By Adam Thomson
Time started running out for María Gorrostieta almost as soon as she was elected mayor of Tiquicheo, a rural district southwest of Mexico City, in 2008.
The area, much of it tangled with tropical vegetation, hosts wild boar, possums, coyotes and even jaguars. But it is also home to opium, cannabis, methamphetamine laboratories and the people who sell the produce – ruthless drug cartels.
Gorrostieta’s no-nonsense manner and, above all, her courage in the face of persistent threats, proved too much of an obstacle for the region’s narcotics mafia. Last week her corpse was discovered lying at a roadside.
The official cause of death was a blow to the head. But her body showed multiple signs of torture, her hands and legs had been bound and she had been burnt around the waist and chest. María Santos Gorrostieta Salazar, who was just 36, leaves behind two girls and a boy. Her husband had died in one of two previous attacks on her life.
Her murder, which came although she had already stepped down, adds to the growing tally of people who have been killed in Mexico’s bloody war on the cartels: more than 60,000 have died in the six years since Felipe Calderón, the centre-right president, placed fighting crime at the top of his administration’s priorities for Latin America’s second-largest economy. And just as for many of the other victims, her killing speaks not only to the frightening reach of organised crime but also to a weakness at the base of Mexico’s federal system.
As the cartels have grown in size and strength, their turf battles have ever more frequently had devastating consequences for the civilians caught in the middle. Steadily gaining members in a nation where economic growth during the past decade has been modest, the gangs have armed themselves with increasingly sophisticated weapons. In the front line are the country’s 2,500-odd municipalities, many of them far from their state capitals, and with funds and equipment that often turn out to be woefully short of their needs. In Michoacán state, of which Tiquicheo forms part, several drugs organisations including the Knights Templar and the Familia Michoacana continually fight for territory.
According to Miguel Angel Chávez Zavala, state president of the conservative National Action party to which Mr Calderón belongs, the PAN last year was unable to field mayoral candidates in almost 10 per cent of Michoacán’s 113 local authorities because nobody wanted the job. “Municipalities are the weakest link in the federal system,” Mr Chávez says. “It is a structural problem.”
It is against that backdrop that the diminutive Gorrostieta, a glamorous figure who would always turn heads at political meetings, took the reins in her home town. Born in 1976, she graduated in medicine from a university in Morelia, the state capital. During her tenure as mayor she switched political allegiance from the centrist Institutional Revolutionary party to the leftwing Democratic Revolution party.
But it was the violence that always seemed to steal the headlines surrounding her life. In October 2009, she came under heavy fire while travelling along a local road with José Sánchez, her husband. That was the attack in which he died and she was first injured.
Three months later, an armed group sprayed her vehicle with bullets while she was on the road between Michoacán and neighbouring Guerrero state.
A year after the second attack, and by then also having to wear a colostomy bag, she took off her blouse before photographers and put her battle scars on display to show what the assailants were capable of. The multiple bullet marks, compounded by lacerations from the ensuing crash, were shocking; the pictures were relayed around the world.
“At a different time of my life, maybe I would have resigned from my post, from my responsibilities,” Gorrostieta wrote in a public letter at the time. “But it is no longer possible now that I have three children whom I have to teach by example.”
To many people, that might seem to make little sense given her duties as an only parent. But Gorrostieta – who subsequently took leave to run for a seat in the national congress but failed to secure adequate backing in the wider constituency she campaigned in – was fervently religious. People who knew and worked with her say she was on a mission.
That mission – to stand up to the intimidating threat of organised crime – has now been ended. But her legacy of defiance remains. As Joaquín López-Dóriga, Mexico’s best-known journalist, wrote in a 2010 column after meeting her while she was convalescing from the previous attack, “last week, I ran into a heroine of the 21st century”.
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