregard security while focusing on poverty reduction and infrastructure.

Yet, for all this violence, all this institutionalized corruption, there are pockets of optimism. A few years ago, the state of Baja California Sur, a popular tourist destination south of the US border, was riven by violence. Today, it has become Mexico’s most peaceful state. Similarly, the southern state of Yucatan, along the Gulf of Mexico, has the benefit of not being along major drug trafficking or migrant smuggling routes. As a consequence, it offers travelers and locals a safe haven.

The challenge will be to make these isolated havens of peace grow to reclaim more parts of the country. Looking ahead past the election, there seems little chance of that happening.


About the author: Chris Dalby is the director of World of Crime, a consultancy helping governments and companies make sense of urgent criminal challenges. He is based in Maastricht, the Netherlands, but spent seven years in Mexico as an organized crime journalist. He recently published his latest book, “CJNG – A Quick Guide to Mexico’s Deadliest Cartel.”


20240529 Mexico Votes_ Security and Criminal Risks Surrounding Elections
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