Observing in Ecatepec–Who’s in Charge Here?

The word sounds like cracking something up inside your mouth, but it’s a poor suburb of Mexico City, and my Mexican friends tell me going there is like going to hell. That’s where I decided to observe the Mexican elections.

Apart from its reputation as a dirty, depressive and dangerous suburb, Ecatepec is–with its 2 million inhabitants–the biggest municipality in the State of Mexico and has long been a stronghold of the PRI party (Institutional Revolutionary Party). People tell me it’s a place where ”mapaches” are common – a word literally meaning raccoon but in Mexican electoral jargon referring to those charged with creative and sometimes aggressive attempts to buy votes and political loyalties.

People based in the Federal District of Mexico City paint a very negative picture of the Mexico City suburbs that fall within the surrounding State of Mexico. Everyone who hears that I’m going there, warns me to take care of myself and especially be careful in my role as an international electoral observer – it might be seen as a provocation to party soldiers who prefer no interventions and no foreign observation. All the more a reason for me to do the electoral observations there, I think.

First of all, a comment on the concept of international electoral observations in Mexico is necessary. It’s easy to become an electoral observer in Mexico. No previous courses or training is needed, but the Federal Electoral Institute (IFE) does a lot to prepare the international observers for the electoral process and teach them about the Mexican electoral system. I was given a small library of flyers, booklets, books, dvd’s and USB’s, but surprisingly little information on how the exact casting of the vote and vote-counting goes on – or should go – on elections day and even less on what I was expected to do as an international observer.

Herein lies my major critique of IFE’s program for international observation. When I asked the IFE officers what sort of report or evaluation I should write to them afterwards, he looked puzzled, and when I further said I supposed we international observers should report any irregularities, illegalities, overt attempts at vote-buying or fraud if we witnessed it, he just laughed and said ”Yeah, sure!” as if it was the most ridiculous thing he had heard. With the huge post-electoral protests and accusations of fraud in the 2006 presidential elections in mind, I didn’t think my question was ridiculous at all.

At different webpages, and through conversations with politically active Mexican friends, I found some examples of the creative and often subtle ways political parties try to manipulate the election results at the polling spots. These included hiding the ballot boxes temporarily, turning off the lights to cause confusion, sending in drunk or armed people to create commotion at the polling site, falsification of voter’s credentials– and the list goes on.

My expectations for what I was about to observe were thus painted by paranoia and the idea that people would do anything to trick me while I was out there.

When I arrived at the polling place I had chosen as my primary observation spot – a local university where almost 1500 voters were registered to vote – at 7.55 am Sunday morning I was surprised to see that the committee in charge of the polling place was just starting to unpack electoral materials and not all the citizens assigned to the committee had arrived. The voting, scheduled to begin at 8:00, could not start before all the appointed citizens in the polling committee (a president, a secretary and two counters) had arrived, and the queue of impatient voters on their way to work was already growing. Finally a girl who had been in an electoral committee three years before came in as a substitute, but a little later I was surprised to see that she was also the girlfriend of one of the political parties’ delegate at the polling site, which may indicate that she was not impartial and that it was not a coincidence that she substituted the appointed representative.

Every party is allowed to have two delegates present at each polling site. They may observe but not participate or intervene in electoral activities. During the day, these delegates carry forms where they report irregularities and incidents, and they also hold a copy of the voters’ list so that when voting is over and the votes counted, the polling sites’ official list of how many votes have been cast can be cross-checked with the party delegates’ records.

Unlike the international observers, the party delegates are also allowed – and often encouraged by their party – to make denouncements, but I was surprised to see that none of the party delegates at the different spots I observed made any denouncements, even though I believe there was reason to do so in various cases.

First of all, the outdoors university eating area – a few tables dotted in the university courtyard, was definitively not the ideal polling site. Anyone from the neighbourhood could enter and leave as they wished, and they did so. It was particularly worrisome to see that the same guy was standing all day outside the school gate and observing who entered and left, sometimes exchanging messages with some of the party delegates inside the polling spot. The PRI was by far the most heavily represented party at all the polling sites I observed, and they have the great advantage of having many eager party members who take turns at the polling sites, so that while there are officially only two PRI delegates inside (or seated next to the ballot boxes), there were always at least a handful of other PRI representatives waiting outside or next to the polling spot, often welcoming the voters and indicating to them the formal procedures for voting, and keeping a constant eye on everything that goes on inside the polling site. It gave me that weird sensation, that in Ecatepec, it was the PRI members who were really in charge of the elections and not the local, supposedly neutral, committee that IFE had appointed.

When the university polling site closed around 6 pm, I was even more shocked to see that even though the school’s gates to the streets were closed and locked to give the committee privacy to count, there was still no control with the individuals who were already inside – the same individuals who had been keeping vigilance over the polling place all day, and who were not appointed as party delegates, nor members of the polling committee. They remained inside, still keeping an eye on everything. And nobody seemed to care.

My final concern relates to the transporting of the counted votes with the results from the polling place record to the IFE District Council, where IFE officials count all polling records from Ecatepec. A designated IFE vehicle with a designated IFE official transports the results. In our case, this person had to pick up votes and records from six different polling sites. At each site, the poll president of is in charge of the package and travels in the vehicle all the way to delivery at the IFE District Council. But in our transportation, a poll president from another polling spot was allowed to take the votes and the record by himself in his own car to the District Council, under the condition that he traveled right behind us all the way. Nobody could control that it was the same box that was taken out of his private car as the one placed in the car at the polling site, or that the box was not opened and manipulated during the transport.

Again, a sense of powerlessness struck me. Being an international observer without any right to intervene in the specific moment, I had to wait for some of the other polling site presidents to object, but none did. So when I asked, out of ”curiosity”, why the last polling site president was traveling in his own car with his own votes, the IFE representative replied that it was more comfortable like this, and none of the other polling site presidents in the IFE vehicle questioned that explanation.

Observing the elections in Ecatepec, I guess the stories I had been told had led me to expect attempts at dirty tricks inside the polling sites and attempts to convince voters outside the polling sites. Or maybe I expected a lot of nervous faces, silencing and secret conspiracies since I was there as an international observer. But all in all, everything went on smoothly and peacefully. My general impression of the local polling site committees and the party delegates – during the voting and the counting afterwards, was that they were eager to make the day flow smoothly, to make sure that everything went on correctly and to maintain a collegial ambiance across party affiliations.

In that sense, I have nothing ”irregular” or ”illegal” to report. Is it electoral manipulation when the strongest party’s members are constantly watching the different polling sites from outside and acting as if they were in charge of the elections? I didn’t see anyone ”taking lists”, handing out food or money in exchange of votes or even threatening people to vote for one or another candidate. What I was able to observe that day were not specific attempts at fraud, but a more general picture of a very politicized society where one party seemed to hold more power than the federal institutions themselves.

Lisbeth Rasch holds a bachelors degree in social anthropology from the University of Copenhagen. Based in Mexico City, her focus is on insecurity and Mexican politics. She is a contributor to the CIP Americas Program www.americas.org She was an accredited international observer to the 2012 Mexican presidential elections.