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International Voices

A Botched Election, A Helicopter Crash, and the Deaths of Two Mexican Politicians

My family and I thought that Christmas Eve morning of 2018 would be like any other.. As usual, we headed to downtown Puebla, Mexico, to walk around, pray at church, and liven up our Christmas spirits. I especially enjoy this yearly tradition because I only get to spend a limited amount of time at home while I am not studying abroad. Yet shocking news marked this past occasion.

As we were walking on the historic streets of the state of Puebla’s capital, we ended up strolling by one of the city’s most notable newspaper’s headquarters. A reporter rushed out of its main entry, and with a tone of surprise exclaimed, “Did you know your governor is dead?” While we initially thought she might be joking (Mexican humor tends to employ a lot of false claims and sarcasm), as we continued walking, we couldn’t help but notice a crowd forming around a TV in a nearby restaurant.

On screen, there were images of fire and smoke in the middle of a farming field. The headline revealed that there had been a helicopter accident on the Poblano countryside not too long ago. It was not hard to connect both the reporter’s comment and the news, but my mom checked Twitter and confirmed it: the governor of Puebla, Martha Erika Alonso, and her husband, Senator Rafael Moreno Valle, had died in that helicopter accident.

The news didn’t only shock my family and the entire citizenry of Puebla, but the entire Mexican nation. Firstly, their unforeseen deaths seemed rather mysterious. That day at 2:34 PM the helicopter left the city of Puebla headed to Mexico City with the governor, senator, pilot, copilot, and a personal secretary. The couple repeatedly took trips on that aircraft to various destinations, some as far as Monterrey which is more than 600 miles away. Weather conditions were fair, the pilots were heavily experienced, and the helicopter was relatively new. Yet ten minutes after the governor and senator left the state capital, the control tower of Puebla lost contact with the aircraft near the town of Coronango. At 4:33 PM President Lopez Obrador acknowledged the incident and revealed both the senator and governor were in the helicopter. By 5:30 PM the Secretary of Defense confirmed their deaths.

Obrador asserted that the federal government would help in the incident investigation and that he would bring in international analysts to help discover what caused the helicopter to fall. In the upcoming days, field investigations revealed that the aircraft had fallen inverted (i.e. top down) and that there were no traces of explosives. Authorities thus concluded that the cause of the incident was most likely mechanical. Yet the owner of the farm on which the helicopter crashed, likely the only witness to the incident, declared that the aircraft was on fire before it hit the ground. This account complicates investigations, and there is no way to confirm the alleged malfunction as the helicopter’s black box was not armored.

The death of Governor Alonso and her husband, Senator Moreno Valle, shocked Mexico, but Poblanos do not view the incident as an accident, but rather as a successful assassination. Just ten days before, on December 14, the Puebla’s Electoral Institute, the agency that overlooks state elections, officialized Martha Erika Alonso’s victory of the July 1 elections earlier in 2018. For five months Miguel Barbosa, the candidate for MORENA (President Obrador’s party) rejected her minimal winning margin–with reason.

On election day, armed men stole 70 electoral packages with hundreds of votes in each one from polling booths on the outskirts of Puebla. Barbosa attributed this illegal activity to Martha Erika, as the missing votes most likely gave her an advantage on the election. Despite forcibly searching Alonso’s hotel room for evidence of fraud, MORENA supporters were unsuccessful. Still, Barbosa insisted that he was the legitimate winner.

Even still, Martha Erika Alonso and Senator Moreno Valle’s political group had become the ruling chieftains of the state of Puebla. In 2011, the Senator became the state governor and lawfully completed his term in 2017. Large modernization projects characterized his administration, but so did corruption scandals; the state saw new highways, renovated hospitals, and schools, but their funding sources were always questionable. Rumors of deals with drug cartels and mafia groups, in addition to cases of money laundering, became a popular topic of conversation in Puebla’s society even until today.

Perhaps the most infamous traces of corruption are those related to the clandestine extraction of oil pipelines, a practice that Mexicans call “huachicol.” While people have partaken in this illegal activity for years, Peña Nieto’s (the previous Mexican president) reforms to the energy sector and rising oil prices intensified its practice. Those who decide to extract oil from pipelines ultimately sell them below market value all throughout Mexico.  Even still, the extraction process is dangerous as it is easily prone to explosions, as shown by the tragic accident in Hidalgo, Mexico on January 18, 2019.

Yet the state of Puebla is no stranger to the “huachicol.” A lot of pipelines not only connect the oil-producing coastal region of Veracruz with the rest of Mexico, but they also provide gas to the 3.5 million people who live in the state capital’s metropolitan area. Thus, Puebla is an area harshly affected by this illegal practice. When the federal government decided to start fighting this threat, it discovered that the “huachicoleros” were organized and had the means to defend themselves which resulted in an unofficial war east of the city of Puebla that temporarily calmed down when President Obrador decided transport oil via trucks instead of pipelines. Be that as it may, rumors attributed the rise of this new organized crime to Governor Moreno Valle and his political group.

The one-million-dollar question is what exactly caused the helicopter to crash. Honestly, officials will never back the idea of an assassination attempt and will always refer to the incident as a mechanical failure–a very strange one at that. Still, many Poblanos are convinced that their death was not an accident, but the debate lies in finding an alleged culprit. In one hand, some argue that countless mafias connected to the Senator’s and Governor’s illicit affairs killed them because of some unfulfilled promise. In the other hand, people also say that MORENA itself planned the accident, as Moreno Valle was the PAN’s (National Action Party) leader in the Senate, and Martha Erika the only non-MORENA governor who ruled a key state. In fact, Barbosa himself accidentally revealed soon after the helicopter crash that such an incident was an assassination attempt, although he denied it seconds later.    

The truth is that the area around Puebla is a battleground for control of the state. As mentioned earlier, its geographic position and large population make it an attractive asset for organized criminal groups and political parties alike. As of January 2019, a member of the PAN took the office of the governor and Puebla is anticipating its next election. Barbosa declared that he would run again as the MORENA candidate. The PAN has not revealed who is running, but it is likely that someone from Moreno Valle’s political group will be nominated. My hope, along with other Poblanos, is that the upcoming elections are more peaceful and honest than the one in 2018. With the currently heated political climate, Poblano politicians need to work with each other to guarantee that Puebla’s citizens’ decision is peacefully respected.