NUEVO LEON, Mexico — A white stallion with flowing braids delivered its rider to a polling booth in the border state of Nuevo Leon on Sunday afternoon.
From the saddle, independent candidate Jaime “El Bronco” Rodríguez addressed a small crowd before dismounting his steed to cast his ballot in what exit polls project to be the biggest upset of the election.
On Monday morning, with more than 90 percent of the votes counted, 58-year-old Rodriguez showed a galloping lead in Nuevo Leon, with his closest opponent trailing in his dust by 25 points.
Voter participation in Nuevo Leon reached close to 60 percent — higher than most parts of the country. Although the incumbent Independent Revolutionary Party (PRI) is expected to hold on to its congressional majority, Rodriguez's upset victory in Nuevo Leon reverberated across the country as #ElBronco became a global trending topic on Twitter, and the top hashtag in Mexico on Sunday night.
It was a tough-fought campaign. “This is a dirty war,” said the cowboy candidate who challenged the Zetas' grip on power while serving as mayor of Garcia five years ago, and now promises to clean up his whole cartel-infested state.
But in this instance, Rodríguez wasn't referring to drug war against the cartels, which killed his his 22-year-old son in 2009. Instead, he was talking about traditional campaign politics in an election where independent candidates were allowed to run for the first time in the country's history.
“We’re taking down the PRI,” Rodríguez told reporters from the campaign trail, calling the ruling party a "cancer of corruption” that needs to be cut out from the body politic.
It was the final act in what Rodríguez claims was a dirty campaign that included threats, harassment, attempted vote-buying and an alleged plot to annul entire voting booths if the votes didn't go the way of the ruling PRI.
"Don’t believe them," Rodriguez posted on his official Facebook page on Wednesday. "These are tricks and ploys meant to scare you to keep you from going to the voting booth.”
In addition to all the traditional methods of swaying the vote, the PRI was also accused of creating a mobile app to coordinate attacks against voting booths. The ruling party reportedly gave cellphones to their operatives with instructions to record provocations, which their network of lawyers would then use to challenge voting results and annul votes in stations that went for the opposition.
"It seems [the app] is on the same server as the state electoral institute," an unidentified man who claims to have been involved in the plan, but later defected, says in a YouTube video. "I don’t know if they are colluded or working hand-in-hand or what’s happening."
The man said he wrote code "to hack the system" and redirect its internal messages. "Let me tell all of the people and operatives using these telephones, that we’ll be monitoring you with GPS and sending reports to the authorities, and citizens."
Yet despite a heated campaign, and the usual election-day complaints of polling stations opening late, closing early, and observers being ousted from polling booths, Sunday's elections were mostly peaceful.
Rodriguez's political career, the subject of this flattering 2014 documentary called “The Fearless Bronco,” has been marked by controversy and speculation.
El Bronco, himself a former member of the PRI, quit the ruling party last September to launch his independent candidacy.
“I puked out my inner prista,” Rodriguez told reporters. “My life as a partisan is finished.”
His bravado didn't satisfy everyone.
"In the beginning I loved the idea of an independent candidate," said one 21-year-old graphic designer, who refrained from voting yesterday. "But the more I see him speak, there is something about him that doesn’t convince me."
As polls closed across the state last night, El Bronco appeared saddled to ride off into the sunset. And his atypical campaign, which was hailed as a grassroots, social media-driven effort that was funded on a shoestring budget, has given others hope that political change is possible in Mexico.
Following a hard-fought effort, Rodriguez is sore from the tail but still in good humor. After casting his ballot, Rodriguez bought fruit from a street vendor, paying with a 500 peso bill (about $30). “That’s all I have left after the campaign,” he joked.
Photographs by Ivonne Vega
Andrea Noel is a freelance journalist based in Mexico