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Executive Summary – How to Protect Electoral Candidates in Mexico?

Mexico & Central America

This is the Executive Summary of our Report on Protection Protocols for Electoral Candidates in Mexico

This Report is part of the Elections & Violence Project

The report has been produced by Ana Velasco Ugalde, and coordinated by María Teresa Martínez Trujillo and Romain Le Cour Grandmaison

If Elections are a Matter of Life and Death… How to Protect Candidates?

Despite the exponential coverage of electoral violence, the concerns that have been expressed by the public authorities are not a recent phenomenon. In Mexico, the federal authorities have spent more than three decades designing and implementing candidate protection protocols.

However, this has not curtailed the violence.

In fact, the opposite is true: violence continues to rise, making each election, in turn, “the most violent in Mexico’s history”.

The purpose of this report is not to analyze the data surrounding this violence – this will be done in coming report that uses an original database. Instead, we will focus on reviewing the institutional candidate protection mechanisms in Mexico and include an international case study by means of comparison: Italy and its fight against the mafia.

Instead of merely passing sentence, a priori, that these protection protocols do not appear to fullfil the function for which they were created, our goal is to better understand the answers to the following questions: How are they designed? How are they implemented? How have they evolved in light of this violence? What are their limiting factors and scope? Why have they failed? What is left to be done?

In other words: What can be done to ensure that elections are not a life-or-death choice for candidates?

Understanding the answers to these questions is of fundamental importance in improving public policies that aim to consolidate democracy in Mexico and design solutions for the future. This will hopefully allow us to ensure that the elections in 2024 are not labelled “the most violent in history”.

Historical Timeline

Violence aimed at local politicians and candidates has been a focus of the federal authorities for at least thirty years. In this report we review the measures and protocols that have been implemented to tackle this problem.

1990 – Formalization of a presidential candidate protection protocol.

  • The Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) is created as an autonomous body to organize and guarantee the impartiality of the electoral process.
  • Initial regulations are implemented to protect presidential candidates.
  • There are ambiguities surrounding how the relevance of the requests are evaluated; what the “personal security measures” offered actually are; and who are the competent authorities for these protection measures.

1994 – Presidential elections: clarification surrounding the base mechanism.

  • It is decreed that the body responsible for safeguarding those presidential candidates who request protection is the Presidential General Staff (Estado Mayor Presidencial – EMP).
  • It covers the assignment of a security escort that works in coordination with the candidate’s team and the local authorities during the campaign.
  • This protection is offered through public security forces, an element that is still true today.
  • The election is marred by the assassination of Luis Donaldo Colosio (March 1994).

2006 – Adjustments to protection mechanism.

  • The Mexican State Department (SEGOB) becomes an intermediary between candidates, the IFE and the EMP.
  • It becomes more “institutional”: there is a focus on coordinating protection among competent federal authorities and creating a clear process for allocating responsibilities.
  • The protection still focuses on presidential candidates only.

2009 – Protection is open for candidates running for the federal Chamber of Deputies.

  • The IFE and political parties agree, for the first time ever, possible protection measures for candidates running for Federal Deputies seats.
  • It is important to mention that the electoral authorities are not responsible for offering security. Their job is to ensure that the process, especially election day itself, takes place without any setbacks.
  • Given the fact that security conditions worsened from 2006 onwards, the authorities involved in the protection mechanism face a new dilemma.
  • For the IFE, the task of safeguarding the electoral process becomes more complicated as it is now a player with key information about conditions on the ground.
  • The federal government tends to walk a strict political and institutional line: it must remain at the sidelines of any election while ensuring that these happen peacefully, in order to avoid weakening democratic stability within the country.
  • Meanwhile, the local authorities are left holding a timebomb and have no protection protocols in place for their candidates.

2012 – A series of measures are rolled out before the presidential elections in July.

  • SEGOB focuses on coordinating with states. It signs specific agreements with states that will hold elections during the year: Guerrero, Baja California Sur, Coahuila, Nayarit, the State of Mexico and Hidalgo.
  • Coordination between the government and electoral authorities is revealed to be of key importance in ensuring these measures work.
  • Beyond assigning security escorts, negotiation roundtables (Mesas de seguridad) and security taskforces are created to identify and resolve conflicts between political parties and candidates through the use of dialog.
  • It is announced that protection is now being offered to all candidates, not only presidential candidates and those running for the federal Chamber of Deputies, as had been the case up until then.
  • The elections are “less” violent than expected.
  • However, the protocol does not become a law that is capable of surviving changes in the administration.

2018 – Formal protection is now offered to all candidates.

  • In the context of the creation of the National Electoral Institute (INE) – replacing IFE – the SEGOB, through its National Security Commission, now coordinates protection efforts.
  • The EMP once again is involved in the protection system.
  • The INE’s General Law of Electoral Institutions and Procedures formally increases protection to cover all candidates.
  • The 2018 elections become the most violent in the country’s history.

2021 – The government implements the “Electoral Context Protection Strategy”.

  • The 2021 guidelines, in part, mirror the protocols of the PAN government of 2012.
  • The Ministry for Citizen Protection and Security (SSPC) is now in charge, not SEGOB.
  • The design combines a public security approach and a major element of governability and coordination with numerous federal and state public institutions (governors, electoral authorities, state and local police), and the Armed Forces.
  • The mechanism is national in scope, meaning that it must be implemented in a similar manner throughout the country. Any candidate, at either a federal or local level, can contact the electoral authorities to report a threat. If running for federal office, he or she must contact the INE; if it is for a local political office, he or she must contact the corresponding state electoral institution.
  • The elections are marred by high levels of violence, in keeping with the trend from 2018.

Our Analysis

Our report shows that the mechanisms share the same reactive scheme: in the event of a threat, a candidate can request the intervention of the public authorities to ensure that electoral or security institutions, under the on-going supervision of the federal government, assign them protection.

This was the basic formula designed by the IFE in 1990, and it is still present today. During some administrations, the executive branch has tried to design an implementation mechanism that makes this response more wide-ranging and effective, but there is no institutional obligation on federal, state, or local governments to do so.

In fact, local authorities do not seem to assume that electoral violence is an issue that needs to be addressed – beyond questions of jurisdiction – as they maintain that it is the responsibility of federal institutions.

This is a notorious point in state electoral laws and codes, which do next to nothing to consolidate the base mechanism. Currently, 21 states (out of 32) have candidate protection measures, a transposition of federal law. However, some of the states that do not have these measures are among the most violent, including Veracruz, Michoacán, the State of Mexico and Puebla.

Throughout recent history, there has been a perpetual tension between a will to promote collaboration and streamline the process, and the monopolization of tasks that fall within the remit of the federal government. Despite efforts, the protection response ends up being centralized both as a result of institutional mistrust and a desire to drive efficiency, but this does not help in the search for an answer to the question of how to coordinate between levels of government and with institutions from different ambits. The fact that a federal authority centralizes the response continues to put into doubt the institutional capacity for working with states or local governments.

This continues to be highly politicized and individualized. All the interviews we conducted with public officials – both active and retired – mention that coordination between different levels of government works when there are good interpersonal relationships between their directors. As such, the efficiency of the mechanisms is always subject to changes or rivalries, and it is not necessarily associated with established institutional protocols, but rather an interpersonal capacity to negotiate, collaborate, and undertake tasks in a precise and defined manner. This means that the scope of the mechanism continues to depend on the incentives of the authorities at the time, using a “top-down” approach for protection implemented by the federal government.

This impedes the creation and conservation of an institutional memory. As is true of other public policies focusing on security, each administration tries to create its own revolution, and tends to forget the work undertaken by previous teams. This has to change.

Limiting Factors

The feasibility of access to the mechanism

  • Federal governments take for granted that the protocols are clear, easily accessible and trusted by candidates.
  • However, this research shows that candidates do not have “easy” access to information about protection; they do not trust in local or state institutions; and they become discouraged because of a lack of knowledge surrounding the institutional process.
  • Furthermore, federal officials complain that they cannot trust in the honesty of the candidates; they cannot depend on the reliability of local authorities; they get bogged down in political and party in-fighting; and, they do not have the resources they need to tackle these threats in an ideal manner.
  • The mechanisms implemented, both successfully and otherwise, are limited to decreasing violence during electoral campaigns. They do not necessarily focus on the causes of this violence, nor when this occurs during the elections.
  • These are the structural limitations that have been identified over time: How do you drive trust? How do you evaluate a candidate’s profile and ‘honesty’? How do you depoliticize the issue of protection during elections?

The design of the mechanism.

  • One solution could be to extend the protection period, but this does not truly help to neutralize the threat.
  • In essence, the job of the mechanism, both the current one and those employed in previous administrations, is “reactive”: respond to a request for help and temporarily increase the cost for perpetrators of achieving their goals when the authorities are providing protection; however, this does not remove the incentives for threats or attacks.
  • This happens because the strategies fundamentally focus on withstanding the threat in order to protect the electoral process, not neutralizing it to decrease the chances of it happening again.

In this situation, what options for protection are open to candidates?

  • In certain cases that we have documented, candidates try to go over the heads of local authorities and the institutional chain of command to access federal resources directly. This may be achieved through personal connections or the candidate’s party affiliations.
  • These channels alter the equality of accessing protection as there will be those people who do not have these resources. Another possibility is that they will resort to informal protection, using local individuals as protection, seeking to engage the services of private security companies, entering into informal arrangements with authorities or public forces present in their territory, or even opting for illegal protection measures.
  • This entails the de facto disabling of the mechanism.

The temporary nature of protection for local candidates.

  • In 2018, there were 11 assassinations recorded during the transition period in the states of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Puebla and Michoacán.
  • Once the campaigns had come to a close, so too did the operational side of the strategy.
  • If the candidate wins, he or she may be able to replace their security escort. However, if they lose, he or she becomes a citizen who has attracted attention.
  • No matter the case, the outcome that is trying to be avoided could end up occurring despite prior efforts and investment during a different scenario.
  • This limiting factor can be observed in all the strategies that have been reviewed.

The lack of institutionalism of the mechanism.

  • As described earlier, the common denominator of the strategies was the fact that both are underpinned by the specific leadership skills of public officials and, of course, the support of the administration at the time.
  • This means that these were executive decisions. However, this is where their major weakness lies. There is no follow-up when the administration changes, and the only protocol that demands continuity is the protection of presidential candidates, as this has not been dependent on the political volition of the administration at the time in question.
  • The goal is to achieve a public policy that does not depend on this variable. One way is to institutionalize protection mechanisms based on good practices and past experiences, in addition to ensuring that both state and local authorities are involved in the process.
  • This is one of the biggest challenges facing the 2024 presidential elections, in order to ensure that these do not become the next “most violent elections in Mexico’s history”.

International experiences: Italy

A relevant issue in understanding institutional responses and identifying areas of opportunity is to review those found in other countries.

Italy is an interesting case study given the relevance of violence being perpetrated against candidates or public officials over the past number of decades, in addition to the articulation between these facts and a number of criminal organizations.

Italy is a particularly interesting case study because of the level of documentary evidence and research that there is in this area, undertaken both by the State – particularly through anti-mafia justice – and by academia and civil society. If that were not enough, the advances that have been made in reducing violence are a good reason to take a more careful look at this case study.

Beyond using it as a comparison – the Mexican and Italian situations are, without a doubt, extremely different – we are interested in finding references to public policy that support lessons about what works and what does not, in addition to the conditions under which this is the case. This entails responding to questions about how other States approach electoral threats and what formal mechanisms they have implemented.

The measures that the Italian State have taken to counteract mafia involvement in local government are:

  • Dissolving local governments that have been infiltrated by the mafia.
  • Prohibiting anyone who has been found guilty of being involved in organized crime after the process of dissolution from standing as a candidate.
  • Both tools highlight the tension between the different levels of government and the vulnerability that exists on a local scale, as can be seen in Mexico, in addition to the structural potential that legal mechanisms that aim to neutralize this threat can have, moving beyond situational protocols that only seek to mitigate the immediate risks for candidates.

These initiatives are interesting with regard to the discussions about Mexico for at least 4 reasons:

  • The co-responsibility of the legislative and judicial powers in addressing this phenomenon.
  • The relevance of compiling empirical evidence to draft public policy.
  • The consideration of other intimidating or violent actors, apart from the mafia, that could affect electoral processes and the functions or legitimacy of local governments.
  • As such, it is important to highlight the fact that the members of the commission determined that, between 1974 and 2014, of the 132 local politicians who were assassinated, 47% were victims of organized crime. This figure is considered to be too high.  This means that the data invalidates the possibility of a one-dimensional argument regarding violence (e.g., “the organized crime party”; “they kill each other”).