Meet El Bronco, Mexico's man of the moment

He's survived attacks by hit men. His son did not. But Jaime Rodríguez's determination to crack Mexico's corrupt political system has finally paid off

RODRIGO CRUZ/The New York Times/Redux

RODRIGO CRUZ/The New York Times/Redux

Update, June 8: Unofficial results suggest independent Jaime Rodriguez, a.k.a. “El Bronco,” has won the governor’s race in Nuevo Leon. Here is our profile of the candidate, published last week:

Mexico’s man of the moment campaigns in cowboy boots, constantly cusses and carries an iPhone as his weapon of choice. He goes by the nickname El Bronco (roughly translated as “Untamed” or “Rebellious”), rose from rags to riches, and survived two assassination attempts by Los Zetas, the ruthless cartel he crossed swords with as mayor of a Monterrey-area municipality.

Now Jaime Rodríguez is gunning for the governorship of Nuevo León state as an independent candidate and taking aim at what citizens increasingly consider the country’s most corrupt institutions: political parties. “They consider themselves owners, not public servants,” he said of the parties, while travelling between events in a Cadillac Escalade covered with multi-coloured horsehead logos. “There are cases in which politicians are accused of corruption and no one does anything. They’re not even investigated,” he continued. “People are fed up and moving over to our side.”

El Bronco’s campaign for the June 7 elections is unprecedented in Mexico, which barred independent candidates from the ballot until this year. It’s also as much about crashing the control of the country’s parties over the political system as it is rooting out corruption in a northern state famed for industrial fortunes and thrift, but notorious for crime in recent years.

Several polls show Rodríguez leading in Nuevo León, in spite of rules rigged against independent candidates in terms of financing and advertising, and a crushing lack of local media interest. That has forced the self-described social media addict to promote himself through Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp.

His growing support as an independent candidate demonstrates the depth of discontent with political parties not just in the state, but throughout the republic, observers say. Corruption and conflict of interest scandals consume President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration and the opposition keeps its criticisms of the government in check. “It’s turning out to be a real, potential way to shake the political system in Nuevo León and maybe all of Mexico eventually,” says Mauricio Sada, a former majority leader in the Nuevo León legislature, who left the right-leaning National Action Party (PAN) and helped form a citizen group supporting independent candidacies. “If he wins, it’s as significant a moment as when [Vicente] Fox won the presidency.”

Related: Enrique Peña Nieto, a champion for the wrong people

Fox, running for the PAN, ousted the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2000, ending 71 years of one-party rule. The following 15 years have proved disenchanting for many Mexicans as they experienced subpar economic growth, creeping corruption and political parties poorly trying to emulate the PRI (which regained power in 2012). “It was easier to tell who the good guys were” prior to 2000, Sada says, as the PRI played the role of villain in politics and erstwhile opposition parties presented platforms of clean governance. Nowadays, “It’s hard to find a good guy.”

The annual Global Barometer of Corruption survey by anti-graft watchdog Transparency International found 91 per cent of Mexicans consider political parties “corrupt”—higher than the police and public officials. Observers say there’s no correlation between the levels of corruption in a state or city and the party in power.

Political parties can be profitable enterprises in Mexico. The country’s 10 registered parties collected more than $400 million in public funds last year (political parties are given money by the Federal Electoral Institute based on a formula of votes received in the last federal election)—in a country where nearly half the population is considered poor. “Most of these parties are rent seekers, and even the big ones are about rent seeking,” says Federico Estévez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “It’s the partidocracia”—as Mexicans call the rule by political parties—“every election cycle you’re reminded of what’s wrong with the way they set it up.” Small parties are often accused of being family businesses, like the Green Party.

Making parties even more unpopular was the aftermath of an agreement known as the Pacto por México between Peña Nieto and the three biggest parties to advance an agenda of structural reforms in areas like education, energy and telecommunications. The pacto ended gridlock in Congress, but left a perception that the parties were obeying the president—a point reinforced by the opposition silence after reporters revealed that the president, his wife and finance ministers all purchased homes from prominent government contractors. “They look like sheep,” says Ilán Semo, political historian at the Iberoamerican University. “At the time to ask for an investigation, they all stayed silent.”

El Bronco participated in PRI politics for more than 30 years—an irony not lost on his critics, who accuse him of opportunism after the PRI opted for another candidate. Sada had his doubts, too, but recalls coming away convinced something was different after a discussion with Rodríguez last fall. “This guy sounds like a born-again Christian,” Sada says. “Something’s driving him that you can’t put on a list or identify easily.”

Rodríguez grew up on in a ranch without electricity, the fourth of 10 children to a mother “who couldn’t read, but made her children go to school.” An engineer by profession, he raised horses and grew alfalfa and got the name El Bronco after a dustup with the leaders of a farmers’ groups.

Rodríguez gained fame after becoming mayor of García in 2009, northwest of Monterrey, where he confronted Los Zetas—right as Nuevo León plunged into violence. An aide says he created an elite police unit, which captured crime leaders, and dismantled a network of halcones (spies paid to tip off cartels to police and military movements) by having people text him personally with information.

It came at a cost. Hit men twice made assassination attempts, on one occasion spraying his bulletproof SUV with 2,800 shots. His two-year-old daughter was abducted, though returned. One of his six children, a 22-year-old son, was kidnapped and killed. It was then that Rodríguez found his anti-system religion. “I made a commitment, as I held my dead son in my arms, that I was going to change this country,” Rodríguez says. “That’s my promise, that’s why I’m in this.”

Taking on the parties is no easy task. By law, only registered parties can place political ads on TV and radio—and stations are obliged to give the parties 48 minutes per day in free airtime. Parties also receive public funds for their campaigns ($4 million in Nuevo León) and limit private donations to just 10 per cent of what’s given by the government. The approval of independent candidates, done as part of political reform, left the rules for fundraising uncertain, leaving Rodríguez to campaign on a shoestring. “They gave me 38 (TV and radio) spots against 2,300 for the PRI and PAN and we’re beating them.”

Media coverage has been scant with Monterrey’s big three broadcasters mostly boycotting his events—the product, Rodríguez claims, of his promising to spend the current government’s communications budget on social programs instead of TV and radio ads. What coverage comes out is often unflattering or raises old scandals such as spending in García or doubting the details of his daughter’s kidnapping. Observers say the stream of scandal stories is having little impact, especially after the present government experiences embarrassments such as 300,000 licence plates going missing from the DMV as auto theft rates soared.

“All that’s happened to (Rodríguez) in the media—it’s only helped him,” says Juan Manuel Ramos, who monitors campaign social media activity on the website RedesQuintoPoder (Fifth Estate Networks.)

El Bronco beats the media by generating social media buzz. He wakes at 5 a.m. each day and spends two hours responding to WhatsApp messages—not unlike the way Rob Ford used to return constituents’ phone calls. Meetings are announced on Facebook, usually hours beforehand, and forgo the usual giveaways and bussing in of poor voters, who attend in exchange for things like free T-shits. An estimated 2,000 residents showed up at a campaign event in the scruffy Solidaridad neighbourhood of Monterrey, listening attentively as Rodríguez reeled off his campaign promises: better transit, health and education. “You know how we’re going to pay for this?” he asked. “By stopping this robbery and recovering what’s already been robbed.”

Attendees speak enthusiastically of El Bronco. “He took on the narcos,” says scrap-metal dealer Casimiro Zuñiga, who was kidnapped by Los Zetas in 2010, hit with a hammer, and only freed after giving his captors $1,600 and his truck. Politicians “don’t do anything for people in poor areas. They only worry about their own grandeur.” But El Bronco? “He’s the best.”

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