Violence and political mudslinging have been spiking in tandem since the spring throughout the gangster-ridden parts of Mexico that will hold state and local elections on July 7.
A video surfaced June 22 featuring the kidnapped bodyguard of Sinaloa Governor Mario Lopez Valdez, who accuses his boss and senior members of the state security forces of working on behalf of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's Sinaloa Cartel.
Frank Armenta, a state policeman attached to the governor's security detail, said he was making the accusations so "the federal government looks at what's happening and takes action, " against Lopez Valdez, widely known by the nickname Malova. Armenta reportedly was kidnapped June 4 by unknown assailants in the northern part of the Pacific Coast state.
"What a barbarity, that which is being done under the name of Malova," Armenta says in the 55 minute video, which includes telephone conversations of the governor and his top security officials that had been surrepticiously recorded. "All these proofs I am giving you are being kept secret by the cabinet of my boss, Malova."
Lopez Valdez quickly denied the accusations, saying that Armenta had been tortured into making the video.
"If they tell him to say the governor killed Bin Laden or Michael Jackson this guy is going to say it, because he's obliged to," Lopez told the Sinaloa newspaper El Debate on June 27.
Seated on a couch in a bare room, Armenta hardly seems stressed in the video as he provides a running commentary of the tapped phone conversations, as would a television anchor. The governor hasn't commented on the particulars of the taped conversations, whose supposedly damning content can be interpreted in less malicious ways.
Neither Lopez nor anyone else has commented on who tapped the governor's phones or how they did it. Such telephone taps have been a common factor in Mexican political scandals of the past decade.
Armenta claims that he was present in a 2011 meeting -- soon after Lopez took office -- in which the governor plotted with both Guzman and fellow Sinaloa Cartel boss Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada on how to provide them state protection. Guzman has been waging a bloody war ith former allies, including the Beltran Leyva clan, in many parts of the state, especially around the northern city of Los Mochis.
Gunmen in early May ambushed the police chief of the town of Ahome, where Lopez once served as mayor, south of Los Mochis, killing four of his security guards. The chief, Jesus Carrasco, is named in the new video as working on behalf of Guzman.
Also last week, Lopez's political coalition announced it was pulling out of local elections in Sinaloa de Leyva, a mountain township where the governor's cousin was running for mayor. The action was taken after a top aide to the candidate was murdered.
"I can certainly think that organized crime tries to get involved in the electoral process with actions of this nature," Lopez told reporters.
The videotaped accusations against Lopez are but the most dramatic of politically related violence and accusations of corruption swirling around this weekend's local and state elections. In addition to Sinaloa, elections are being held in the crime-besieged states of Tamaulipas, Coahuila, Baja California, Durango, Zacatecas, and Veracruz. They're also being held in less violent states of Oaxaca, Hidalgo, Quintana Roo, Tlaxcala, Puebla, and Aguascalientes.
Last week in tiny Aguascalientes, officials belonging to President Enrique Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, announced they had seized a safe house belonging to the Familia Michoacana gang. The safe house reportedly contained campaign-related material supporting a mayoral candidate for opposition party the National Action Party (PAN) in the state capital.
Police later admitted that they'd seized campaign posters and other material from the house promoting candidates from the PRI and a splinter party. The PAN candidate has denied any organized crime links.
"The government, the state prosecutor and the PRI of Aguascalientes could have written one of the worst scripts in the abundant history of Mexican electoral outrages," concluded nationally broadcast news anchor Ciro Gomez Leyva in his regular column in Milenio newspaper. He went on to call the affair "PRI garbage."
InSight Crime Analysis
If all politics is ultimately local, then so too is all organized crime.
Favorable local and state governments can very much enhance the ability of Mexico's gangsters to operate. So it's unthinkable they wouldn't take an active interest in this Sunday's elections.
That involvement hinges on the gangs' criminal interests rather than any particular ideology. But tarring an opponent with organized crime ties has long been fair game in Mexican campaigns, never more so than now amid the country's ever fractured and confrontational patchwork.
The accusations against Lopez Valdez have been made before, beginning with banners hung across Sinaloa in 2011 accusing him of colluding with Chapo Guzman. But they surge again now amid investigations into the alleged corruption of ex-Governors Andres Granier of southeastern Tabasco state and Luis Armando Reynoso of Aguascalientes.
Granier belongs to Peña Nieto's PRI and Reynoso to the PAN, the conservative party of just departed President Felipe Calderon. Lopez himself quit the PRI when the party failed to select him as its candidate for Sinaloa governor in 2010. Lopez won the statehouse with a multi-party coalition that included the PAN.
A US federal court last Friday sentenced Mario Villanueva, a former PRI governor of Quintana Roo (which includes Cancun and the surrounding beach resorts), to 11 years in prison for laundering millions in gangster bribe money during his administration in the late 1990s.
Still, apart from the accusations against Lopez, the crime-infused nastiness this year has been limited largely to former or current elected officials in smaller towns, and those campaigning to replace them. Several mayors and ex-mayors have been assassinated in recent weeks.
The current atmosphere seems mild compared with the tense campaign season three years ago, that was punctuated by the assassination of Rodolfo Torre Cantu, the PRI's candidate for Tamaulipas governor, just a few days before the election. Amid the vicious war between the Gulf Cartel and Zetas, Torre's campaign caravan was ambushed by gunmen near the state capital's airport.
Then-President Calderon called the assassination "an act not only against a candidate of a political party but against democratic institutions" that " requires a united and firm response from all those who work for democracy."
Officials blamed rival political groups allied with one gang or the other for the attack. But the murder was never solved or even seriously investigated. Torre's brother, Egidio, was elected governor in his stead but has never pushed too hard, at least publicly, for justice in the case.