Mexico holds historic election in race largely overshadowed by violence

MEXICO CITY — Voters in Mexico are participating in the country’s largest election ever — casting votes Sunday to fill more than 20,000 local, state and federal positions and almost certainly elect their first female president.

But rampant violence has marred the road toward one of the most consequential elections in Mexico’s history.

Criminal groups have taken over large parts of Mexico as they fight for territory to traffic drugs into the U.S., make money from migrant smuggling, and extort residents to fuel their illicit enterprise. Violence against political figures has also persisted throughout this election cycle, resulting in a 150% increase in the number of victims of political violence since 2021, according to an analysis from Integralia, a public affairs consulting firm that researches political risk and other issues in Mexico.

Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo.
Presidential candidate Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo in Mexico City on May 29.Carlos Tischler / LightRocket via Getty Images

These have greatly dismayed Mexican voters, leading most of them to cite security as a top issue of concern. About 6 in 10 Mexican adults consider the city where they live to be unsafe due to robberies or armed violence, according to a survey by Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography published in April.

Both front-running presidential candidates — Claudia Sheinbaum of Mexico’s governing political party, Morena, and Xóchitl Gálvez, of the opposition coalition Broad Front for Mexico — have drastically different ideas on the best way to reduce crime.

 woman holds up a sign with a message that reads in Spanish: "I'll exchange my vote for my son."
A woman in Mexico City holds up a sign on May 10 with a message that reads in Spanish, “I’ll exchange my vote for my son.”Marco Ugarte / AP

One of them is expected to make history as Mexico’s first female president, considering that Jorge Álvarez Máynez, the Citizen Movement party’s presidential candidate, is running a distant third in the polls.

Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City and a physicist and climate scientist, has said she plans to combat violence by continuing the policy of “hugs, not bullets” implemented by her mentor, outgoing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, that does not directly take on the cartels as had been done in previous administrations.

Zocalo square.
Zocalo square in Mexico City on May 29, 2024.Pedro Pardo / AFP via Getty Images

Before López Obrador, “there was at least a rhetorical intention by the Mexican government and the local governments to do something” about the violence, said Tony Payan, director for the Center for the U.S. and Mexico at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. “But ever since Mr. Lopez Obrador took office at the end of 2018, that discourse has completely shifted…These criminals feel that they can do almost anything they want to and the state will not go after them.”

López Obrador’s policy has not significantly reduced killings over the past six years, as Mexican government data shows that at least 102,400 homicides have been reported over that period.

But the data also shows that the strategy of López Obrador’s predecessors, pursuing drug lords in an all-out war, did not improve safety either.

Xóchitl Gálvez.
Presidential candidate Xóchitl Gálvez in Monterrey, Mexico, on May 29.Mauricio Palos / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Gálvez, a former senator and tech entrepreneur, has been working to convince voters that health care access and economic development have stalled under Morena and crime rates remain high. The center-right candidate has also tried to position her party — a coalition of traditional political parties that had long governed Mexico such as the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, the small progressive Democratic Revolution Party, and the old-guard Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI — as the change Mexico needs to unite an increasingly polarized country.

Mexico’s next president will have an important role in resolving issues that are a priority to the U.S. such as immigration and foreign affairs, as well as determining the future of the trade deal that has made Mexico the United States’ largest trade partner.

On Sunday, polls open at 8:00 a.m. local time and close at 6:00 p.m.

Nicole Acevedo reported from New York and Guad Venegas and Kayla McCormick reported from Mexico City.