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Mayoral Race In Border Town Parallels A Woman's Historic Bid For Mexican Presidency

Lolita Montaño smiles as she walks out of an office inside City Hall in Agua Prieta.
Michel Marizco
Lolita Montaño smiles as she walks out of an office inside City Hall in Agua Prieta.
Women in Mexican Politics
The Mexican border town of Agua Prieta is electing a new mayor. Two women are running for the job for the first time in the town’s history. On a national stage, another woman is making a historic bid in Mexican politics.

AGUA PRIETA, MEXICO -- By now, with summer on its way, Mexico's political season is hot.

In border cities like Agua Prieta, just south of Douglas, Ariz., pedestrians can hear music playing from a dusty sedan. As it drives through town, the car sounds a peppy anthem for the National Action Party -- the PAN – and rallies support for candidates like Lolita Montaño.

The July 1, 2012, election is the first time a woman will appear on a ballot for mayor of Agua Prieta as a PAN candidate. But Montaño is no political neophyte. On an afternoon in May, she could be found in full campaign mode: witnessing a wedding, and touring the offices of City Hall. Montaño has already done stints in the state legislature and the city council.

“I'm a woman who wears skirts,” she said, taking a break from shaking hands with city workers. “But I can wear the pants comfortably, too.”

Like many other border cities in Northern Mexico, Agua Prieta is suffering from an image problem. Montaño' said her priority is restoring the town's reputation as a safe place for Americans to visit. Her husband is a doctor who caters to patients who drive south from the United States.

But even as she campaigns, Montaño is paying attention to another race. Josefina Vásquez Mota -- also a PAN-ista -- is trying to become Mexico's first female president.

“It's not so much that men didn't want women in politics. It's that women up until now have never stood up and said, ‘I am here,’ Montaño said. “Well, I am here.”

Her campaign manager, Arturo Romero, puts it this way, “In Mexico, it’s time for the woman -- to lead us here in Agua Prieta and to lead us here in Mexico.”

But that woman may not be Romero’s boss.

Irma Villalobos de Terán is a political heavyweight in Agua Prieta. Terán is a member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or the PRI. It’s the same party that ruled Mexico for 71 years before Vicente Fox and the PAN took control in 2000.

Terán has already served once as Agua Prieta’s mayor. Her husband, a power figure in his own right, is the mayor now. At a recent rally, Terán could be seen energizing a crowd and invoking the name of the presidential frontrunner, fellow PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto.

“No more massacres in our Mexico,” she announced to the crowd. "We don't want more death. We want -- we need -- Enrique Peña Nieto!”

Multiple attempts to interview Terán for this story were unsuccessful.

Women Taking Charge

People familiar with Agua Prieta’s mayoral race -- and Mexican politics in general -- say the political climate is changing.

“Women in Mexico are making really, really significant strides,” said Erik Lee, Associate Director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University

Lee pointed to a handful of women who have already landed powerful positions in the country’s unions and government.

“The Mexican public has become accustomed to this very quickly,” Lee said.

In a way, Mexico has had to get accustomed to this. For the past decade, the country has had a quota system that requires 40 percent of a party’s candidates for federal office to be women. But the parties have struggled to comply, and Mexico is lagging behind other Latin American countries that have already elected female presidents. Still, Mexico’s doing better than at least one of its neighbors, Lee said.

“I have a running bet with some colleagues about whether the U.S. or Mexico will have a woman president first. My money is on Mexico,” he said.

The Perception Problem

Despite these strides, and with security concerns front and center, there’s still a perception that a woman might not be ready for Mexico’s highest office.

More from the Fronteras Desk journalists who reported along the border about impact the Mexican elections will have on the U.S.

In Agua Prieta's main plaza, shoe shiner Uriel Castillo, 59, takes a break from watching TV to talk politics.

“A woman can't fight against drug traffickers and all that rebelliousness,” Castillo said. “She could be threatened, and fearful, because she's a woman.”

This view isn’t hard to find in border towns in Northern Mexico. Some even say Mexico’s fight against drugs and cartel violence is a “male problem.” That’s why Castillo won’t vote for a female president.

But he’s fine with a woman running Agua Prieta because this town is a relative oasis of calm along a turbulent and violent border.