La prensa

The Meaning of the Michoacan Election

Created: 02 December, 2011
Updated: 26 July, 2022
10 min read

Frontera NorteSur

    What began as a chorus of loud denunciations ended in a round of resigned whimpers. The discourse of Michoacan gubernatorial candidate Maria Luisa “Cocoa” Calderon, who seriously challenged the legitimacy of the November 13 state election, soon took a radical turn when the sister of President Felipe Calderon and the standard-bearer of a center-right coalition led by the National Action Party (PAN) suddenly announced she would recognize the victory of rival Fausto Vallejo.

    After repeatedly charging that organized crime manipulated the election in favor of Vallejo’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and allied Mexican Green Party, Calderon threw in the towel but still urged her former opponent not to grovel before crime lords who “very probably will soon come to cash in.”

    Calderon’s contentions of criminal involvement in the election were backed up by Juan Marcos Gutierrez, Interior Ministry undersecretary who headed up the department for six days after his boss was killed in a November 11 helicopter crash outside Mexico City.

    With Michoacan fresh in mind, Mexico’s new Interior Minister Alejandro Poire said he would dedicate time to make sure that the free will of the citizenry was not inhibited in the 2012 elections. Replacing Baja Californian Francisco Blake who was killed in the November 11 helicopter crash, Poire previously served as director of CISEN, Mexico’s version of the CIA.

    The Michoacan election was the third jolt Mexicans suffered in as many days. Besides the shock produced by the deaths of Blake and his human rights point man Felipe Zamora, who delivered the Inter-American Court of Human Rights-ordered apology for the murders of women in Ciudad Juarez only four days before his untimely demise in the star-crossed chopper, the November 12 defeat of slugger Juan Manuel Marquez at the hands of champ Manny Pacquiao had Mexicans in an uproar.  Still, while the country moved on to focus on assorted soccer matches as well as the military parades of the November 20 Revolution Day holiday and its attendant Black Friday-like shopping spree promoted by the Calderon administration, the embers of the Michoacan election continued to smolder.

    Another officially defeated gubernatorial candidate, Silvano Aureoles of the center-left PRD-PT-Movimiento Ciudadano coalition, vowed he would press ahead with a legal challenge to the results that handed the governor’s office to the PRI after 11 years of PRD rule.

    “We aren’t going to allow them to limit our right to freely vote,” Aureoles told 3,000 supporters in the Michoacan state capital of Morelia on November 19. “It will not be machine-guns or pistols that decide who governs.”

    Upheld by Michoacan electoral authorities November 20, the 101st anniversary of the 1910 Mexican Revolution, Vallejo’s win was viewed by some as another mile marker in the PRI’s drive to recapture the Mexican White House in 2012. Due to a state political reform, Vallejo will serve 3 years and 7 months in office-considerably shorter than the traditional six-year term of Mexican governors.

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    Yet the victory of the four-time mayor of Morelia came amid widespread irregularities and episodes of violence, most notably the November 2 assassination of Richard Guzman Romero, the PAN mayor of La Piedad who was gunned down while stumping on the campaign trail for Cocoa Calderon. 

    Both PAN and PRI leaders accused organized criminal groups of swaying the election process in the direction of the PRI, while the PRD charged that the Calderon administration interfered on behalf of the President´s sister through the utilization of social programs for political purposes. Michoacan is the home state of the Calderon family. 

    The reported violations included the kidnapping of candidates;  the intimidation of voters by armed men on election day; the unprecedented publication of a large ad in the AM daily that threatened voters with death; the distribution of a phony La Jornada newspaper front page that reported the withdrawal of Cocoa Calderon from the race; the delivery of construction materials to entice potential voters; the purchase of election identification cards; and heavy campaign spending that exceeded the official limits. 

    Initially Reported by the official Michoacan Electoral Institute at 54.96 percent, the official turn out of eligible voters was the highest in a state election since 1995, when 59 percent of the registered electorate cast ballots. There is some evidence this year’s numbers could be inflated.

    For example, Frontera NorteSur was sent a picture of a purported voter tally sheet from Morelia that didn’t add up at all. While the photo could not be immediately verified, it appeared real and was similar to other irregular tally sheets uncovered during the 2006 presidential and other elections. 

    According to the Michoacan tally sheet, 1,107 ballots were extracted from a box meant for 732 voters, 362 of whom were listed as actually voting. In terms of the vote breakdown, the sheet gave 945 to the PRI, 92 to the PAN and 47 to the PRD. The party totals come to 1084 votes, a number which does not coincide with the 1,107 ballots supposedly cast.

    The Michoacan vote-counting took place under the cover of tight security provided by the Mexican army. 

    Like the gathering of storm clouds before a summer monsoon explodes, plenty of forebodings of mischief and worse preceded the November 13 election.

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    In a pre-election assessment, the Michoacan State Secretariat of Public Safety pinpointed 19 of 113 municipalities as trouble zones. The state law enforcement agency contended that possible links existed between organized crime and fully half the candidates for municipal offices. 

    As election day neared, 15 of the municipalities were reported as not having candidates for all or some offices, though in the case of the indigenous Purepecha community of Cheran, the absence of political contenders was due to a community decision to boycott the election as an outside-imposed farce rather than because of pressures from organized crime, as was erroneously reported in some press accounts.

    “The corrupt political parties only work for the benefit of the rich and bring us, the poor, crisis…,” Cheran’s residents declared.

    As of November 13, the special election crimes division of the federal attorney general’s office had received 40 complaints ranging from vote buying to conditioning participation in government social programs with support for political candidates. Additionally, Michoacan state authorities opened 49 investigations and detained 42 people (all later released) for election-related matters.

    Overall, the Michocan election signaled the creep toward a full-fledged “narco-state” in Mexico, charged PRD President Jesus Zambrano. “This is what is at stake and this is what we aren’t going to permit for the good of the Republic’s institutions,” Zambrano affirmed.

    Much of the mainstream media analysis of the Michoacan election focused on the horse race aspects of the contest, discussing the ramifications for the different political parties in next year’s crucial federal election. But November 13 also exposed deeper problems and issues that extend well beyond the electoral realm.

    In key ways, Michoacan is the perfect microcosm of Mexican society. Along-faltering rural economy has turned the southwestern state one of the top expellers of migrants to the United States, and many people are dependent on the remittances sent by relatives working north of the border.

    Virtually the only robust crops in Michoacan agriculture are the illegal plantings of marijuana and opium poppies in addition the legal ones dedicated to avocado production; both sectors are tied to the aboveground and underground NAFTA economy. The near-halt of new migration to an economically-strapped US has shut off a social safety valve and deprived many young residents of alternative, legal employment.

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            In recent years, organized crime, especially La Familia Michoacana, came to dominate large sections of the state. The US-Mexico kingpin strategy of eliminating crime bosses has since splintered the group into competing factions and allowed other, outside organizations a new chance at controlling a state where rural drug fields mesh with the new highways and the burgeoning Pacific port of Lazaro Cardenas to make Michoacan a strategic, territorial prize.

   The launching pad of President Calderon’s so-called drug war in late 2006, Michoacan accounts for about 10 percent of the estimated 50,000 slayings attributed to the violence during the last five years.

   Reportedly, leaflets that pointed the finger at President Calderon and the PAN for the 50,000 deaths were distributed door-to-door prior to election day. “How many more?” asked the unidentified message. 

   To some extent, the November 13 election results exhibited to the deep ideological and political cleavages in Michoacan, which date back to the liberal-conservative disputes of the 19th century and the left-right conflicts of the 20th century. 

   Michoacan was the birthplace of Cardenismo, first ushered in with the revolutionary nationalist era of President Lazaro Cardenas (1934-40) and then later reborn with his son Cuahtemoc’s 1988 presidential campaign against the PRI, which was closely followed by the founding of the opposition PRD by the younger Cardenas and others from the left end of the political spectrum. Yet Michoacan also was the scene of right-wing Cristero uprisings during the 1920s, which included the murders of school teachers, a tactic not unlike that employed by the Afghan Taliban of today.

   “Two national projects are in competition in Michoacan,” said Juan Jose Rodriguez, a researcher who specializes in the history of the PAN. “They are the one of Lazaro Cardenas and the one of (PAN founder) Manuel Gomez Morin.

   The November 13 preliminary election results for governor (PRI-Green Party 35.39%, PAN-National Alliance 32.67%, PRD and allies 28.88%) displayed the lack of political consensus and sharp division, likewise reflected at the national level, that give no one political force an absolute majority to move forward with a popular political agenda. While the PRI additionally won pluralities in the mayoral and state legislative contests, it still fell short of commanding absolute power. In Michoacan and Mexico, political legitimacy remains an elusive mantle.

   Appealing for reconciliation, Governor-elect Vallejo invited his adversaries to join a new political project for the good of Michoacan, but the controversies surrounding his election could impede a smooth transition. 

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   Meanwhile, a Mexican political analyst had words of caution. Comparing Michoacan to the 2010 Tamaulipas state election in which the PRI candidate and the next likely governor was murdered while campaigning, Jose Antonio Crespo of Mexico’s CIDE think tank maintained that the country’s political class still has not realized the power of the bombs mining the Mexican political landscape. 

   Warning that “similar problems” could crop up in 2012, Crespo demanded that political leaders engage in a thorough vetting of all future candidates “without exception.”

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico

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