By JESSICA GUERRERO
MORELIA, Michoacán — Just three weeks before Michoacán Governor Silvano Aureoles Conejo is due to end his six-year term of office, the western Mexican state is rife with social tensions and rampant violence that threaten to embroil the once-rising political star in a scandal that could bury his future ambitions permanently.
Aureoles Conejo, who at the beginning of his political career openly declared himself a leftist with a progressive ideology ascribed to the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), today finds himself in one of the most vulnerable moments of his political career. His aspirations to become a candidate for the Mexican presidency in 2024 have been irreparably tarnished by a string of recent scandals related to his administrative mismanagement and the indifference with which he has handled the mounting security crisis in his home state.
Moreover, Michoacán’s economy is in tatters, and the state has become Ground Zero for a raging power struggle between the country’s dueling drug cartels.
Vigilante mobs armed with high-powered weapons of questionable origin parole the streets in the southern Tierra Caliente of the state, where federal police and government forces do not dare to enter, and warring cartel members casual take pot shots at civilian passersby and randomly burn cars and homes as a show of their martial might.
And throughout the surging bedlam and unbridled violence, Aureoles Conejo has turned a blind eye, refusing to get involved and pointing the finger at the federal government for the rising lawlessness in the state.
As a result, the once-very-popular Aureoles Conejo is now widely hated by Michoacanos of all stripes, and his projected Sept. 30 exodus from office is being hailed as a date that cannot come too soon.
But the now-reviled governor’s popularity rating was not always so low.
In fact, Aureoles Conejo was one of Michoacán governors with the most votes in the electoral history of that state, with 36.7 percent of the total ballots cast in the 2015 election.
His victory over the other candidates was overwhelming, which was surprising given the numerous ups and downs in the administration of his predecessor, Leonel Godoy Rangel, also from the PRD, whose half-brother was investigated for allegedly being linked to local cartels.
Despite all this, Aureoles Conejo began his mandate with great public support and trust from the Michoacán citizenry.
And his first few years in office could be deemed a success.
The social and health programs implemented by his government reached record numbers. The results were palpable. In 2019, the state’s economy soared and Michoacán was suddenly no longer among the 10 states with the highest poverty rates in the country.
According to data from National Council for the Evaluation of Social Development Policy (Coneval), a whopping 550,000 people in the state (with a total population of 4.7 million) overcame poverty or extreme poverty in 2019.
Almost overnight, Michoacán was positioned among the 11 Mexican states that contributed more than two-thirds of the national Gross Domestic Product with regard to primary activities, that is, agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry, fishing and hunting, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi).
But midway through his mandate, Aureoles Conejo’s sweet streak began to sour. Continuous political squabbles between him and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who took office in December 2018, have not only led to controversy for the governor, but have also exposed the scarce collaboration between the PRD and AMLO’s leftist National Regeneration Movement (Morena), both of which claim to prioritize the needs of the poor.
Meanwhile, the security situation in Michoacán was coming to a head, especially in the central and southern region of the state, where cartel gangs have interpreted AMLO’s controversial “hugs, not bullets” policy as a carte blanche licence to wage all-out war on one another.
Not only did this lead to a dramatic peak in violence, but it also gave birth to a massive displacement of thousands of inhabitants from the region.
Crime groups freely blockaded highways and disrupted commercial and industrial activities, sending economic productivity into a tailspin and investors hot-footing it for more stable grounds.
And to make for a perfect social and political storm, education workers, egged on by unfulfilled promises from the federal government and delays in the payments of their salaries, also began to protest, blocking vital rail lines and stalling millions of dollars in product transports.
To be fair, not all of the brewing crisis was of Aureoles Conejo’s own making. Drug lords had been staking out territory in Michoacán and teachers had been fighting for economic and partisan power long before he became governor.
But he definitely helped to stir the pot by refusing to take any responsibility for the ensuing political storm.
And as a financial liquidity problem began to spiral the state into fiscal cataclysm, Aureoles Conejo took the absurd approach of arguing that Michoacán’s finances were “perfectly healthy” and that the current situation had been generated from a previous outstanding deficit of some 7 billion pesos. He also claimed that the money was owed by the federal government and not the state.
In addition to all this, the Federal Superior Audit (ASF) is allegedly investigating the unexplained expenditure of 16 billion pesos by the current administration of the Michoacan, which to date Aureoles Conejo’s government has refused to respond to.
But the coup de grâce in Aureoles Conejo’s theater of folly was what might just constitute the final nail in his political coffin: In his last weeks in office, Aureoles Conejo decided to make a whirlwind trip to Europe — supposedly to present his case to international organizations regarding an alleged intervention by cartels in the June 6 gubernatorial elections, in which PRD candidate Carlos Herrera lost to Morena competitor Alfredo Bedolla Ramírez by a difference of 50,000 votes.
Given the timing and the pending crises back in Michoacán, many critics have said that the real purpose of the trip was a last hurray for the governor at the expense of the state’s taxpayers.
In the end, it will be history that judges Aureoles Consejo’s tumultuous six-year term in office. But, for the most part, the people of Michoacán have already made up their minds on the matter.