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World In Mexico, a gang member turned legislator stirs debate about who should hold political power

Pedro Cesar Carrizales, a former gang member nicknamed El Mijis, stands in front of the Ponciano Arriaga Leija plenary hall at the state legislature in San Luis Potosi, where he is a recently elected congressman.

Mauricio Palos/The Globe and Mail

A group of young students was on a tour of the hushed congress building in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi not long ago and finding it all evidently uninspiring, until they spotted someone they knew. “That’s El Mijis!” they whispered. The state congress member Pedro Cesar Carrizales, better known by his gang name El Mijis, walked over and they turned expectant faces toward him.

But a guide had arranged for another legislator, an elegant white-haired woman, to address the children about public service. The kids slumped. Mr. Carrizales, clad in ripped jeans and a T-shirt that showed his many tattoos, stood by looking both ill at ease and bemused. When the guide, with visible reluctance, invited him to speak, he muttered a few words about being a state deputy and prepared to duck out. But when a student pulled out a phone for a selfie, El Mijis plunged into the group and flashed a gang sign that had become a campaign symbol. The children cheered. Their teacher shuddered.

A child brings out his phone for a selfie at the San Luis Potosi legislature, with Mr. Carrizales flashing a gang sign in the background.

Mauricio Palos/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Carrizales, 38, has been a gang member, drug addict and prisoner, and he could not be less typical of politicians in a city that is half conservative Catholic bastion of preserved colonial buildings, half NAFTA-generated industrial zone. Both the rancheros and the manufacturing barons have deep pockets, and it is from these communities that the state’s ruling class has traditionally come.

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Elected in July, he won his seat easily, but the victory generated a tide of outrage on social media, where citizens angry about violence demanded to know what right a self-proclaimed gang veteran had to public office. Mr. Carrizale’s new career comes as part of the biggest political upheaval in Mexico in a century. The president-elect, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who will be sworn in on Dec. 1, is a leftist who made bold promises about ending the corruption associated with the traditional elite, and governing for the country’s poor.

Mr. Lopez Obrador’s National Reform Movement, or MORENA, took control of the federal congress, most state governments and governorships, and municipalities – ousting the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, that has governed for the bulk of the past 100 years, and many entrenched powerbrokers, in the process.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will be sworn in as Mexico's president on Dec. 1.

Henry Romero/Reuters

Mr. Carrizale’s campaign was bolstered by the tide of support for Mr. Lopez Obrador, whose pledges include amnesty for people with prison sentences for minor drug-related crimes and new social programs, including scholarships to draw young people away from gangs and crime. El Mijis, the congress member, is now, inevitably, the national emblem of the MORENA promise of a different kind of politics.

“He is potentially the seed for having a democracy that’s closer to the people,” said Froylan Enciso, a historian in Sinaloa who specializes in the political economy of narco-trafficking and related violence in Mexico.

“He doesn’t look or talk like a professional – but I prefer this to super smart people who look very good and don’t have a clue what people really need. The people he is concerned with, they are also citizens of Mexico, and that’s something that liberals, including me, sometimes forget,” Mr. Enciso said.

Mr. Carrizales greets a constituent while walking toward the legislature.

Mauricio Palos/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Carrizales arrives at his congressional office. A poster of Cuban leader Fidel Castro hangs on one of the walls.

Mauricio Palos/The Globe and Mail

A poster of the newly elected congress hangs on a desk at Mr. Carrizales' office.

Mauricio Palos/The Globe and Mail

Mr. Carrizales joined the street gang that controlled his neighbourhood when he was just 11 years old, after its members started beating him up. It was join or be beaten, he said. “And they became my second family.” He was using drugs before he was 12 and soon became addicted to crack. There was petty crime and a lot of fighting – with other gangs for territory, and with police. He rose over the years to become the leader of the gang. Before long, he spent time in prison: for arson, for assault and then for having shot four people. That last charge, he said, was bogus; he became a target for police not because he committed crimes, but because he was trying to make peace.

It happened like this: He said that when he was in his late 20s, his mother died; he upped his drug use and attempted suicide. He didn’t succeed in killing himself but was desperate – until one day he encountered an old woman trying to clamber down from a truck. He helped her, she blessed him, and he said he felt a sudden surge of peace that made him renounce everything he’d done before.

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He got a job on a construction project, took some gang members along and soon was running a project to employ street youth in painting and other urban maintenance projects. He brokered peace between gangs that once fought – and that won him no friends with security forces. “What I was doing worked against their interests. Nobody liked it," he said. "How were they supposed to justify their lack of ability to bring security to the population? They get all their resources and blame violence on us. I was pacifying the neighbourhoods and they wanted to shut me down.” Thus, he said, the police manufactured criminal charges; it was only because he had already established some community credentials and connections that he managed to force police to investigate and establish his innocence, he said.

Meanwhile, local politicians who saw his ability to organize chavos bandos, gang members, and their neighbourhoods, started to see him as a useful way to bring out voters; one party after another enlisted him. “Then, in 2018, I wanted to take the wave of what I was doing further, and I saw that I could be bringing the same voters for myself,” he said. Every party wanted him as a candidate in the 2018 election. “I was like the birthday girl at a quinceanera: Everyone wanted to dance with me,” he said with a chuckle, referring to the giant celebrations many Mexicans throw for a daughter’s 15th birthday. He chose MORENA, in the end, as the party’s platform most closely aligned with his own worldview.

He has introduced a couple of bills since he arrived in congress and has plans for many more. His projects include legislation to have social-security benefits extended to prisoners – nearly 40 per cent of those in Mexico’s prisons have not been convicted and are awaiting trial. Many are never convicted, but while in jail, Mr. Carrizales said, they can’t work and their families are thrown into poverty (or deeper poverty). He also wants prison reform and more support for those released from jail.

“Our prisons are universities of evil. You are put in there for stealing eggs and in a heartbeat you’ve learned to steal car. What I want is real social reinsertion,” he said. He wants to establish a program to send teenage gang members to assist families searching for missing loved ones in Mexico’s crisis of disappearances – so that the youth see first-hand the devastation wrought by the violence – and to institutionalize steps for authorities to respond within 24 hours to reported disappearances.

“He has the right ideas and he genuinely is trying to do positive things based on the experiences that he has had,” said Odracir Barquera, a political strategist and a member of the PRI who has worked for years with some of Mexico’s most powerful politicians. When he read about Mr. Carrizales this year, he called him up to check him out and was so impressed he offered his consulting services pro bono. “It’s a very positive sign to have someone like him come into the decision-making process because ... the biggest issue is the social crisis, and decision-makers are not close to that crisis. He is; he knows the reality of things in jail, in gang areas. He knows what marginalization is doing to people.”

Mr. Carrizales delivers blankets to Honduran migrants outside a shelter in San Luis Potosi.

Mauricio Palos/The Globe and Mail

Near the shelter, his uncle and bodyguard Miguel Angel Zuiga secures the area.

Mauricio Palos/The Globe and Mail

Others in Mr. Carrizale’s political milieu, however, have not been so favourably impressed. Within weeks of his inauguration, he was scrapping with a fellow deputy, Paula Arreola, over who was going to hold various positions in the legislature. Ms. Arreola is also newly elected, for MORENA, but she comes from a PRI dynasty: Her father, grandfather and uncle all held the congressional seat she now occupies. Her father also ran a federal agency for the PRI. The family is wealthy and landed, exactly the kind of people who traditionally hold power here.

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“I’m not a woman who judges the social, economic and educational condition of people and, yes, today Pedro [Carrizales] is in the state congress; it is the result of the democracy that we have in Mexico,” she said carefully, in a recent chat in a sunny, tidy office that offered a sharp contrast to the chaotic bustle of Mr. Carrizale’s. But, she went on: Just because a person is elected, it does not automatically follow that they are qualified to lead.

“We come with a knowledge of politics that’s more familiar," she said, using the plural pronoun to mean people from her socio-economic background. “We have a little more maturity to understand that things must be done with honesty and integrity. ... Well, I understand that, and that’s how I’m working."

Ms. Arreola, 28, said she left the PRI for MORENA because there was more space for a young woman in the new party. The local media declared it more a case of spotting which way the wind was blowing, as an electorate enraged with the corruption scandals and impunity of the PRI government was clearly going to deliver the party a crushing defeat. She said the country “can’t return to the way we always did politics," but also that she learned the family business at her father’s knee and sees no reason to leave those lessons behind. “I’m in a privileged position. ... Many say, ‘Your family said or did this or that,’ but whatever they say, I feel proud to belong to a family that has participated in politics and that has allowed me to know this topic intimately."

Elena Azaola, an anthropologist in Mexico City who studies criminal communities, called the drama in the legislature in San Luis Potosi – the daily clash between the wealthy, traditional politicians and a somewhat belligerent outsider – a microcosm of the gulf that exists in Mexico’s politics today. “There are two types of criminality in Mexico,” she said, and one is socially acceptable and one isn’t.

Mexico’s ruling class has enjoyed near-total impunity for cases of corruption, and much of the elite has ties to narco-trafficking and other grand-scale crime – “that’s why those criminal organizations are able to operate so freely and so powerfully, because they are protected,” Dr. Azaola said – but the politicians have not, up to now, been held to account. Instead, small-time criminals and chavos bandos clog the prisons, and that’s the dynamic Mr. Lopez Obrador pledged to upend.

“It describes this country very well, having two such people in the same place at the same time trying to legislate,” she said, of Mr. Carrizales and Ms. Arreola.

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Mr. Carrizales is clearly still adapting to his new role. He made his way through a six-pack of beer in the backseat of a car while touring the town’s social projects recently; he urged a visiting reporter to feel the lumps on his head and arms left by machete wounds and knife fights and stitches. He delights in retelling his own story at every opportunity, and he travels with a pack of people from his old neighbourhood, many of whom are armed.

He has also enrolled in law school and is liaising with federal politicians on issues that have national scope. He has practical things to say about what gang members and former prisoners need to join the work force or access stable housing. He knows he is a role model, that many are watching. “With the chavos, my style is to show them two paths, and that there is a way out.”

Mr. Barquera, the political strategist now advising him, said it appears it will take longer than he first anticipated for Mr. Carrizales to adapt to the protocols of congress and become more polished. “On the other hand, I don’t want him to adapt to how politics are usually done – because we need change.”

Mauricio Palos/The Globe and Mail

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