David Agren in Mexico City

A growing row over a gubernatorial candidate facing accusations of rape has once again pitted Mexico’s populist president against women’s rights campaigners.

Félix Salgado Macedonio has registered to run for governor in southern Guerrero state with the ruling Morena party, despite accusations of sexual violence and rape by five women dating back as far as 1998.

Salgado has remained silent as the outrage over the accusations mounted, though his lawyer José Luis Gallegos insisted “there’s no proof” and called the accusations “stories of invented crimes”, according to the newspaper Reforma. Salgado has not been charged with any crimes.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has doggedly defended Salgado even as demands escalate for the president to dump him as a candidate. López Obrador initially dismissed the complaints as “politicking” and then alleged that the attacks on Salgado were little more than a ruse against the president himself, saying it was part of a campaign of “media lynching”.

Women in Mexico have responded to Salgado’s candidacy – and the president’s defence of him – with a social media campaign, in which they posted pictures of themselves holding signs reading “President, break the pact”, a reference to rampant machismo in Mexican politics.

“This is the opportunity for the president and Morena [López Obrador’s party] to demonstrate that they really are different and have some decency,” tweeted the writer Alma Delia Murillo, who sent the hashtag #RompeElPacto trending. “Don’t make a pact with machismo by vouching for a candidate like Félix Salgado.”

Amlo, as the president is known, greeted such calls with the terse comment: “Ya chole!” – “Enough already!”

He later said: “They’re linking me to the Félix Salgado case, and there’s a media lynching campaign in all the radio programs, all the press against Félix.”

The episode has again placed Amlo in conflict with women’s rights campaigners and the country’s burgeoning feminist movement.

Related: Mexico: activists voice anger at Amlo’s failure to tackle ‘femicide emergency’

Throughout his term, Amlo has dismissed protests calling for action against Mexico’s plague of femicides with derision and accusations of conspiracy. He has claimed without evidence that Mexico’s women’s movement has been infiltrated by “conservatives” as a Trojan horse to attack his administration.

His government slashed funding for women’s programs and shelters, even as domestic violence surged amid coronavirus lockdowns.

“Amlo doesn’t get the feminist agenda,” said Bárbara González, a political analyst in Monterrey. “For him, these demands are a distraction from his agenda. It’s something for elites, conservatives and people trying to impede his plans.”

His plans include retaining control of congress and sweeping gubernatorial races in nearly half of Mexico’s 32 states in the 6 June midterm elections. Morena, the party founded by Amlo in 2014, often picks its candidates through polling, though Amlo has the last word on nominations, González said.

Salgado, a senator with a leave of absence, leads polls in Guerrero, which lies to the south of Mexico City and includes some of the country’s most marginalised and violent municipalities.

Nicknamed “El Toro”, Salgado was mayor of Acapulco between 2006 and 2008, when drug cartel violence exploded in what once was the grandaddy of Mexican tourist destinations. He also has a long history of loyalty to Amlo, along with patronage networks across the state, according to analysts.

Female members of Morena have urged Amlo to abandon Salgado and the party’s honesty and justice commission is investigating the accusations against Salgado. But the Morena party president, Mario Delgado, has said Salgado can run so long as he isn’t convicted or sentenced.

“Everything is made so [Salgado] is never sentenced and, in reality, almost no man is ever convicted for sexual violence,” said Paola Zavala Saeb, a lawyer and director of Ocupa México, a violence prevention organisation. “Just 2% of sexual violence complaints end up with a sentence.”


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