SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Mexicans go to the polls tomorrow in midterm elections that are afflicted with serious violence. To date, 35 candidates have been killed, with dozens more attacked or kidnapped.
As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the murders are being blamed on illegal drug production and on crime gangs, as well as the politicians themselves.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: To get to Juan Guzman Ramirez's front door in Moroleon, Guanajuato, you have to get past a phalanx of state police. Once inside, Guzman, who no longer sports the wide grin shown on his campaign ads, says he has few visitors these days.
JUAN GUZMAN RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I feel like I'm trapped here. I've lost all my freedom," he says. Last month, the 70-year-old former mayor of Moroleon was riding back from a campaign rally. He says a motorcycle with two men pulled in front of his large SUV.
RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) And I saw the kid on the back of the bike pull out a gun. And I screamed at everyone in the car, get down. Who knows where I got the energy to scream so loudly? We all ducked, and the barrage of bullets just rained over us.
KAHN: Amazingly, no one was injured. Guzman says some glass shards from the shattered windshield bloodied his face. He hasn't dropped out of the race, but he says he has no idea who wanted to kill him.
RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I asked myself, why did they do this, since all I ever wanted to do was serve the people?" Guzman is running for a state legislative seat. He says he never received any threats before nor any after the attempt. Organized crime and drug gangs hoping to control politicians and their police forces are the No. 1 suspects. Alma Rosa Barragan Santiago was one of those victims. She was running for mayor of Moroleon.
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KAHN: At her funeral less than two weeks ago, posted on Facebook, a band played, and the crowd chanted her name as her coffin was placed in the ground.
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KAHN: Just this week, at the small graveyard near her mother's large ranch, Barragan's daughter Denisse recounts that day and says she doesn't understand why her mother was killed.
DENISSE: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: She says it was pure politics. The killers went after her mother because she was rising in the polls. The majority of candidates murdered were in parties opposing those in power. Barragan insists her mother's murder had nothing at all to do with drug traffickers or crime gangs. Moroleon sits at the crossroads of a bloody dispute between rival criminal organizations engulfing Guanajuato. What was once Mexico's safest, the state has become its most dangerous. Last month, it had, once again, the highest homicide rate in the country. Two main cartels are said to be fighting for territory and power in and around Moroleon.
Falko Ernst, a security analyst with the International Crisis Group, says there is a lot of murkiness in Mexican politics these days.
FALKO ERNST: You have fading boundaries between crime and politics - right? - where you are not able to tell one apart from the other anymore and where politics has been infiltrated by violent practices as a matter of course.
KAHN: He estimates there are as many as 200 criminal organizations operating in the country. And Ernst says too many crimes, more than 90%, go unsolved. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has chided the press for what he called exaggerating the violence and said authorities are ensuring that the elections proceed safely.
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PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "We can't allow ourselves to be terrified by this," said Lopez Obrador. He says there have been arrests in nearly all the cases of candidates murdered, including the one in Moroleon, but he didn't provide any details. Voter turnout is expected to be low. Juan Guzman Ramirez, the candidate who survived the attack, says he hopes voters come out and pick him. But he says, if he loses, he's going to the U.S. and ask for asylum.
RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: If he wins, he says, he'll try to go and serve. But if the politics are too dirty, he'll go to the U.S. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Moroleon, Guanajuato.
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