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After husband killed by Mexican drug cartel, wife elected as mayor aims to boost safety

This photo taken on July 6, 2018 in Apaseo el Alto in central Mexico shows the location of a local park where Jose Remedios Aguirre, a mayoral candidate, was fatally shot in May. (Mainichi)
Jose Remedios Aguirre, left, a candidate in the Apaseo el Alto mayoral election in central Mexico, smiles with Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who later won the presidential election. (Photo from a Facebook page)

APASEO EL ALTO, Mexico -- A number of politicians seeking improved public security here have been assassinated by drug cartels one after another throughout Mexico, where murder cases are skyrocketing at a record pace.

    Jose Remedios Aguirre, 35, who managed a security company here, was one of them. He ran in the July mayoral election on the platform of the leftist party Morena, advocating "a society where children can live safely" but was gunned down in May. Following his death, his wife Carmen Ortiz replaced him as the candidate and won the election. Now she wants to realize what her deceased husband had hoped for -- a city where children can feel safe -- and will assume the mayoral office in October.

    Apaseo el Alto in central Mexico is a small city with a population of about 70,000 residents. The state of Guanajuato, where the city is located, had relatively good security, and many Japanese companies including automakers had set up their bases there. However, the number of murders in the state in 2017 -- 1,096 -- grew by 14 percent compared to a year ago, marking the worst figure in its history.

    Apaseo el Alto has also experienced deteriorating security, with one of its police officers shot to death while on patrol. Aguirre was killed by multiple gunmen from behind right after a rally at a park in the city center on May 11.

    "The phone rang and I went to the scene but he did not move anymore," recalled Ortiz, 32.

    Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who won the presidential election on July 1 as a Morena party candidate, said in May about Aguirre's assassination, "We must hurry to bring peace to Mexico. Such violence should not be repeated."

    Ortiz, a homemaker, was asked by senior party officials to run in place of her husband. Initially she didn't know what to do. She had three children aged between 4 and 11. "I must be a father as well as a mother," she told herself back then.

    However, she eventually decided to run in the mayoral race. "I have been closely watching my husband visit the local community and talk about his dream policies. So, I thought I should run," Ortiz explained.

    In Mexico, 145 politicians and related people, including candidates in local elections like Aguirre, were killed from September 2017 through June 30 this year. As drug cartels intend to increase their influence on local politicians, candidates who refused money and benefits offered by those cartels, or politicians who tried to terminate their relationship with those criminal organizations, were murdered, according to people familiar with the cases.

    Drug cartels have also been infiltrating law enforcement authorities. In the murder of a candidate in a local election in Ocampo in the state of Michoacan in June, 27 senior prosecution officials and all police officers were arrested on suspicion of connection with a criminal gang allegedly involved in the murder.

    More than 1,000 people are said to have given up their candidacy fearing attacks from drug cartels, but Ortiz says that she was not afraid of running in the mayoral election. With the backing of the Morena party, which overwhelmingly won the presidential, congressional and gubernatorial elections, Ortiz secured her slot. She intends to realize her election promise, based on her husband's wishes, of "establishing a police force based in the local community."

    Behind the deteriorating internal security in Mexico lies the "drug war" initiated by the Calderon administration in December 2006. Tens of thousands of military and federal police troops were deployed to bases of drug cartels to crack down on those criminal organizations in the place of local police. But the war caused the splintering of cartels and feud among them, worsening the security situation further.

    According to the interior ministry, about 200,000 people have been killed since the start of the drug war. There were 25,339 reported murders in 2017, more than double the figure recorded when the crackdown began. The number of homicides is the worst since 1997. The number for the first quarter of this year was about 8,000, 20 percent more than the same period a year ago. It is feared that the total for 2018 may exceed 30,000.

    The next administration of Lopez Obrador, which will take office on Dec. 1, intends to improve domestic security and stamp out corruption. As a way to improve security, the president-elect has proposed an amnesty for minors who became drug runners and cartel bodyguards as well as women, and farmers who are growing plants used to produce illegal drugs. The goal is to get these people out of a criminal environment where they were forced into by poverty or cartels, while those convicted of violent crimes such as murder or abduction are expected to remain in prison.

    (Japanese original by Taichi Yamamoto, Sao Paulo Bureau)

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