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Mexican Candidates No Longer Have To Be Tied To Traditional Parties

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Voters across the border in Mexico are also shaking up their political system - at least, they have a chance to. Mexican ballots in some upcoming elections will be full of independent candidates, free from established parties. Some of the voting takes place just across the bridge from Laredo, Texas, in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. And that's where we find NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: The leading independent candidate for mayor of Nuevo Laredo rides around town on a Triumph motorcycle with a sidecar attached, festooned with campaign slogans. Ramon Cantu just resigned as publisher of El Manana de Nuevo Laredo to run for the municipal presidency that his scrappy newspaper has covered for decades.

So why do you want to be mayor of Nuevo Laredo?

RAMON CANTU: Everybody thinks that Mexico is very corrupt. Not everyone is. I want to prove that.

BURNETT: He pulls his motorcycle up to a ladies bingo hall. The crusading newspaper publisher finds himself calling a raffle number for the winner of a kitchen blender.

CANTU: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: But then, the payoff - he gets to hear the brand-new campaign chant.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Chanting in Spanish).

BURNETT: Cantu is attempting to ride a wave of popular revulsion with traditional political parties. They've made Mexico one of the most stable political systems in Latin America and also one of the most deeply corrupt. Two years ago, Mexico amended its constitution to permit independent candidates. The old electoral system creaked open. New competitors rushed in, and history was made last summer. A cussing, colorful horseman and mayor known to everyone as El Bronco won the governor's office of the northern state of Nuevo Leon. On a recent visit to Austin, Texas, Bronco had this advice for political greenhorn Ramon Cantu.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EL BRONCO: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "Take out the old chip and put in a new one," he says. "You don't have the party infrastructure anymore to depend on. Look at what you could do for yourself. Go out and tell the people what reality is." This election season, independents are running for governor in 13 states and for mayor in hundreds of municipalities. Mexicans vote on June 5. But independents in most places have a tough road without the federal funding that traditional parties depend on, cautions Ken Greene. He's a government professor at the University of Texas who follows Mexican politics.

KEN GREENE: I think independent candidates are most likely to be successful where they have name recognition, where they're really, really good at using social media and where local voters are tremendously dissatisfied with the existing candidates and parties.

BURNETT: In Nuevo Laredo, where the field is crowded with eight mayoral candidates, Cantu may be a contender. He belongs to the respected Deandar family that has run the newspaper here since it was founded in the 1920s in post-revolutionary Mexico. He's all over Facebook, and he's running on the same slate with 14 maverick city council candidates - all fresh faces. There's Mama Lupita, a beloved local do-gooder who runs an orphanage. There's a 20-year-old university student activist. And there's a 59-year-old car mechanic who fabricates prosthetic legs and gives them to the poor. Ramon Cantu sits in the spacious backyard of the Deandar family compound, where purple bougainvillea blooms and servants bring glasses of rosa jamaica tea.

CANTU: (Through interpreter) In the newspaper, we look at problems, but it's like we're spectators at the bullfight. We try to improve things, but we never seem to make a change. I turned 50 last year. I want a transparent administration. Corruption is getting worse all the time. I want to enter the ring and grab the bull by the horns.

BURNETT: Nuevo Laredo, the busiest commercial land port in Mexico, is prized territory for the drug cartels. Over the past 10 years, El Manana has been a frequent target for its crime reporting. One editor was killed and another maimed. Narcos have tossed a grenade inside the newspaper and machine-gunned the outside of it. Cantu openly concedes that this paper self-censors in order to avoid the wrath of the savage Zeta cartel.

In Nuevo Laredo, you, as publisher of the newspaper, uniquely know how dangerous the cartels can be. How could you, as mayor, govern this city in the shadow of the Zetas?

CANTU: (Through interpreter) They have to respect the people. If a mayor wins who's not bought, who is honest, who doesn't owe people favors, then there's no reason to bother us.

BURNETT: If independent candidate Ramon Cantu can pull off an upset victory, he may find out who wins the bullfight. John Burnett, NPR News, Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.