Drug Cartels and their Interference in Politics: The Loss of Electoral Competitiveness in Municipal Elections in Mexico

Friday, March 3, 2017 - 06:15
Homicides in Mexico

The scandalous financing of several municipal candidates by the Gulf Cartel in Reynosa and Matamoros in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas in 2012[i] have not been isolated phenomena. Many news media have reported the intrusion of narcos in local (municipal) elections by not only financing specific candidates, but also by threatening or assassinating candidates.   Why have narcos been investing resources to interfere in municipal elections? What are the consequences for electoral competitiveness[ii] of these interventions? To answer these questions, this short article takes advantage of the arguments and results that a recently published study in Latin American Research Review reports (Ponce 2016). This LARR article assesses the effects of violence on municipal electoral outcomes registered since 2012 in Mexico. This setting has been characterized by an intense conflict between the public security forces and the drug cartels, and more importantly, by confrontations among an increasing number of drug cartels.  The following picture provides insight on how violence escalated rapidly since 2012.

There are multiple benefits for narcos if they invest resources in local politics. Cartels trading illegal drugs can achieve several types of advantages if their allied politicians won in subnational elections.  These benefits may include greater ease in the transportation of drugs throughout the Mexican territory, intelligence information regarding the operations of other cartels, protection for their leaders and illegal operations from local police, weaker restrictions for money laundering, and perhaps support from the police to attack enemy drug cartels (Ponce 2016). To accomplish these objectives, drug cartels strive for capturing local governments to manipulate local administrations’ decisions that may help them increase their economic benefits. If influence over local officials helps drug cartels gain monopolistic control of domestic markets and routes to the United States, the economic profits of drug cartels may mount rapidly. In exchange, local authorities supporting drug cartels may receive substantial cash transfers for future campaigns. This exchange of favors between drug cartels and local politicians makes the capturing of local governments profitable for both actors.  How could drug cartels seek to capture local governments? One way is to make their allied politicians win local elections.

To make them win, drug cartels could alter the electoral supply and electoral demand. By threatening candidates, drug cartels could reduce the effectiveness of campaigns of non-allied politicians. If threatened, these politicians might deploy relatively modest campaigns or propose other candidates who might have less chances of winning. This could lead to a greater concentration of votes around those electoral alternatives backed by the intervening drug cartels.  In my recent LARR article, I present several anecdotal cases of cartels’ attacks against candidates from different parties, which makes their threats credible.   In addition, drug cartels could provide their allied politicians with financial resources to strengthen the effectiveness of their campaigns. The article also shows several anecdotal examples of these actions that were reported by the press. If cartels’ allied candidates increase their electoral support because of this intervention, concentration of votes favoring cartels’ preferred candidates may also grow.   

Furthermore, drug cartels may manipulate electoral demand by discouraging the electoral participation of voters willing to support other candidates. Of course, this is only possible in small municipalities where cartels possess both key information on voters’ preferences and the means to threaten voters to ultimately produce such an outcome.  At the same time, violence associated with cartels’ operations has reduced turn out in Mexico (Trelles and Carreras 2012). If such reduction concentrates on voters experiencing weaker partisan identities, some parties might become negatively affected; especially if the strength of partisan identity varies across regions as occurs in Mexico -- for example, the Partido Acción Nacional is relatively stronger to the north of Mexico and the Partido de la Revolución Democrática to the south of Mexico. This potential distortion may also boost the concentration of votes on fewer electoral alternatives. If these candidates are the ones preferred by cartels, cartels might seek to amplify this effect.

Product of these distortions, the article shows that violence in Mexico has reduced electoral competitiveness in municipal elections in Mexico. The magnitude of such reduction has been meaningful and constitutes a threat to the survival and quality of democracy at the local level. As other studies have stated, very low levels of electoral competitiveness may coexist with democratic regimes at the national level (O’Donnell 1993; Gibson 2005; Mickey 2009). The following table shows the expected losses in electoral competitiveness as violence becomes relatively high and extreme, and as the number of previous defeats varies for the long-lasting party in power, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional.[iii] To measure electoral competitiveness, Ponce (2016) employs: 1) the difference of percentages between the first and second place candidates in the electoral race, and 2) the Gini Coefficient that takes into account the distribution of votes as a whole.



 Gini Coefficient taking into account 4 electoral alternatives

Margin of victory

Level of violence

Number of PRI´s previous defeats = 0

Number of PRI´s previous defeats =4

Number of PRI´s previous defeats = 0

Number of PRI´s previous defeats =4

Non-violent municipality (cero homicides per inhabitant)





Violent municipality (0.01 per inhabitant)





Extremely violent municipality (.02117 per inhabitant)





Taken from Ponce (2016)

These results show that democracy at the local level is in serious disarray in violent Mexico and subject to the distortions caused by the conflict between the Mexican state and the drug cartels, as well as among the drug cartels. The article also demonstrates that police efforts have been insufficient to prevent this outcome. It is now not only the heritage of the long-lasting PRI’s dictatorship that keeps electoral competitiveness relatively low in many municipalities of the Mexican territory, but also drug conflicts that are jeopardizing electoral health and democracy at the local level. These findings also suggest that drug cartels might be capturing many local governments and their resources through elections, which makes states’ efforts to control drug cartels’ actions even less effective. Corruption might be growing in these municipalities, and the problems of coordination across levels of government to combat cartels might be also growing. All of these factors are important political costs that should not be underestimated.

[i] Consult “El narco financió campañas en Tamaulipas con Yarrington como testigo: Reforma” (Proceso 2012).

[ii] Electoral competitiveness grows as the percentage of votes received by the main candidates becomes relatively more similar across electoral alternatives (Sartori 1976).

[iii] These expected values were calculated based on the estimations of a multivariate model explaining electoral competitiveness.


O’Donnell, Guillermo. 1993. On the State, Democratization, and Some Conceptual Problems: A Latin American View with Glances at Some Post-Communist Countries. World Development, 21 (8): 1355-1370.

Gibson, Edward. 2005. Boundary Control: Subnational Authoritarianism in Democratic Countries. World Politics, 58 (1): 101-132.

Mickey, Robert. 2009. Paths out of Dixie: The Democratization of Authoritarian Enclaves in America’s Deep South. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Ponce, Aldo F. 2016. Cárteles de Droga, Violencia y Competitividad Electoral a Nivel Local” Latin American Research Review, 51 (4): 62-85.

Sartori, Giovanni. 1976. Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Trelles, Alejandro and Miguel Carreras. 2012. Bullets and Votes: Violence and Electoral Participation in Mexico. Journal of Politics in Latin America 4(2): 89-123.

Ponce, Aldo F. 2016. Cárteles de Droga, Violencia y Competitividad Electoral a Nivel Local” Latin American Research Review, 51 (4): 62-85. DOI: 10.1353/lar.2016.0049

About Author(s)

Aldo F. Ponce
Aldo F. Ponce is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Studies at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE). His research focuses on political institutions and elections in Latin America. His work has appeared in such journals as Party Politics, Latin American Research Review, Studies in Comparative International Development, Latin American Politics and Society, Journal of Politics in Latin America, and West European Politics.