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Medrano’s Election: a Win for the War on Drug Cartels or the Fight against Homophobia?

In the city of Fresnillo, Mexico, known for the people’s noteworthy conservative values and drug -related warfare, it seemed unthinkable to elect a gay mayor. Yet on September 15th, the unthinkable took place when newly elected mayor Benjamin Medrano Quezada was sworn in at a ceremony in Fresnillo, as the first openly gay mayor in Mexico’s history. 

Benjamin Medrano was brought up in a Roman Catholic household, and at the behest of his family, studied law. Later, he pursued his dream and made a career as a singer before opening the first gay nightclub in Fresnillo. At the age of 47, Medrano, a member of the center-left party Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), decided to run for mayor in the 2013 elections. He won by popular vote on July 7th.

Mexican states are divided up into municipios, which act as a cross between municipalities and counties. Fresnillo is the largest municipio in the Mexican state of Zacatecas, sometimes called “no-man’s land”. Due to its location in the northern center of Mexico, there has been an ongoing and violent war between two drug cartels, Los Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, in an attempt to control Fresnillo, which contains one of the most important roads towards the United States.

In 2006, the Mexican government under President Felipe Calderón began a military-led offensive against the drug cartels.  Since then, a number of politicians and government employees have been assassinated by the drug trafficking organizations. These include former president of Fresnillo, Juan Carlos Guardado Méndez, in February 2011, and more recently, in June 2013, José Ramírez Román, the former municipal president of Saín Alto, Zacatecas, a small municipio near Fresnillo.

Car hi-jackings, robberies, gun battles, and false checkpoints, amongst other criminal activities, are increasingly frequent in the area. Local officials have a hard time patrolling and responding efficiently to calls due to the remote location. Bodies have been found decapitated, lacerated, with their throats slashed, and torn to bits. In the state of Zacatecas, the level of drug-related violence increased by 31 percent in just 11 months, shows the 2012 Mexico’s Crime and Safety Report.

In fact, a recent travel warning from the State of Mexico advised travelers to suspend all unnecessary travels through the state of Zacatecas, putting a special emphasis on the municipio of Fresnillo and surrounding towns. The travel warning was released recently after acts of violence increased significantly. Notably, on Friday 21 June, 2013, a 24-hour intense armed conflict took place between groups of organized crimes and the police forces of Fresnillo, and later the Mexican army. The result was ten dead criminals, a criminal arrested and three policemen detained by the government for further investigation in their affiliation to organized crime.

In his campaign, Medrano focused first and foremost on his opposition to the drug cartels and police corruption. He promised to fight for social and human development, as well as security, one of the main concerns for the 200,000 inhabitants of Fresnillo. Although his predecessors have fought the “war on drugs,” Medrano promised to review the policies. In order to ensure security, he advocated cooperation with state and federal police, checks for the disreputably corrupt local police force, and a more thorough selection process to join the police force. “First, we need to get our police better equipped and better trained, so they don’t become accomplices of the criminal gangs,” said Medrano.

To highlight the degree of corruption found in Fresnillo, on June 7, 2013, a menacing message from the Gulf Cartel, along with 3 executed bodies, was left for the municipal police, warning them against working for the Zetas. The next day, it was reported that only 40 policemen in the whole municipality came to work. Medrano said that he has no prior affiliation with any groups of organized crimes, which would enable him to prioritize the population’s best interest and security.

While his opposing parties focused on making an issue of his sexual orientation, labeling it as a crime, Medrano made it clear that marriage equality would not be part of his agenda. Although he never concretely opposed or advocated same-sex marriage or adoption by gay couples in his municipio, he has hinted at the fact that it is not ‘acceptable,’ as he feels the population of his small and conservative municipio is not ready for such a challenge to their conservative values.

Alejandro Brito, director of one of Mexico’s biggest gay rights group, “Letra S”, believes that the election of Medrano is a big step for gay rights activists in the country. Although significant gains have been made in homosexual rights in Mexico, 95 percent of Mexican LGBTs feel oppressed by others, despite the 2001 law prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation [Article 1 of the Federal Constitution]. Much opposition to same sex relationships still exists in other parts of the mainly Catholic country, as homosexuality is perceived as immoral. Benjamin Medrano did not escape the persecution of anti-gay activists, and was on the receiving end of a number of malicious phone-calling campaigns.

Just like any other discriminatory principles, the machista culture of homophobia can be detrimental to politics as it detracts from more important issues. To be elected by popular vote in a community notorious for its conservative values depicts the social evolution of Mexicans towards acceptance of the gay community in the machista culture of Mexico. The people of Fresnillo looked past the sexual orientation of Medrano in order to focus on his policies to create a safer environment for them.  This can be seen as a step towards a slow vanishing of homophobia and machista culture in Mexico.

Ines Lecland

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