Reporting from Culiacan, Mexico, and Ciudad Juarez — Twenty years ago, Sinaloa state's moneyed elite wouldn't give Jesus Vizcarra the time of day. His murky past and rumored ties to major drug traffickers kept him out of the top social clubs and business associations.
Today the same power brokers who once shunned him are Vizcarra's enthusiastic backers as he emerges as the solid favorite to become governor.
To critics, Vizcarra's election on Sunday would be the culmination of a steady penetration by narcotics traffickers into Mexican political power. Vizcarra, backed by the omnipotent Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, counters that he has done nothing wrong. He has not been charged with any crime, and the federal attorney general's office said last week it was not investigating any case involving Vizcarra.
But he has neither answered pointed questions about his past, nor been able to explain away compromising evidence and a quickly amassed fortune.
Sunday's elections in 14 states have highlighted the corrosive influence drug gangs and their money have on Mexican politics and races for important offices.
Deep infiltration (and intimidation) of the political class by organized crime has hamstrung the government of President Felipe Calderon in its nationwide campaign to battle powerful drug cartels, an offensive now in its fourth violent year. With rare exception, authorities have left corrupt politicians untouched and failed to adequately monitor dirty money in election campaigns.
On Monday, assassins killed Tamaulipas state gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre in a highway ambush, the highest-ranking candidate slain since a presidential hopeful in 1994. Usually, however, the damage is more subtle, yet insidiously effective.
"Narco-politics is the greatest threat to Mexico's incipient democracy," said federal congressman Manuel Clouthier Carrillo, who represents Sinaloa for the National Action Party, or PAN. "If federal authorities don't fight it now, the damage will be irreversible."
In Sinaloa, drug tycoons like Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada channel untraceable millions into the hands of politicians who then use the cash not only to line their own pockets but to pay for vote-garnering public works projects and buy elections, according to politicians, law enforcement sources and experts in drug trafficking. In return, Zambada and his compatriots can be assured that local and state police and other agencies are at their disposal.
Sinaloa is the most entrenched example of narco-politics, and the phenomenon is spreading across Mexico.
In Ciudad Juarez, where fighting among drug gangs has made the city Mexico's deadliest, the leading candidate for mayor is fending off allegations of ties to traffickers.
The candidate, Hector Murguia of the PRI, who served as mayor from 2004 to 2007, has faced questions over what he knew of the activities of his police director, who in 2008 was arrested and convicted in Texas on drug smuggling and bribery charges.
Murguia, in an interview with The Times, strongly denied any relations to traffickers and said he had no idea whether the former police commander, Saulo Reyes, was involved in illicit activities before leaving office. But a senior American law enforcement official told The Times that the PRI candidate has attracted U.S. scrutiny because of his alleged past cooperation with the Juarez cartel.
Murguia's main rival, Cesar Jauregui of the PAN, says Murguia has drug ties and cannot be trusted to ensure public safety in a city where rival traffickers are engaged in open warfare. Murguia dismisses Jauregui as a "loudmouth" and says he will sue for defamation after the election.
In neither Ciudad Juarez nor in Sinaloa do such allegations seem to hurt the candidates.
"People don't look at the ethical or moral origins [of a candidate] but at the services they can receive," said Lauro Melendrez, owner of a chain of pharmacies and one of numerous prominent Sinaloa businessmen supporting Vizcarra. "We don't have the luxury to demand pie-in-the-sky ethical values. A society in crisis is less demanding."
Fertile Sinaloa is largely controlled by interconnected entrepreneurs, politicians and marijuana and cocaine traffickers, tied together by family relations and business dealings — a mafioso cabal, in the words of Clouthier. They bought huge tracts of land, built fancy housing projects, and diversified into cattle and purebred horses.
Some even set up charitable foundations. Many have kept their hands clean by using intermediaries, and thanks to exclusively cash transactions, there is little paper trail.
Vizcarra came from a poor rural family, one of 10 children of a father who sold chickens for a living, in the heart of the isolated Golden Triangle, a drug smugglers' paradise along the Sierra Madre.