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Ayotzinapa then and now: Organized crime’s grip on elections and political parties

Today 43 families are mourning in Mexico. In fact, the whole country is looking back at what happened exactly two years ago to the Ayotzinapa students.

They were on their way to Mexico City for the commemoration of the 2 October 1968 student massacre, but never arrived. When passing through the municipality of Iguala, state of Guerrero, they were kidnapped by the local police—with the apparent involvement of state and national police officers. The students were later handed over to the crime syndicate Guerreros Unidos to be killed, during what some labelled ‘a night of terror’.

Shockingly, little is known about why the students disappeared and what ultimately happened to them (only one body has been recovered). What we do know, however, is that this was not an isolated incident. Amid efforts to unveil the fate of the young students, authorities found 129 bodies from other people in the municipality of Iguala alone.


The spread of political corruption

The case opened a pandora’s box of information concerning the intimate ties between some state authorities and criminals in the country. In the case of Iguala, the relationships went all the way up to the town’s mayor, José Luis Abarca, and reached much of the local government structure. He and his wife apparently used the gangs as their private killing machine to tighten their grip on power, while the criminals freely conducted their illicit business under a rampant state of impunity.

The public outcry that the case generated has furthermore eroded the compact between the state and the citizens. The government has seen historically low levels of approval—partly due to the handling of the case—, and the local incumbent Party of the Democratic Revolution was harshly criticized for endorsing Abarca as their candidate and overlooking his and his wife’s connections to criminals, which were already vox populi back then.

Eventually, the party was forced to launch an inquiry about their failure to properly vet the candidate. This and other investigations provided a glimpse to the country’s political party environment and how it has failed to effectively curtail political corruption. The increased fragmentation of political parties after the end of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s power hegemony in 2000 has been a pivotal factor. This fragmentation makes them increasingly dependent on the capacity of their local subsidiaries to raise their own funds and amass votes during election time. When this is the priority, strict controls over who these candidates are, and whether they have murky connections, become secondary.


A global threat

To be clear, this is not a problem endemic to Mexico. Two reports released last Friday by International IDEA and the Clingendael Institute reveal how similar dynamics have also affected countries as diverse as Mali and Georgia (one report deals with organized crime’s influence on elections and the other on political parties). These countries have had varying degrees of success in deterring illicit influence over political parties and electoral processes. In Mali, for instance, kidnapping rackets in the north have exerted considerable influence on politics, most recently on the 2009 local elections, fuelling a vicious cycle of violence and corruption during and beyond that particular contest. Meanwhile, Georgia provides a positive account of the capacity to deter organized criminal influence over politics as part of the 2003 Rose Revolution and its anti-corruption agenda. However, these achievements must be taken with a grain of salt since the anti-corruption efforts were tainted with excesses.

As the reports note, an overarching element that drives political corruption is the role that money plays in politics. Indeed, interest groups (with licit and illicit agendas) strategically inject resources to political parties and candidates, dangerously placing them in favoured positions in relation to the state. Recent corruption scandals, most prominently the Petrobras case in Brazil that led to the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, have tarnished the track record of otherwise reputable parties. When it comes to dirty money in politics in particular, arguably one of the most outrageous examples is that of Guatemala, where the International Commission against Impunityrevealed that around one quarter of all campaign donations originate from criminal activities.

However, in other instances, rather than providing money, criminals place themselves directly at the heart of election campaigns and become candidates themselves. Some parties in India, for example, have endorsed candidates with shadowy pasts (and sometimes presents), which resulted in more than a quarter of elected MPs having pending charges. The incentive for parties to endorse such controversial candidates is their capacity to leverage their rough past and appeal to voters. In a twisted turn of events, criminals have become attractive as candidates because of their past, not in spite of it. These individuals (not unlike Trump in the 2016 US Presidential campaign) portray themselves as ‘strongmen’ able and willing to do whatever it takes to ‘get things done’.


So what to do?

It would be impossible to prescribe some miraculous medicine to curb illicit influence over political parties and elections. What is suitable in some instances may backfire in others. A key step is therefore to design context-specific regulations that have a decent chance of success. This requires, first and foremost, an adequate local diagnosis informed by robust data. The challenge is that, even in the big data environment in which we live, there is often scarce information when it comes to corruption cases. Protecting the role of whistle-blowers (like Hervé Falciani who exposed H.S.B.C.’s part in a high-scale money laundering scandal) is crucial to unveil some of the most intricate dirty networks involving political actors.

Also, regardless of the context, more information is always better than less. That is why increasing the transparency of political parties can go a long way in shedding light onto the dealings of these institutions, and becomes a powerful deterrent for criminals meddling in politics. More than ever before, open data initiatives provide convenient opportunities for citizens to monitor their politicians with an eagle eye.

In this sense, it is up to all of us to become vigilant and engaged. For the 43 families in Ayotzinapa, this is crystal clear. Their constant claims for political accountability have resonated around the world. But it should not take something like that to mobilize action. Political corruption affects us all, even if not in such a direct and painful way. A healthy democracy is our business, too.


Protecting Politics Reports

The two reports mentioned in this article are part of a collection of reports published by International IDEA, the Clingendael Institute and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime:



Join us for the launch of the protecting politics reports at the following locations:

  • Geneva, Global Initiative Headquarters, WMO Kruzel Hall – 4 October 2016, 14:00-17:00. Register here
  • The Hague, 11 October 2016 (more information forthcoming)
  • Stockholm, International IDEA Headquarters, Strömsborg – 29 November 2016, 16:00-17:30.



Access our webinar series:

  • Organized crime and public service delivery, 18 October at 16:00 CET. Register here.
  • Organized crime and local democracy, 25 October at 16:00 CET. Register here.
  • Organized crime and elections, 1 November at 16:00 CET. Register here.
  • Organized crime and political parties, 8 November at 16:00 CET. Register here.

About the authors

Former staff member - Catalina Uribe Burcher
Senior Programme Officer
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