Mexican Governor Candidate Killed as Drug Fight Rages

Mexico's Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont
Mexico's Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont, pictured, confirmed the death of gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre. Photographer: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The leading candidate for governor in the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas was gunned down today by unknown assassins, less than a week before elections in which violence related to drug trafficking is a central issue.

Rodolfo Torre Cantu, a 46-year-old member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, was in a vehicle that was attacked near the airport of state capital Ciudad Victoria, according to Ruben Dario Rios Lopez, spokesman for the Tamaulipas prosecutors office. Rios said four others were killed in the attack, including Enrique Blackmore, a local lawmaker.

Torre Cantu’s death marks an escalation of Mexico’s drug-fueled violence. It’s the highest-level political assassination since PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was killed in March 1994, an event that shook investor confidence and helped lead to a peso devaluation that began later that year, said Jorge Chabat, a political science professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City.

“This marks a change in the violence,” Chabat said. “This was done to prevent him from becoming governor.”

President Felipe Calderon called an emergency meeting of the security cabinet.

Torre Cantu had made improving security a top campaign pledge, promising to fight criminal impunity and punish corruption, according to a document on his website. The statement doesn’t make direct reference to the gangs that use the state’s border crossings to smuggle marijuana and cocaine into southern Texas.

Campaign Pledge

“Violence in all its forms threatens the well-being of the population, in addition to inhibiting investment, trade and productive activities,” Torre Cantu said in the document.

Mexico’s peso fell after news of the assassination spread. It weakened 0.7 percent to 12.7332 per U.S. dollar as of 5 p.m. New York time. The IPC stock index fell 0.1 percent to 32,568.19.

Calderon vowed to find the killers and said organized crime, a label that Mexican politicians often use when referring to drug gangs, represents a “permanent threat” to the country.

“This isn’t against one candidate from one political party, but against our democratic institutions,” Calderon told reporters.

Calderon’s National Action Party and the Party of the Democratic Revolution said they have suspended political activity in Tamaulipas.

Local police are leading the investigation into the shooting with the support of federal prosecutors, said Ricardo Najera, a spokesman with the federal attorney general’s office.

Television Video

Milenio Television showed video images of several dead bodies splayed out on the road next to vehicles displaying Torre Cantu’s campaign logo. Five people were killed in the attack, Interior Minister Fernando Gomez Mont said, without identifying the other victims. Torre Cantu was on his way to an event to close his campaign, the Foro TV network reported.

“These events, in which four other people also lost their lives, represent an absolutely reproachable act that fills the entire society with total indignation,” Gomez Mont said.

Tamaulipas, in Mexico’s northeast, borders Texas along the Rio Grande Valley, with the Gulf of Mexico to the east. It includes the cities of Reynosa, Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Tampico. The manufacturing industry and service industries were the two largest sources of revenue for the state.

Torre Cantu was leading by a wide margin before the July 4 election. He had 61 percent support, compared with 30 percent for National Action Party candidate Jose Julian Sacramento, according to a June 12-16 poll by Mexico City-based Consulta Mitofsky that had a margin of error of one percentage point.

Federal Lawmaker

Torre Cantu, a surgeon, was a federal lawmaker in the lower house of Congress from 2003 until 2006, and had worked as a medical coordinator for state-owned oil company Petroleos Mexicanos.

Eugenio Hernandez, the current governor of Tamaulipas, said in an interview on Mexico City-based Radio Formula that the election should go forward. Electoral authorities will make the final decision on whether to hold the vote, he said.

“I express terrible indignation at this incident,” Sacramento said on Foro TV. “I demand that the state and federal authorities act with responsibility and give us an explanation.”

Polling Stations

Sacramento said Tamaulipas should hold elections as scheduled. Even before today’s killing, the PAN couldn’t find anyone willing to operate polling stations in several cities in Tamaulipas because of fears about organized crime, Sacramento added.

Mexico has turned increasingly violent since Calderon came to office in December 2006 vowing to fight traffickers. More than 22,000 people have been killed in Mexico in violence related to organized crime since Calderon came to power, according to the U.S. State Department.

Mexico’s growth each year would be as much as 1.5 percentage points higher and the country would attract more foreign direct investment if there were less drug-related violence, said Gabriel Casillas, chief economist at JPMorgan Chase & Co. in Mexico City. The government estimates violence saps one percentage point from gross domestic product.

Gunmen killed Jose Mario Guajardo, candidate for mayor of the city of Valle Hermoso in Tamaulipas, last month.

Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz said in an interview last year that he had received at least four credible death threats. Reyes, the mayor of Mexico’s most violent city, has at least four bodyguards with him at all times. Juarez is located across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas.

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