U.S.-Mexico Drug War: Will Elections Change the Battlefield?

Violence-marred elections in Mexico cast a shadow over President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs, as the opposition party secured key spots in border towns that have become hot spots for narcotics-related bloodshed.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) held onto power in the border cities of Ciudad Juarez, one of the world's most dangerous cities, and Tamaulipas, where the party's first candidate was gunned down by suspected drug cartel members.

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Several PRI candidates are thought to be linked to drug traffickers. The U.S. Treasury Department is investigating the bodyguard of Tamaulipas' outgoing governor. And former Ciudad Juarez mayor Hector Murguia, who was seeking a second term, also faced similar allegations.

Calderon's National Action Party (PAN) did win many contested battles in important states. But the fact that the PRI regained power in the most violent of border cities could pose a challenge to Calderon's government, whose strategy to fight drug trafficking is closely aligned with that of President Obama's administration.

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"There's a certain exhaustion with President Calderon's policies in the northern border, where violence has been most extreme," said Andrew Selee, director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center. "People are increasingly concerned about organized crime and rejecting candidates they think have ties to drug trafficking, but they're also skeptical that the government strategy is working."

The United States and Mexico have stepped up the war against drug trafficking -- with Mexico deploying hundreds of thousands of troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in recent years -- but drug-related killings have surged.

In a two-year time span between 2007 and 2009, the number of annual drug-related deaths tripled from 2,280 to 6,587, making 2009 a record year for drug-related violence, according to statistics from Mexico's La Reforma newspaper and the University of San Diego's Trans-Border Institute. Homicides in 2010 are expected to be even higher given the escalation in violence ahead of the elections.

Drug-related violence has shifted mostly to border towns since Calderon's administration bolstered military might at the U.S.-Mexico border to fight cartels.

Cities like Ciudad Juarez, across the river from El Paso, Texas; Tijuana, on California's border; and Tamaulipas have become burgeoning grounds for drug traffickers and rival gangs. The once-centralized system of drug lords has broken down, making it even more difficult for law enforcement authorities on both sides of the border to capture criminals.

In Mexico, drug lords exert heavy influence on local politics.

"I think there is a lot of effort on the part of narcos to dictate politics," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and a fellow at Brookings Institute. "Narcos determine how local politicians will behave," whether they are PRI party members or those affiliated with Calderon's National Action Party.

Will Mexico's Elections Change the Dynamics of Drug Trafficking?

The influence of organized criminals was evident in cities like Tamaulipas, where the voter turnout was relatively low.

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