How Federal Agents Protect Candidates in Mexico’s Deadly Election Season | Elections News

When LeBaron was first assigned a security team, he was reluctant. He refused to even let Ayala drive. “I underestimated him,” he said.

These days, however, LeBaron admits he leans on his security team. Agent Ayala is never far away, looking for danger.

Ayala explained that the only time the security team withdraws is when LeBaron is campaigning in remote areas where the presence of the National Guard would likely cause a confrontation with local cartels.

However, not all security threats arise from organized crime. During one event, LeBaron and 700 others rode into a town on horseback, and Ayala’s quick reactions prevented a thick tree branch from falling on Johnson Berlin, LeBaron’s wife.

Wearing an impeccably pressed short-sleeved shirt, Ayala explained that his job is to be flexible and facilitate but not hinder the candidate’s campaign. This means that plans are made – and changed – on the spot.

“Conducting security during the campaign is different from normal VIP protection,” Ayala said.

“Everything has changed. We need to be ready at all times without the luxury of planning primary, secondary and tertiary routes that provide standard diplomatic protection.”

Ayala points out that many high-level politicians have tight schedules to structure their day, organized with the help of a large staff. Protecting candidates like LeBaron, however, requires more flexibility.

However, the protection teams are not always successful. On the last day of the campaign, Jose Alfredo Cabrera, a candidate in Guerrero, was killed despite having a National Guard security team.

Ayala blamed new protocols for creating security weaknesses. He said they require National Guard officers to wear uniforms and stand at a distance from candidates.

The new rules “do not respect the usual bodyguard protocols that require you to be as close as possible to the director at all times,” he explained.

Ayala also underlined the need to adapt when on the road with candidates, something he said the new rules do not provide for.

“When there is no agenda, you have to do everything in the moment. “Usual protocols, such as not driving at night, no longer apply,” he said.

A bull rider holds a bucking bull as he enters the ring during a rodeo.
A rider holds on as he enters the ring atop a bucking bull during a rodeo where LeBaron campaigned (Lexie Harrison-Cripps/Al Jazeera)

Ayala’s adaptability was tested for the final time when LeBaron left the final meeting of his campaign in Matachi, an area known to be particularly dangerous, at 11 p.m.

During the course of the event, Ayala had received information that armed men were patrolling the surrounding streets in approximately twenty vehicles.

The two-hour drive back to LeBaron’s house was going to be dangerous. Time was of the essence: every second in the open air was a second in danger.

Previously, LeBaron had always insisted on breaking protocol by sitting in the front, but now he followed the officer’s instructions to sit in the back with his wife. Two National Guard trucks clamped down on the candidate’s vehicle.

As they drove, Johnson Berlin noticed a truck behind them behaving erratically, its headlights flashing through the rear window. Fear flashed through her eyes as the truck repeatedly tried to overtake the speeding convoy.

The National Guard officers trained their weapons on the truck, the green lasers from their firearms bouncing over the vehicle as it finally passed the convoy and disappeared into the night.

Ayala, LeBaron and the convoy continued to fly down the country roads, with Ayala hugging the lead vehicle, never more than a few feet away. They sped through red lights and reached speeds of 180 kilometers per hour (120 miles per hour).

But then the chase suddenly came to a halt. They needed gas.

“We’re in the middle of what feels like a high-speed chase and we have to stop for half an hour to get fuel. It’s super inefficient and dangerous,” LeBaron would later note, after finally reaching the relative safety of his home.

But the campaign was finally over. There was nothing he could do but wait for the results of Sunday’s election — and see where life would take him next.

Back To Top