Mexico’s transition from the 20th century authoritarian state of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to an uncertain democracy has been a bloody affair. And it continues to be in the 2012 electoral year.

Fabiola Osorio, environmentalist assassinated

While much of the international press focuses on the mayhem generated by the confrontations between organized criminal bands, this year’s violence goes beyond the drug war media frame of government vs. narcos, and hits people from different walks of life–journalists, environmental activists, indigenous community leaders, migrant advocates, members of political parties, personalities long associated with the government, and individuals with no seeming connection to anything other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The geography of 2012 election year violence coincides with the weakening of centralized political control, transition year power jockeying and the growth of what criminologist Edgardo Buscaglia calls the feudalization or Balkanization of power underway in Mexico.

The violence of 2012 builds on but is different from the bloodshed that accompanied two other critical periods in Mexican political history: the electoral uprising against the PRI from 1988-1991, and the assassinations that marked the last year of President Carlos de Salinas Gortari’s rule in 1994.

In the first case, violence was leveled against an insurgent electoral movement that coalesced around the presidential candidacy of Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, which later institutionalized as the new Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD). Especially hard hit were PRD branches in the southern states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, where the new party represented a threat not only to the national PRI, but to regional power brokers and strongmen known as caciques.

A document prepared for the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (TPP) held in Ciudad Juarez late last month stated that 500 PRD members were “executed” and 322 other people killed during election-related violence from 1988 to 1994. The murders of early PRD activists are unresolved, and the current party leadership has not made investigating and punishing the crimes a big issue.

Anti-PRD violence followed the repression of the Dirty War and the waning years of the Miguel de la Madrid presidency, when 1,200 forced disappearances of suspected guerillas and opposition activists-650 of them in the state of Guerrero alone -were carried out by government security forces, according to the TPP document.

Like the murders of PRD militants, the Dirty War disappearances remain unprosecuted and they are likely to stay that way. Individuals central to the repression, including former Federal Security Directorate chief Miguel Nazar Haro and General Humberto Quiros, died natural deaths, while retired General Mario Acosta Chaparro, who was also implicated in organized crime, was gunned down in Mexico City in April. A former state police chief of Guerrero, Acosta Chaparro had survived a similar attempt in 2010.

1994 was a key year in the slow disintegration and mutation of the old regime. Mexico was riveted by the assassination of the probable next president, PRI candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio, and the murder of the PRI’s general secretary, former Guerrero Governor Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, who also just happened to be the brother-in-law of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

The president’s brother, Raul Salinas de Gotari, was charged in the crime but exonerated years later by a judge after serving time in prison. Like the slayings of PRD activists, the Colosio and Ruiz Massieu murders- events that shaped the destiny of a country- remain shrouded in mystery. Similar to the ongoing JFK assassination controversy in the U.S., many Mexicans doubt the official story that Colosio was gunned down by the lone assassin, Mario Aburto, who was convicted for the crime.

If the 1994 Zapatista uprising and the murders of two PRI leaders were not enough to shake a nation, the year ended with Mexico in the throes of economic emergency. The crisis led to a huge public bailout of the re-privatized financial sector, furthered the break-down of the rural economy, touched off massive out-migration to the cities and the United States, deepened the dependency on Washington and witnessed the consolidation of underworld organizations like the Juarez, Tijuana and Gulf drug cartels. According to political analyst Gustavo Esteva, the portion of national economic activity in the hands of the state plunged from two-thirds to one-fifth between 1982 and 2000.

Politically, the crisis years of the 1990s were crucial for laying the foundations for the current set of power relations. Now in the dustbin of history, the old state born of the 1910 Mexican Revolution has been replaced by the alternating rule of multiple political parties with varying degrees of corruption; the emergence of a super-wealthy, one percent of the one percent economic class; and the appearance of “shadow state” structures manipulated by organized crime, especially but not exclusively at the local and state levels.

Once the bureaucratic apparatus of a top-down ruling elite, the PRI, which could retake the presidency on July 1, now resembles more of a franchise chain of regional, shady interests than a tight corporate ship, albeit a “more dangerous” political outfit than the old one, Esteva writes.

It’s within this political-economic context that violent episodes stain the 2012 electoral landscape.

The New Web of Violence

In 2012, violence against members of political parties has been notable in places that will hold local and state elections, in addition to the national one. In Guerrero, for instance, a wave of murders, kidnappings, shootings and threats have hit not only the parties belonging to center-left presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s movement, but also individuals associated with the PRI and PAN parties.

Violence against politically connected individuals takes place amid an all-out war involving several organized crime groups. Reminiscent of Ciudad Juarez two years ago, Acapulco in particular has been transformed into a bloody battleground. Forced disappearances, kidnappings and armed clashes are the stuff of daily life. Since the beginning of 2011, the death toll hovers around 1,200 victims in the old resort city of about 800,000 people.

Journalists have once again been a target in this election year. The killing of Proceso correspondent and investigative reporter Regina Martinez in Veracruz this spring was quickly followed by the slayings in the same state of four other individuals associated with the news media. Up north, Sonora police beat reporter Marco Antonio Avila was murdered, while the offices of the newspapers El Manana in Nuevo Laredo and Hora Cero in Reynosa were attacked with firearms and explosives.

Based in Mexico City, the Center for Journalism and Public Ethics (CEPET) sends out routine communiqués that denounce attacks on the press and reporters as affronts to the right of society to be informed. “It is urgent for the competent authorities to carry out serious and profound investigations so the material and intellectual authors of this attack are brought to justice,” CEPET wrote following the Reynosa incident.

Of the hundreds of attacks against journalists and the media, few suspects have been arrested or convicted.

Under the cover of generalized violence, threats and assaults on indigenous communities have escalated. Teodulo Santos, a leader of Ostula, an indigenous community in Michoacan that reclaimed ancestral land in 2009, was recently murdered. Three men were shot to death in a displaced Triqui community in Oaxaca long under siege by paramilitary groups. Human Rights, labor and environmental defenders also rank high on the hit list.

This spring, Father Alejandro Solalinde, famed defender of Central American migrants passing through Mexico, fled Mexico out of fear for his safety, as did Vidulfo Rosales, lawyer for the Tlachinollan Human Rights Center of the Mountain in the state of Guerrero. The specific threat against Rosales reportedly contained references to Tlachinollan’s support for small landowners resisting the planned La Parota Dam near Acapulco and the protesting Ayotzinapa students who were attacked by Guerrero state and federal police last December, leaving two students dead.

Last month, the Canada-based Maquiladora Support Network (MSN) sent out an urgent action alert in defense of the Worker Support Center (CAT), a labor rights organization that supports garment and other factory workers in the state of Puebla. Most recently, CAT member Jose Enrique Morales was kidnapped and threatened by armed men, and CAT Director Blanca Velazquez received a death threat in a call made from Morales’ stolen cell-phone.

Attacks against the labor group have been “intensifying,” said MSN staffer Lynda Yanz.

“It is not safe to be organizing for labor rights in Mexico, or for freedom of association.”

According to Yanz, three thousand people across the globe responded to the MSN’s action alert. In response to the protest, Mexican Attorney General Marisela Morales assured in a letter that a top deputy would investigate the CAT case.

In Guerrero, activists involved in opposing new pier or maritime concessions in the state of Guerrero have been arrested, threatened and even killed this year. In May, Raul Evaristo Perez, leader of a group fighting the construction of a new dock near Acapulco was arrested by federal police officers. At month’s end, Fabiola Osorio, member of environmental group Guerreros Verdes and an opponent of a planned development of the ecologically sensitive Coyuca de Benitez lagoon, was murdered.

Earlier in the spring, Obdulia Balderas, president of the Zihuatanejo Network of Environmental Organizations (ROGAZ) received a telephoned threat. Balderas had long been active in opposing first a proposed cruise ship pier for Zihuatanejo Bay and, most recently, a concession to the Mexican government’s National Tourism Fund (Fonatur) granting control of navigation and docking facilities in Zihuatanejo Bay and the Barra de Potosi lagoon to the federal agency.

A score of Mexican and Latin American organizations sent a letter to President Calderon and other Mexican officials in solidarity with Balderas. Prior to the threats, ROGAZ and other local activists solidified their links with the movements around La Parota, Ayotzinapa and new mines in Guerrero.

The aggressions against journalists, environmentalists and indigenous communities reverberate with many characteristics contained in the Dirty War thesis presented by researcher Carlos Fazio at the TPP in Ciudad Juarez last month. A world tribunal of conscience, the TPP is gathering evidence on human rights violations that could be forward to official justice institutions like the International Criminal Court.

Speaking to a panel of international judges, Fazio outlined different phases of the Dirty War from the 1960s until the present. He noted how land conflicts underlined the Acteal Massacre of 45 indigenous Mayans in 1997 by government-supported paramilitaries, the Atenco raid and rapes of women protesters by police in 2006, and the narco-tainted, scorched-earth campaign in the Juarez Valley in Chihuahua since 2008.

Fazio said a prolonged Dirty War was first implemented by military officers trained in Washington’s national security doctrine and then continued with U.S. support under the framework of the Merida Initiative and the related Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) of the NAFTA countries. “All that is happening here with the Calderon administration is with the support of the U.S.,” he contended.

The Response of Civil Society after July 1

Mexicans are not taking the violence lying down. In recent weeks, journalists have marched nationwide in support of their colleagues. The YoSoy#132 (I am Number 132) movement of young people that has shaken up the political scene with a series of large demonstrations calling for media and democratic accountability is also protesting the so-called drug war, and atrocities like the 2009 burning deaths of dozens of infants in the ABC nursery in Sonora. In public forums, citizens have confronted the presidential candidates about the human rights crisis.

Given the depth of the crisis, a large group of prominent Mexican individuals and civil society organizations are calling for mass action beyond the July 1 elections. In a statement distributed at the TPP, hundreds of individuals and groups backed the formation of a “patriotic” committee to rescue Mexico from greater social decomposition, ecological collapse and violence.

Mexico, the signatories declared, has suffered the destruction of its social fabric, seen a severe loss of national sovereignty to Washington, undergone environmental destruction, and experienced massive violations of human rights.

“Thousands of dead and disappeared make up a panorama of pain, suffering and anxiety that has homes in mourning,” the proclamation read. “No current generation has suffered such death and desolation…”

Prominent leaders including Bishop Raul Vera, former National Autonomous University of Mexico Rector Pablo Gonzalez Casanova, poet and peace movement leader Javier Sicilia and human rights pioneer and senator Rosario Ibarra de Piedra. Additionally, hundreds of labor, farmer, indigenous and community organizations from 26 states and the capital endorsed the emergency call.

“We have the conviction that, independently of the electoral results, the participation of civil society will be necessary,” the proclamation reads. “If the option for change wins, organization and mobilization will be necessary to demand and support the strategic changes of government policies. If it does not, a broad movement of civil and peaceful resistance will be even more needed to force the path to change.”

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who covers the southwest of the United States, Mexico, and Latin America and a regular contributor to the CIP Americas Program at