MEXICO CITY — City and state elections are often the most deadly in Mexico. And nothing has changed this year.
As Sunday's elections grow near in 14 states, at least eight local politicians or their family members have been killed. Others have reported being kidnapped or shot at.
The causes of most of the attacks are still uncertain. Some fear that drug gangs are asserting their power. Others fear that candidates are being targeted by their rivals. But it is clear that people are being attacked for seeking office in areas where organized crime and old-style pols rule.
Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto has portrayed a nation of vigorous democracy where violence is down and the economy is improving. But the killings show that at the grassroots level, many of the nation's old ills remain.
"It seems to me that the violence is a little higher this year, though we don't have reliable statistics," said Jeffrey Weldon, political scientist at the Mexico's Autonomous Institute of Technology. "Violence affects democracy and is damaging democracy in Mexico, if no one can run for their party safely."
The cases seem to have accelerated over the past week, and candidates from throughout the political spectrum have been targeted ahead of the vote for 931 mayors, 441 state representatives and one governor.
Ricardo Reyes Zamudio, a mayoral candidate for the leftist Citizens Movement in tiny rural San Dimas in the central state of Durango was found shot to death Monday afternoon.
Carlos Triana Garcia of the conservative National Action Party woke up at 4 a.m. Monday to a spray of gunfire on his house in Tlalixcoyan in the Gulf coast state of Veracruz, where he is a candidate for mayor. No one was injured in that incident, though 11 bullet casings were found.
National Action's national leader Gustavo Madero said a city council candidate in the major Veracruz city of Boca del Rio, Carlos Alberto Valenzuela, was kidnapped for several hours on Tuesday. Police investigators said they found him at home and haven't confirmed the kidnapping.
On Saturday, Rosalia Palma Lopez, local legislative candidate for a coalition led by President Enrique Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party was ambushed while traveling in a van with her campaign team in the Mixteca region of Oaxaca state. Assailants firing from another car with semi-automatic rifles killed Palma's husband, Efrain Cruz Bruno, and her assistant and niece, Thalia Cruz. Palma received multiple gunshot wounds, according to prosecutors, and remains hospitalized.
The attack occurred two days after Nicolas Estrada Merino, Oaxaca's state leader for the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, was found dead in a sugarcane field in Tuxtepec with three gunshot wounds to the head. He had been missing for more than two weeks.
Officials in that southwestern state said both attacks could have been personal, not political, though officials often suggest other motives in campaign killings so avoid scaring voters away from the polls.
Meanwhile, the body of 19-year-old Jesus Antonio Loaiza Zamora was found Saturday on a dirt road in Culiacan, Sinaloa. Loaiza, who was handcuffed and shot, was the son of Antonio Loaiza, a Sinaloa campaign coordinator for the coalition led by ruling party, known as the PRI.
Several Democratic Revolution candidates have dropped in Durango out of fear, party national president Jesus Zambrano has said. Others quit in Sinaloa last week after 26-year-old Eleazar Armenta, who was a backup candidate for the city council of the town of Sinaloa de Levya, turned up dead.
Most of the killings have occurred in rural areas heavily hit by drug violence. Cartels are known to interfere in local campaigns to elect officials who will be friendly to their interests. Rural Oaxaca, scene of two attacks, has long been known as a place where disputes over land and resources often lead to violence.
In past decades, much of the country's political violence was blamed on the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which frequently used heavy-handed tactics to maintain national power for 71 years. Both Zambrano and National Action's Madero have accused the PRI of fomenting the violence this year too.
But the PRI lost the presidency in 2000, and even though it returned to power last year, its candidates are among those being attacked.
In addition to Loaiza and Palma, a PRI candidate for mayor of Lerdo, Durango, was kidnapped and murdered in February. In June, the body of Jaime Orozco, PRI candidate for mayor of Guadalupe y Calvo in Chihuahua state, was found dead.
"All of the parties are contributing to the violence," said Carlos Ronzon Veronica, a political scientist in Veracruz state, the mayoral candidate's house was sprayed with bullets on Monday. "We're in the week of the dirty war, of the terrorism designed to inhibit the vote."
The attacks seem to undermine suggestions by Pena Nieto's government that the country may have turned the corner on a surge of violence that washed across the country over the past decade. Before last year's presidential vote, many suggested that the PRI might reduce the killings by returning to the old practice of finding a way to coexist with criminal groups, tacitly or otherwise.
"Everyone has the notion that the PRI is going to be able to restore order in Mexico ...," said David Shirk, director of the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute. "But here you have party candidates or members of the campaign coordination being killed. They're not able to prevent violence from happening, despite their supposed ability to broker peace among illicit actors."
Associated Press writers Sayra Cruz in Oaxaca, Rodrigo Soberanes in Veracruz and Karla Tinoco in Monterrey contributed to this report.