Political Pollsters Go Missing in Western Mexico

By MARK STEVENSON | August 2, 2011 | 6:44 PM EDT

MORELIA, Mexico (AP) — A second Mexican polling firm reported three workers missing Tuesday in a western state plagued by drug violence, two days after six workers from a survey company vanished from the same place.

The nine disappearances in an area of Michoacan state considered a stronghold of warring drug cartels are being treated as kidnappings, according to a Michoacan state government spokesman who was not authorized to be quoted by name.

They also raise concerns that drug violence could interfere with the state's Nov. 13 gubernatorial election and possibly Mexico's 2012 presidential race as well.

"What are we going to do with our poll watchers? What are we going to with the precinct workers?" said Fausto Vallejo, the gubernatorial candidate for the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party in Michoacan.

He called on the state and federal governments to step up security measures for the elections, especially for mayoral and congressional candidates, who are believed to be more vulnerable because they live and campaign in rural areas where the cartels are active.

Federal and state police used a helicopter and patrol vehicles to search the area near the city of Apatzingan where all nine workers disappeared, but found no trace as of Tuesday afternoon. Three missing from the firm, Parametria, were last known to be in the hamlet of La Cofradia, the same area where six employees of Consulta Mitofsky went missing on Saturday.

Parametria was conducting what's known as a "mirror" poll to the data Mitofsky had already collected for the upcoming state elections.

Neither company would say who had contracted the poll.

The companies held out hopes the employees could be lost in the rural dirt roads of the area, though as time passed it seemed less likely.

Parametria said in a statement that it had done polling work in Apatzingan "without incidents, so that the disappearance of the polling personnel is an unusual event."

Two of its workers arrived in Cofradia Monday to interview potential voters. A supervisor went to pick them up, and all three disappeared.

The six Mitofsky pollsters were part of a team of about three dozen who arrived in Michoacan last week to conduct polls.

Three of the workers, who normally conduct interviews with potential voters in their homes, failed to return to their hotel in Apatzingan on Saturday. Three colleagues who set out to look for them also disappeared, the prosecutor's spokesman said.

Mitofsky workers in the field usually wear hats and shirts with the company name, as well as an ID badge, said an employee who asked not to be identified because he wasn't authorized to speak to the press. Workers do not identify their clients when polling people but do identify themselves as working for Mitofsky, he added.

Mitofsky also has a policy of having workers contact superiors at regular intervals to report their location.

Jorge Buendia, director of Mexico's Buendia and Laredo polling firm, said his company is canceling plans for on-the-ground polling for the Michoacan elections until it knows more about what happened.

Rather than being targeted for their work, Buendia said pollsters can run into danger from criminals who mistake them for rival gang members or from locals steeped in "paranoia" about outsiders.

"What's important is to guarantee the security of the pollsters. Until we know really well what is happening, prudence is preferable," Buendia said.

Federal Security spokesman Alejandro Poire said the government has offered help to state authorities in investigating the disappearances and has been in touch with Mitofsky president Roy Campos, who runs one of Mexico's most prominent polling firms.

"It's a case the emphasizes the need to speed up the mechanisms we have for fighting crimes like kidnapping ... particularly in this area of the country," Poire told reporters Tuesday before the other three were reported missing.

The area is known as stronghold for two Michoacan-based drug cartels, La Familia and The Knights Templar, which have fought police, each other and other gangs.

President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on organized crime by sending army troops to battle the cartels soon after taking office in December 2006. More than 35,000 people have died in drug violence since then, according to government figures. Some groups put the number higher than 40,000.

Calderon's sister, former Sen. Luisa Maria Calderon, is running for governor of the state as a candidate with the president's conservative National Action Party.

While Mexican drug cartels have not previously targeted polling places, pollsters or poll workers, they have been blamed in the killings of candidates and elected officials.

Last year, gunmen believed to be working for a drug cartel assassinated Rodolfo Torre, the leading candidate for governor in the border state of Tamaulipas, where the Gulf and Zetas drug cartels are engaged in bloody turf battles. But there have seldom been attacks against polling firms or voting officials in Mexican elections.

Maria de los Angeles Llanderal Zaragoza, president of the state elections commission in Michoacan, said she told her 2,000 employees in 117 offices around the state to be careful, but they are continuing their work.

"We're being careful with our people in the institution," she said, "but so far fortunately we haven't had any incidents."


Associated Press writers E. Eduardo Castillo and Larry Kaplow contributed to this report from Mexico City.