Mexico City – The mayor of the southeastern Mexican city of Merida told Efe that organized crime elements pose a threat to many of her colleagues, 27 of whom have been killed nationwide over the past five years.
Of those mayors, 19 were killed from the start of 2010 to the present, several "at the hands of their own bodyguards or people close to them," Mayor Angelica Araujo said, noting that the most recent homicide occurred last weekend.
As head of the National Federation of Mexican Municipalities, or Fenamm, which comprises 1,500 of the country's 2,500 mayors, Araujo is an authority on the subject and has received first-hand reports from her counterparts about the critical situation in some regions.
More than 40,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence nationwide since December 2006, mainly in turf battles among Mexico's numerous ruthless cartels and fighting between the gangsters and security forces.
That was the month President Felipe Calderón took office and deployed tens of thousands of federal police and army soldiers to battle the mobs.
Mayors must confront organized crime if they want to restore order in their jurisdictions but in some states they make themselves "vulnerable" by doing so, Araujo said, adding that it's difficult to know how many mayors are at risk because many colleagues avoid discussing their situations for fear of reprisals.
The mayor of Merida, home to nearly 1 million inhabitants, demanded that authorities solve the killings of mayors and lamented that in most cases the motives for the killings remain a mystery.
Mayors are often behind the eight ball when it comes to taking on organized crime, according to the official, who said they "do what they can" and but also request support from state and federal police.
Araujo said one of the problems is the short tenures of the mayors, usually just three years, which she argues is an insufficient amount of time to consolidate institutional changes in their police forces.
Fenamm says that most of Mexico's 2,000 municipal police forces (which employ some 165,000 officers) are at the service of drug traffickers and that these law-enforcement personnel complement their low salaries with payoffs from criminals.
Araujo, who governs one of the country's most peaceful cities, says Mexico's municipal governments receive scant funding even though they are the authorities in closest contact with ordinary citizens.
"We (mayors) make a great effort to meet the needs of our people and, using the resources we have, must opt for priority activities," she said.
She noted that just 3 percent of federal budget outlays are earmarked for cities and towns, while the states take 17 percent and the remainder - 80 percent - is allocated to the federal government.
"The municipalities have become poorer. The people are poorer and the situation deteriorates because there's a breakdown in the social fabric, which is reflected in an increase in criminal behavior," Araujo said.
"If you don't have funding, you're going to have a hard time combating problems like crime," she said.
The mayor says a grand alliance among the different government entities and academic and grassroots institutions is needed to tackle the public safety problem.
She added that to consolidate overhauls of local police forces mayors should have their tenure extended to four years and be allowed to seek re-election.
Efforts also must be made to strengthen cooperation between local and state police forces and ensure that officers have a sense of belonging to the communities they protect, the mayor said.
This strategy is being adopted by the federal government, which is seeking to create a single police force for each of Mexico's 31 states and the Federal District (Mexico City) and give those bodies responsibility for coordinating law-enforcement at the municipal level.
Araujo, a member of the main opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, said she opposes the militarization strategy employed by the National Action Party's Calderón and instead favors allocating more resources to crime prevention and improving people's quality of life and access to education and health.
Mexico has a total of 427,354 police officers: 196,030 state police, 165,514 municipal cops and just over 65,000 federal police.
More than 60 percent of the country's police receive less than 4,000 pesos ($345) a month.