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Mexico: campaigning during a drug war

A candidate photographed with traffickers. Another shot. It's election season during a drug war.

Gregorio Sanchez supporters rally
Supporters demand the release of Cancun mayor Gregorio Sanchez, who was arrested and charged with money laundering and drug-related crimes, May 30, 2010. (Gerardo Garcia/Reuters)

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — As campaigners in the gubernatorial race in the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo took to the streets this month, the headquarters of the main leftist candidate were shuttered, vast posters of his smiling face covering an empty building.

The candidate himself, former Cancun mayor Gregorio Sanchez, fondly known as “Greg” by his supporters, was 2,500 miles away on the Pacific coast in a federal prison.

On June 1, a federal judge charged Sanchez with racketeering and drug smuggling charges, saying he worked with the bloodthirsty cartel known as the Zetas — an indictment that bans him from the ballot paper.

The Sanchez case is part of a dark cloud of fallout from the drug war that is causing problems in gubernatorial and mayoral elections across Mexico this year.

In other cases, candidates have been photographed at parties with notorious traffickers, aspirants have dropped out because of narco-threats, and one mayoral candidate was actually gunned down in a brutal killing.

The tensions come in the run up to a “Super Sunday” vote on July 4, in which Mexicans elect 12 of the nation’s 31 governors and mayors in another three states.

“The problems created by the drug war could stain elections in a major part of the country,” said Francisco Abundis of the polling firm Parametria. “This will be a very bad sign for Mexico’s democracy.”

A key difficulty is that many of the races are in the very states that have been hardest hit by drug-related violence, including Chihuahua, home to the murder capital Ciudad Juarez, and Sinaloa, the cradle of Mexican cartels.

The Caribbean state of Quintana Roo — where millions of Americans visit the white beaches every year at Cancun and the Mayan Riviera — also has historic ties to trafficking.

It is a straight line across the Caribbean from Colombia’s north coast to the peninsula and smugglers take loads of cocaine on the route in speedboats.

In May, former Quintana Roo governor Mario Villanueva was extradited to the United States on cocaine-trafficking charges.

Federal prosecutors allege that Sanchez was following in Villanueva’s footsteps, receiving millions of dollars to protect smuggling operations while mayor of Cancun.

The prosecutors say they have evidence that Sanchez made bank withdrawals totaling $2 million, far more than his declared income, and have three protected witnesses who have testified to his corruption.

However, his Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) claims that Sanchez is being framed as part of a political witch hunt to rob them of their popular candidate.