Mon, Nov 08, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Mexico's democratic development marred by election violence

POWER STRUGGLE The recent killing of a mayoral candidate shows that the country is still battling its authoritarian past, but it is also making progress

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SAN JOSE ESTANCIA GRANDE, MEXICO

Israel Reyes Montes, right, and his son, Kenel Reyes Avila, at home in San Jose Estancia Grande, Mexico last week. Reyes' wife, Guadalupe Avila Salinas, a candidate for mayor, was killed by the incumbent mayor on Oct. 3, but the townspeople refused to bow to the violence, and elected the popular community worker posthumously.

PHOTO: NY TIMES

There is no doubt about who executed 39-year-old Guadalupe Avila Salinas, a mother of four, a beloved community worker and a candidate for mayor who was gunned down in broad daylight just days before local elections on Oct. 3 in this village of corn farmers in the southern state of Oaxaca.

The mayor whom she hoped to succeed chased her into a public health clinic and fired three bullets into her back. Then, in front of at least a dozen horrified bystanders, he reached over Avila's body and fired another bullet into her head. The local police did nothing to keep him from fleeing.

Three days later, she won the election.

The victory illustrates a critical turning point in Mexico's slow move toward democracy. In one sense, the killing recalled the days when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, used everything from stuffing ballot boxes to assassinations to win elections. The man who killed her was a member of that party, which has governed this town for the last seven decades.

Yet in this case, the people did not bow to the violence. They carried on Avila's campaign, elected her posthumously as mayor, then asked her husband to serve her term and keep her dream alive.

PRI leaders said the killing was a lamentable aberration but had nothing to do with politics. Her grieving husband, Israel Reyes Montes, is not so sure.

"My wife spent the last 12 years working for change in Mexico," said Reyes, 35, afraid even to stand next to his wife's grave for a photograph because he was worried about who might be watching. "She even had me believing in her dream. Look where it left her."

Four years after this country celebrated its first open presidential elections, it is not always easy to tell whether Mexico is moving forward or back to its authoritarian past.

Clearly real progress has been made, including a more independent press, prosecutions of government officials accused of crimes against humanity and new freedom of information laws. But fraud and violence continue to mar political contests at the state and local levels -- which remain in the grip of the PRI. Impunity systematically prevails over justice.

Some of the worst examples have happened here in Oaxaca, a state of breathtaking beauty and catastrophic ethnic and land disputes. About the size of Maine, it has some 17 Indian groups and is divided into 570 municipalities -- more than any other Mexican state.

In 152 municipalities, people elect their mayors by secret ballot. In all the rest, elected officials are chosen by traditional Indian assemblies, where a committee of representatives vote, usually, by a show of hands. The contests are rife with corruption and conflict.

In a political rally in August in the town of Huautla, PRI militants beat a retired teacher to death in front of news photographers. The teacher, Serafin Garcia Contreras, was campaigning against the party five days before elections for governor. His killers remain free.

Then, on the day of the elections, a 45-year-old voter in the village of Palo del Agua was shot eight times after casting a ballot for the opposition. Relatives said the PRI had offered Raymundo Martinez, a poor vegetable farmer, about US$25 for his vote. But he turned it down.

His killers have not been arrested.

"Today there seems an increasing appearance of retrograde political expressions, the kind associated with visions of Mexico's past, the kind we hoped had been left behind suddenly have appeared with enormous force, with brutal intolerance," said Diodoro Carrasco, a former governor of the state of Oaxaca and a member of the PRI who has been threatened with expulsion from the party.

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