ACAPULCO, Mexico – Voters in western Mexico lined up to elect a new state governor on Sunday against a backdrop of harrowing violence in a contest that could spur the main opposition party’s drive to the presidency in 2012.
A day after drug gangs dumped a mutilated body and posted threatening messages in Guerrero state’s main city Acapulco, thousands of people filed into polling stations in the tropical heat to choose between incumbent leftists and the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
“We’re just hoping there’s no violence,” said hotel worker Carlos Reyes as he waited to vote in Acapulco, the famed Pacific resort that is being terrorized by rival drug cartels.
Analysts say the election is too close to call between PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000 but is making a comeback, and the leftist Party of Democratic Revolution, or PRD.
The campaign in Guerrero, one of Mexico’s poorest states a few hours drive from the Mexican capital, has been tainted by accusations of vote buying, deals with drug gangs and violent attacks against party members from both sides, potentially weighing on voter turnout.
“Depressed and poor, the people of Guerrero want to know as little as possible about the government,” said political commentator Miguel Angel Granados Chapa in an editorial in national daily Reforma on Sunday.
The PRI candidate, Manuel Anorve, who resigned as Acapulco’s mayor to run, is up against a former PRI ally, Angel Aguirre, who switched sides to run for the PRD.
Current PRD Governor Zeferino Torreblanca, who cannot run for re-election, was seen as a reformer when he took office in 2005 but has been unable to reduce Guerrero’s endemic poverty.
In a sign of the ruling National Action Party’s flagging popularity amid the government’s increasingly questioned war on drug cartels, the PAN’s candidate garnered little support and President Felipe Calderon threw his party’s backing behind the PRD, loathe to see the PRI win in Guerrero.
Victory in state elections this year that kick-off in Guerrero could give the PRI momentum, aided by the popularity and good looks of its likely presidential candidate, State of Mexico Governor Enrique Pena Nieto.
Mexico’s left is divided and Mexicans are deeply disappointed at a decade of the conservative and pro-business PAN, which brought democracy but has failed to generate enough jobs, improve education or end decades of corruption.
Calderon is also under pressure to contain surging drug violence across the country after launching his army-backed crackdown in December 2006. More than 34,000 people have died in drug killings since then, and extortion, kidnapping and crime are rampant, worrying business leaders in the oil exporting nation, a top U.S. trade partner.
Almost 3,000 people have died in the drug war in Guerrero alone in the past four years as gangs fight over Acapulco’s port, its links to Mexico City and its marijuana and opium plantations hidden in its lush valleys.
The killing by marines of top drug lord Arturo Beltran Leyva in December 2009 has sparked a horrific turf war in Acapulco. Fifteen bodies, all but one of them decapitated, were found early on January 8 near a shopping mall with messages signed by Mexico’s most wanted man, Joaquin “Shorty” Guzman, the leader of the powerful Sinaloa cartel that is fighting rivals over the area.