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Candidate in Mexico knows life is on the line

by FABIOLA SANCHEZ THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | May 29, 2021 at 3:59 a.m.
Mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia straps on a bullet-resistant vest before campaigning last week in Morelia, Mexico. Gunmen wounded two of his staff members in an attack earlier this month. (AP/Marco Ugarte)

MORELIA, Mexico -- It's routine preparation for a campaign stop for Guillermo Valencia, who is running for mayor in Morelia, capital of the troubled Mexican state of Michoacan. Bodyguards ride in cars ahead and behind him, and before reaching the rally, he stops by a relative's house to strap on a bullet-resistant vest.

Only a driver accompanies Valencia in his own armored SUV. Other campaign aides have been scared to ride with him since a May 8 attack that wounded a bodyguard and his private secretary and left his previous campaign vehicle riddled with bullets.

He was lucky not to join the 34 formal or would-be candidates who already have been killed in the run-up to Mexico's June 6 midterm elections, which will choose mayors, governors and the lower house of Congress.

"There's a smell of gunpowder," Valencia jokes. "Who is going to want to go around with me?"

The May 8 attack happened on the night that Mexican boxer Saul "Canelo" Alvarez defeated Billy Joe Saunders, thrilling Mexican crowds. Valencia decided to stop and see the bout at a friend's home, leaving his secretary and bodyguard in an SUV parked on the street.

Moments later, a car pulled up and two gunmen wearing jeans and sneakers leaped out. One poured bullets into the SUV with a rifle. Another with a pistol went around to finish off anybody trying to flee the vehicle. The attackers then jumped back in their car and fled. Miraculously, both members of Valencia's team survived, though they were wounded. Officials have made no arrests.

Valencia, 40, is a hefty 6-foot-4 former legislator who is running for mayor on the ticket of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. The leader of a crime victims' advocacy group, he also once served as mayor of his hometown of Tepalcatepec, near the border with Jalisco state. The gang there has been fighting the Jalisco cartel for years.

Tepalcatepec is so dominated by the drug gang that when soldiers and marines swooped in in 2018 to arrest its leader, residents surrounded the military personnel, demanding his release. The gang leader was eventually let go.

Valencia was stripped of office in Tepalcatepec by the state legislature in 2014 after seeming to disappear for months, but he denies any connection to the gang.

"Time has shown that I never had anything to do with those people," Valencia said. "Proof of that is that years have passed and I have led my life in peace, fighting for victims' rights."

It's possible that the powerful Jalisco cartel is convinced that Valencia, as a Tepalcatepec native, is in the pocket of their rivals. Valencia's supporters say one of the men seen in a video of the May 8 attack is a Jalisco cartel hit man. Or the cartel may just want him out of the way.

Experts say drug cartels in Mexico often attack innocent candidates to force them out of races and leave the way clear for cartel favorites.

That tactic often has worked. At least 18 candidates or primary candidates have dropped out of races this year across Mexico because of fear, threats or violence, according to the Etellekt consulting firm.

Etellekt said the overwhelming majority of the 34 slain candidates were vying for posts like mayor or city council. Experts say drug gangs want to place sympathetic candidates in town halls so they can operate without interference from police and extort money from businesses and government budgets.

On May 13, a former state prosecutor was gunned down on a street while running for mayor in the northern border state of Sonora. And on Tuesday, Alma Barragan was killed while campaigning for mayor of Moroleon in violence-plagued Guanajuato state.

Mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, campaigns at a market in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Friday, May 21, 2021. After a May 8 attack on his life that wounded his bodyguard and private secretary, the PRI candidate fears cartel gunmen will try to finish the job they botched. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, campaigns at a market in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Friday, May 21, 2021. After a May 8 attack on his life that wounded his bodyguard and private secretary, the PRI candidate fears cartel gunmen will try to finish the job they botched. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
A government-assigned bodyguard for mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia grabs his assault rifle in his vehicle during one of the PRI candidate's campaign stops in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Saturday, May 22, 2021. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador started the program to protect candidates, acknowledging that violence against candidates is alarming. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
A government-assigned bodyguard for mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia grabs his assault rifle in his vehicle during one of the PRI candidate's campaign stops in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Saturday, May 22, 2021. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador started the program to protect candidates, acknowledging that violence against candidates is alarming. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
A government-assigned bodyguard for mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia stands ready during one of the PRI candidate's campaign stops in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Saturday, May 22, 2021. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador started the program to protect candidates, acknowledging that violence against candidates is alarming. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
A government-assigned bodyguard for mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia stands ready during one of the PRI candidate's campaign stops in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Saturday, May 22, 2021. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador started the program to protect candidates, acknowledging that violence against candidates is alarming. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
The windshield of mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia is shattered after an attack in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Saturday, May 22, 202. The PRI candidate was not in the car and two members of his team survived the May 8 attack when a car pulled up and two young gunmen leaped out, one with an assault rifle and another with a pistol went around to finish off anybody trying to flee. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
The windshield of mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia is shattered after an attack in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Saturday, May 22, 202. The PRI candidate was not in the car and two members of his team survived the May 8 attack when a car pulled up and two young gunmen leaped out, one with an assault rifle and another with a pistol went around to finish off anybody trying to flee. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Photographed through the backrest of a chair, mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, has breakfast with his family at their home in Morelia, Michoacan sate, Mexico, Saturday, May 22, 2021. Valencia was unharmed in an attempt on his life on May 8 when two people shot at the truck in which he was traveling, and now he drives with only a bodyguard because campaign supports are too scared to drive with him. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Photographed through the backrest of a chair, mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia with the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, has breakfast with his family at their home in Morelia, Michoacan sate, Mexico, Saturday, May 22, 2021. Valencia was unharmed in an attempt on his life on May 8 when two people shot at the truck in which he was traveling, and now he drives with only a bodyguard because campaign supports are too scared to drive with him. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Supporters of mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia, behind, attend a campaign event in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Friday, May 21, 2021. After a May 8 attack on his life that wounded his bodyguard and private secretary, the PRI candidate fears cartel gunmen will try to finish the job they botched. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Supporters of mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia, behind, attend a campaign event in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Friday, May 21, 2021. After a May 8 attack on his life that wounded his bodyguard and private secretary, the PRI candidate fears cartel gunmen will try to finish the job they botched. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia eats a taco during a campaign stop at a market in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Friday, May 21, 2021. Valencia is the leader of a crime victims’ advocacy group and a former legislator who is running for mayor on the ticket of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. He also once served as mayor of his hometown of Tepalcatepec, near the border with Jalisco state. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia eats a taco during a campaign stop at a market in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Friday, May 21, 2021. Valencia is the leader of a crime victims’ advocacy group and a former legislator who is running for mayor on the ticket of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. He also once served as mayor of his hometown of Tepalcatepec, near the border with Jalisco state. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
One of the bodyguards that acts as the driver of Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia, grabs his assault rifle from the back of the armored SUV they travel in, during one of Valencia's campaign stops in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Saturday, May 22, 2021. The armored vehicle was loaned to Valencia by a friend after he was attacked by gunmen on May 8. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
One of the bodyguards that acts as the driver of Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, mayoral candidate Guillermo Valencia, grabs his assault rifle from the back of the armored SUV they travel in, during one of Valencia's campaign stops in Morelia, Michoacan state, Mexico, Saturday, May 22, 2021. The armored vehicle was loaned to Valencia by a friend after he was attacked by gunmen on May 8. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
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