JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) – One Juarez congressional candidate started his campaign in April by climbing into a coffin, vowing to die rather than betray his promises. He wrapped up his politicking at a strip club this week, promising to look after single mothers.

That was Carlos Mayorga of the relatively unknown Solidarity Encounter Party (PES). Another, Carlos Borruel, of the National Regeneration Movement, promised to push a law to have convicted rapists chemically castrated.

Despite the antics of candidates on the political fringes, the campaign trail in the state of Chihuahua leading to Sunday’s election has centered on more conventional issues like trade, corruption and public safety.

The outcome is likely to have a long-term bearing on U.S. residents who visit or do business south of the border, political analysts say. No state in Mexico shares as much border with the United States as Chihuahua. Its 582 miles stretch from just east of the Arizona-New Mexico border to Texas’ Big Bend.

Hundreds of U.S.-run manufacturing plants in Chihuahua send billions of dollars’ worth of parts and components to America every year. And, prior to the pandemic tens of thousands of people crossed the border to see family, shop or visit.

Those are the positive aspects, but there’s also the specter of the transnational criminal organizations that operate here.

“Chihuahua is one of those states important to organized crime,” said Tony Payan, director of the Center for the United States and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Safety. “One day I was watching the late news in Juarez and it was one, two, three, 10, 11 homicides. That’s unsustainable. It’s painful to see how no one cares to address that situation. […] to provide even minimal safety for people who live in (working-class) neighborhoods.”

Two drug cartels and four major gangs operate in Juarez, vying for drug corridors into the United States, retail sales in neighborhoods and, lately, migrant smuggling rights.

In Chihuahua, the race for the governor’s office and for Juarez mayor has narrowed down to two political parties, analysts and local polls say. On Sunday night, either Maria Eugenia Campos of a coalition anchored by the conservative National Action Party (PAN) or Juan Carlos Loera – Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s former “envoy” to the state – of the MORENA Party likely will be the new governor.

In Juarez, party lines have blurred but local polls show the mayor’s race is between PAN’s Javier Gonzalez Mocken – who was the MORENA candidate in 2018 – and MORENA’s Cruz Perez Cuellar – who was PAN’s state chairman in 2008. The race is considered a toss up between the two.

Payan said Juarez can expect more resources and political clout if the governor and the mayor come from the same party.

“Juarez is the ‘ugly duckling’ of the state. It has always been neglected despite its size and importance, so a PAN mayor and a PAN governor may present an opportunity,” Payan said, adding the same could be true with a MORENA sweep. “But if (different parties) win, there will be more confrontation with the state and Juarez will suffer. But if Juarez does well, El Paso (Texas) will do well,” he said.

Corruption, murder and impunity

Maria Eugenia Campos is a former Mexican congresswoman who became the first female mayor of Chihuahua City in 2016. The post has often been a ticket to the governorship in this state. Former office holders like Jose Reyes Baeza and Patricio Martinez followed that path.

Campos’ bid faced an immediate obstacle when the current governor, Javier Corral, accused her of taking bribes from a former governor accused of pocketing more than $100 million. Corral is still trying to have her prosecuted. But she’s leading in virtually every poll.

“The thing about Chihuahua is that the governor is very unpopular, he’s radioactive. I personally don’t think he’s that bad, but the confrontation has actually helped her,” Payan said.

Campos has denied taking bribes and says she’s politically persecuted. But she has been the target of non-stop badgering by the other governor hopefuls.

“I respect you as a woman, but I reproach your corruption. You say you’re a victim of gender violence, but you are facing the just consequences of your acts of corruption,” Green Party candidate Brenda Rios told Campos in a debate last week.

Loera also said Campos needed to be “unmasked.”

“You are an expert at avoiding justice. You are an expert in protecting the privileged. You wear the mask of a victim to hide your crimes,” Loera told her in the debate.

Despite being at odds with Gov. Corral, Campos outlined a very similar public safety strategy. Corral’s state police has aggressively pursued drug cartel members on murder and kidnapping charges and purchased closed-circuit cameras for Juarez. Campos says she plans to hire more police officers, expand training and expand to other cities the “Shield Platform” – the closed-circuit cameras – that Corral got started.

Loera says he would focus on education, sports and social programs to ensure young people don’t go over to the cartels. “We will take them away from the criminals. We will make better use of our resources. Right now, we’re using 90 percent of resources to fight 10 percent of the crime. I will have the police on the streets, provide night lighting; we need a prevention strategy” rather than direct confrontation, he said.

Analyst Payan said he would advise the next leader of Chihuahua to not take on the cartels by himself or herself.

“My advice is to go for the low-hanging fruit (street crime). To introduce public safety programs in working-class neighborhoods. If the next governor says, ‘I will fight organized crime,’ they will do it alone because the federal government will not help,” he said.

Corral’s lead prosecutors have echoed those concerns, earlier telling Border Report that almost all drug, weapons and drug conspiracy cases they turn over to federal prosecutors are being ignored.

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