MORELIA, Mexico — Three major political parties are campaigning in the Mexican president's home state, but it's the groups that aren't on Sunday's ballot that have everyone worried: the drug cartels.
In hilly, rural Michoacan, a state known for its avocados, marijuana and meth, the mobsters are putting Mexico's halting democracy to a test, using violence and bribes to influence elections for governor, the legislature and all 113 mayors.
While many other Mexican states have been penetrated by narco-politics, nowhere is that influence as overt as in Michoacan, where the electoral season so far has featured the kidnapping of nine pollsters, the gunning down of a mayor, and the withdrawal of at least a dozen candidates frightened off the campaign trail by organized crime.
"Organized crime is getting involved in discouraging candidates, to force (elections) with only one candidate," said Fausto Vallejo, gubernatorial candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. "And that is happening not only to the PRI, but in all the three political parties."
The stakes in Sunday's vote are heightened by the fact that President Felipe Calderon is from Michoacan, and made his home state the launch pad for his war against the drug cartels five years ago. His sister, Luisa Maria "Cocoa" Calderon, is running for governor and pledges to deepen her brother's offensive.
She is running for Calderon's conservative National Action Party, and is leading in most polls on what is seen as a highly symbolic race, the last state election before the presidential ballot next July.
So far, the reigning Knights Templar cartel, along with the remnants of the La Familia cartel, have threatened candidates, run for office themselves, and sponsored protests, sometimes paying residents in return for their loyalty.
The PRI, which ruled Mexico for 71 years until it was unseated in 2000, is running an energetic campaign to reclaim the presidency next year, and a victory in Michoacan would be a huge boost. Calderon accuses the PRI of promising to make deals with drug cartels in exchange for peace.
Accusations that some candidates are cartel members in disguise have prompted many candidates to ask federal prosecutors for letters stating there are no criminal charges or investigations against them - a sort of 'proof of purity' letter now in fashion.
Michoacan both produces drugs and is a key trafficking route, and the cartels have focused much of their attention on mayoral offices, notes political analyst Raymundo Riva Palacio.
The traffickers "have understood that it costs less, and guarantees them more, to control local politics and local police," he said.
Given the cartels' power, it is hard to see why anyone would risk being a mayor in Michoacan.
When the mayor of Apatzingan was pressed by local media about a string of kidnappings in his town, he practically broke down.
"I want to go away, I want to resign this job, because I wasn't made for this. I can't even ensure the safety of my own children, who are also in danger," Mayor Genaro Guizar said in an emotional interview with the Milenio television station.
On Nov. 2, Ricardo Guzman, mayor of La Piedad, was gunned down outside a fast-food restaurant while handing out fliers for Luisa Maria Calderon, the gubernatorial front-runner. Four candidates for local posts immediately asked for increased protection.
Those who knew him say Guzman resisted the cartels and paid a price for it. In March, gunmen killed La Piedad police chief Jose Luis Guerrero, just a couple of months after he took the job.
His successor, Miguel Angel Rosas Perez, was recruited from the better trained federal police, but he too came under attack, when more than 40 men drove to his police station in a 10-vehicle convoy in July, sprayed it with hundreds of rounds of gunfire and then lobbed grenades at it. Rosas Perez survived.
Protected only by underpaid, poorly armed local police, mayors make easy targets. Nationwide, 25 have been killed in the past five years.
German Tena, leader of the National Action party in Michoacan, says six of his party's candidates have dropped out of mayoral races.
"In those six, there were some threats, warnings not to run, and in others, fear ... . In all six cases there was fear of drug cartels," Tena said. "The criminals are supporting PRI candidates. In some towns and cities they are protecting them, supporting them, and inhibiting our candidates and those of the PRD," the leftist Democratic Revolution Party which currently holds the governorship of Michocoan.
The PRD has seen two mayoral candidates drop out. "They resigned for personal and health situations, but of course there is a version that it could have been because of pressure from these organized crime groups," said the party's state leader, Victor Baez.
The PRI denies its candidates are the favorites of drug cartels, and Vallejo, the party's candidate for governor, says all the PRI state and municipal candidates hold new 'proof of purity' letters.
But such letters are no guarantee of anything. Saul Solis, a former police chief in Michoacan, had one when he ran unsuccessfully for Congress in 2009 as a Green Party candidate despite being an alleged cartel lieutenant. Solis is now under arrest, accused of various attacks, one of which killed an officer and four soldiers.
Julio Cesar Godoy Toscano of Michocoan was elected to Congress in 2009, only to turn fugitive after being charged with aiding drug trafficking and money laundering.
Federal efforts to arrest narco-politicians here in the past have been an embarrassing failure. In 2009, prosecutors ordered the arrest of 12 Michoacan mayors and 23 other state and local officials on allegations that they had protected the La Familia cartel. But by April, every one of them had been acquitted. Prosecutors filed a complaint against one judge for improperly acquitting the officials, but mayors say the charges were weak and often based on a single informant.
Average citizens don't see the federal government making much headway in Michoacan. "Safer? Every day we feel less safe, but we can't even talk about it, because they're always listening," said a mechanic named Josue sitting at a small restaurant in Maravatio, a farming town. Josue asked his last not be used for fear of reprisals.
The remote mountain town of Arteaga is the hometown of Servando Gomez, alias "La Tuta," founder of the Knights Templar cartel, a pseudo-religious drug gang known as a major trafficker of methamphetamine. But residents here know Gomez as a former grade-school teacher and a humble man who is said to have helped people pay their medical bills.
Vallejo, the PRI candidate, says Michoacan cartels try to win over residents by casting themselves "in the social angle, like Robin Hood."
"Sometimes they will punish a guy who beats his wife," Vallejo said. "They'll tell they money lender, even 'you're charging too much, it's not fair what you're charging. And you, lime grower, pay your workers better.'"
In places like Apatzingan the cartel is so strong it has rallied hundreds of supporters to demand the withdrawal of federal police, ostensibly for abusing townspeople with unjustified shootings and searches. Some marchers painted "Templars 100 percent" on their clothing.
Gen. Manuel Garcia, Michoacan's public safety secretary, said the cartels paid people to protest. Their control, he said, "is by money, or fear, or both."