Political rivals in tug of war over high-stakes governor’s race in Chihuahua

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Cargo trucks lineup to cross to the United States near the US-Mexico border at the Cordova-Americas International Bridge in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on April 4, 2019. (HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

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EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Some of its leaders refer to Chihuahua as “a little United States,” with people from all over Mexico coming to work on its fruit, vegetable and animal feed farms in the south and its manufacturing plants on the border.

“It is one of the most important states in Mexico economically and Juarez is the number four top industrial city in the country,” says Samuel Schmidt, a research fellow at the University of Texas at Austin.

So, it’s no surprise that a dozen prominent politicos, including the mayors of Juarez and Chihuahua City, as well as two Mexican senators, are trying to become the next governor of the state come next June.

What has taken some people aback is that the current governor is trying to throw two candidates in jail and that the president of Mexico is publicly defending one of them.

“The accusation against (Sen. Cruz) Perez Cuellar, logically, is a political matter. Let the citizens decide, it’s not that far off, let it be the citizens (who decide) freely so we can have democracy,” Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said at a news conference in Mexico City last week. “Every time there’s an accusation like that, I support the person who is the victim of political reprisal.”

This is only the latest flashpoint between the president and the governor of Mexico’s largest state.

The two men engaged in a months-long brinkmanship this summer over using Chihuahua water to make payments required by a 1944 international treaty with the United States. Chihuahua Gov. Javier Corral supported a forceful takeover of La Boquilla dam by a group of farmers; the National Guard responded by arresting three protesters and “accidentally” shooting a woman dead and wounding her husband, a farmer.

Opting not to send troops against the farmers while the international news media monitored the conflict, Lopez Obrador instead moved the soldiers out of the area and transferred Mexican water rights to the U.S. in South Texas dams.

Javier Corral (State of Chihuahua)

Corral has become a leader in a group called Alianza Federalista (Federalist Alliance), 10 governors opposed to the president’s political and economic policies and accusing him of shortchanging their states of federal resources.

The tussle continued when Lopez Obrador came to Chihuahua in October and excluded Corral from all his events.

But the outgoing governor says things are not as simple as people playing politics.

Leading contenders say felony charges are ‘political persecution’

Mexican Sen. Cruz Perez Cuellar (from Twitter)

Corral says Perez Cuellar, who belongs to the president’s MORENA Party, took hundreds of thousands of dollars from a former governor jailed in Florida and fighting extradition to Mexico to face charges of embezzling some $100 million in public funds.

Corral’s attorney general late last month issued an arrest warrant and the state is asking the Mexican congress to strip Perez Cuellar of his immunity from prosecution as a sitting senator.

The senator, who is reportedly leading early pre-election polls by a narrow margin, says Corral has an ulterior motive: to impose a successor.

Maria Eugenia “Maru” Campos (photo from Twitter)

“Javier Corral’s crude maneuver is an attack on democracy […] an attempt to win through treachery what he cannot win at the polls,” Perez Cuellar tweeted in response to the charges.

He says the anointed successor is the other senator in the race, the grandnephew of Mexican Revolution martyr and former President Francisco I. Madero.

But to win the nomination for governor in Corral’s National Action Party, or PAN, Sen. Gustavo Madero needs to best Maru Campos, who is second in those pre-election polls. Corral is also accusing Campos, the mayor of Chihuahua City, of taking money from the jailed former Gov. Cesar Duarte.

Campos late last month said she’s being politically persecuted by Corral.

“Since 2016 they’ve tried to link me to (Duarte). […] They have continued their investigation without presenting (results) nor allowing me to defend myself,” she said in late November. “This confirms it’s not a judicial matter, but obviously a personal and political issue.”

The polls were taken before Juarez Mayor Armando Cabada decided to enter the governor’s race last Sunday. He’s running in the MORENA Party primary after years as an independent.

UT’s Schmidt said Corral’s bid to prosecute Perez Cuellar may hit a brick wall in a Mexican congress controlled by MORENA, the president’s party.

And as far as why he’s taking on the country’s strongman or trying to leave a successor, the scholar says Corral has his eyes on a bigger prize.

“Madero is the connection to the old PAN leadership in Mexico City. He thinks that by having Madero as governor, he will support his own presidential candidacy because Corral thinks he can be the next president of Mexico,” says Schmidt, who has tracked Mexican politics for the past 40 years.

What’s in it for the U.S.-Mexico border?

No state in Mexico shares as much border with the United States as Chihuahua. Its 582 miles stretch from just east of the Arizona-New Mexico border to Texas’ Big Bend.

Hundreds of U.S.-run manufacturing plants in Chihuahua send billions of dollars’ worth of parts and components to America every year. And, prior to the pandemic — and likely after it’s brought under control — tens of thousands of people crossed the border to see family, shop or just visit.

Schmidt says that’s unlikely to change because both countries’ federal governments regulate the movement of people and merchandise across the border.

“The relationships between El Paso and Juarez are of a federal nature. You may have someone who is more sympathetic to work together but I would say it’ll be status quo,” he said.

But Jerry Pacheco, president of the Border Industrial Association, says having a dependable ally on the other side of the border does have a big impact at the local level.

“Yes, it will have a big effect on trade whether the governor is going to be willing and aggressive to work with us or he or she perceives that there are more important issues that are not trade,” Pacheco said.

He said Corral’s administration early this year co-hosted a delegation of Taiwanese investors looking at Santa Teresa, and in October participated in a trade mission with New Mexico promoters to Taiwan.

For instance, cross-border commercial activity has outgrown the facilities at the port of Santa Teresa, New Mexico. “We have a need to redesign and reconstruct this port of entry; we’ve outgrown it. We can’t do that unless we have a good relationship and the support of the governor of Chihuahua,” he said. “The governor of Chihuahua is just as important to us at the local level as our own state politicians because we need support on both sides of the border.”

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