Human head, fire mark Mexico elections

A woman burns electoral material in Veracruz, Mexico on June 5, 2016.

MEXICO - Mexico's ruling party sought to keep key governorships in local elections Sunday, with focus on a state where a head was dumped near a polling place and a mayor's house was torched.

Several acts of violence were reported in the oil-rich eastern state of Veracruz, which has been led by President Enrique Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) for over 80 years.

Veracruz is the biggest trophy among 12 states choosing new governors in a vote considered as a test for the PRI's hopes of keeping the presidency in the 2018 presidential election.

The PRI holds the governorship in nine of the dozen states up for grabs but its candidate was in a tight race in Veracruz. The other 20 federal regions were not electing new governors.

"This election is a thermometer to see how things will turn out in 2018," Jose Antonio Crespo, a political expert at the Center for Economics Research and Teaching, told AFP.

Officials, the conservative National Action Party (PAN) and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) reported several incidents in Veracruz.

The human head was found Saturday in a park near a school serving as a polling place in the town of Emiliano Zapata.

A note threatening the local mayor and his son, a candidate for the state legislature in the PAN-PRD coalition, was left next to the head.

Before dawn on Sunday, unknown assailants set fire to the house of a PAN mayor in Acajete, the party said.

Elsewhere, PAN state lawmaker Joaquin Guzman said his assistant was snatched from his home in Tantoyucan by masked men who held him for several hours, beat him up and "threatened him, saying that they would kill him and his family if he makes a complaint." The PAN said the armed assailants burst into the campaign headquarters of a state congress candidate, pointed their guns and took away computers.

The PAN and the PRD, which have teamed up for the governor's race, said people received anonymous text messages warning them to not vote.

In Campo de Tiro, local election officials said several people wielding baseball bats struck voters and tried to break ballot boxes.

The reports of violence came after Pena Nieto said the elections were taking place in "an atmosphere of great civility." The campaign in Veracruz was marked by mudslinging between two cousins, PRI candidate Hector Yunes Landa and PAN-PRD hopeful Miguel Angel Yunes.

Yunes Landa accused his cousin of being a "pervert," a reference to pedophilia allegations against Miguel Angel Yunes, which he denies.

They are in a virtual tie with Cuitlahuac Garcia Jimenez of the left-wing Morena party.

The state has been run since 2010 by the unpopular Governor Javier Duarte, whose administration has been marred by drug violence and the killings of 18 journalists.

Victory for Morena could boost two-time failed presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who founded the movement after leaving the PRD in 2012.

Veracruz remained a PRI stronghold even after the party lost its 71-year grip on the presidency in 2000. Pena Nieto returned the PRI to power in 2012.

Another PRI stronghold getting attention is Tamaulipas.

The campaign in the northeastern state saw the PRI and PAN exchange accusations of bowing to pressures from drug cartels.

The Gulf and Zetas gangs have caused fear across the state.

In 2010, PRI gubernatorial candidate Rodolfo Torre Cantu was assassinated. His brother, Egidio, replaced him and was elected.

This year's election was rocked by last week's kidnapping of football player Alan Pulido, a striker with Greek club Olympiakos who managed to fight off a kidnapper and call police just 24 hours after his abduction.

The timing of the kidnapping ahead of elections raised eyebrows in a country where few trust what the authorities tell them.