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Mexico's leading presidential candidate was stopped at a checkpoint by masked men

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In a country where cartels control huge swaths of territory, checkpoints manned by masked men are not unusual. But on Sunday Mexico's leading presidential candidate was caught up at one. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Video of the encounter shows about a dozen masked men surrounding the car of Claudia Sheinbaum.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Spanish).

CLAUDIA SHEINBAUM: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: She tells the men in ski masks that she's already stopped to talk to residents, but they insist she rolls down her window.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "We want you to remember these mountains, the poor people when you're in power," one man says. They say they want her to see the reality of what's happening in Chiapas, a state in southern Mexico that is caught in the middle of the fight between the country's two biggest cartels. The men eventually let her car roll by. But the brazenness of the incident roils Mexico. This is a country where at least 17 political candidates have been assassinated this year. Sheinbaum told reporters that it was all very strange. She hinted that maybe this was staged by a political opponent. Some community members, one reporter says, identified the masked men as members of the powerful Sinaloa cartel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEINBAUM: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Spanish).

SHEINBAUM: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "I don't believe it," she says. "Were you intimidated," the journalists asked. "Not at all," she answers. The president of Mexico, Sheinbaum's mentor, classified the incident as not very serious. Tiziano Breda, who studies political violence at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, says it's impossible not to see this as an attempt to intimidate Mexico's leading presidential candidate. But the government, he says, has always downplayed threats like this. Admitting it is serious, he says, would be to acknowledge things in Mexico are bad.

TIZIANO BREDA: Because it means the government hasn't been able to rein in organized crime.

PERALTA: It would mean that, instead, they've allowed it to flourish. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.