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To Mexico now, where voters go to the polls this weekend in almost half the country's 31 states, 12 governors' offices and numerous mayor's post are up for grabs. But the campaigns have been marred by violence and allegations of criminal conduct by some candidates.

Just this week, the leading candidate for governor in the northeastern state of Tamaulipas was gunned down. And President Felipe Calderon blamed the gangland-style hit on the nation's drug cartels.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas.

JASON BEAUBIEN: The assassination this week of Rodolfo Torre Cantu shook Mexico from rural pueblos to the presidential palace. Torre was the gubernatorial candidate here for the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, and he had a wide lead in the polls.

On Monday, gunmen attacked his campaign convoy on the main road to the airport at 10:30 in the morning, killing Torre and four other people in his entourage. It was the most high-profile political assassination in Mexico since the presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was gunned down in 1994.

In downtown Ciudad Victoria, Hugo Enrique Gomez says he was shocked by Torre's murder.

Mr. HUGO ENRIQUE GOMEZ: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Twenty-four-year-old Enrique, who just graduated from college, says Mexico has become a failed state. If the criminal gangs can gun down a man who was just a week away from becoming governor, he says, they can kill anyone.

Mr. GOMEZ: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Right now, it's out of control, he says. The problem has to be attacked at its roots. It will be hard, he says, but this is a problem for which people have to put aside their ideologies and eradicate in order to protect ourselves.

National leaders of the PRI converged on Ciudad Victoria this week for a memorial service for Torre and to pick a replacement for him on this Sunday's ballot. After what they say were exhausted negotiations, they picked Torre's older brother, Egidio.

(Soundbite of applause)

BEAUBIEN: Standing in front of a huge banner from Rodolfo's campaign, Egidio Torre called on voters to not be intimidated by the violence and to go to the polls this weekend.

Mr. EGIDIO TORRE (Gubernatorial Candidate, Tamaulipas): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: And because it's too late to change the names on the ballot, Egidio called on residents to check the box for his dead brother, which will count as a vote for him.

Mr. TORRE: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Egidio promised that if elected he'll carry out Rodolfo's agenda. And there's little doubt that Egidio will be elected. The PRI has ruled Tamaulipas continuously since 1929. While the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, broke the PRI's 70-year grip on the presidency in the year 2000, the party-machine politics of the PRI continues in many states.

President Calderon is from the PAN. His largely unpopular and bloody drug war is expected to help the PRI on Sunday. Of the 12 governors' races being held, PRI candidates are leading in the polls in 11 of them.

(Soundbite of noise)

BEAUBIEN: Eduardo Alcala Ruiz says the PRI's decision to install Torre's brother as their candidate for governor is one more example of how there is no democracy right now in Tamaulipas.

Mr. EDUARDO ALCALA RUIZ (Lawyer; Former Professor, Autonomous University of Tamaulipas): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: He says it's only the people in power in government and in the PRI who determined who the candidate will be. Alcala understands the power politics of Tamaulipas well. He was trying to run for mayor here in the capital for the Convergencia party. He had launched his campaign, but then party leaders told him that he couldn't run. As a matter of fact, the party was going to instead put forward nobody in the mayor's race.

Mr. RUIZ: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: In Tamaulipas, all of the heads of the party, yes, all of them, Alcala says, have been co-opted by the state government. They're practically employees, he says, of the governor. And Alcala says politics, government and organized crime are all intertwined in the state. Tamaulipas will never be able to address the rampant drug-related killings, he says, until it deals with the corruption that allowed the cartels to flourish in the first place.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Ciudad Victoria.

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