ON A sunny day in Oaxaca, the capital of a southern Mexican state with the same name, the mayor of a nearby village was due to meet The Economist to talk about doing the job after his predecessor was murdered. He did not show up. The night before a bullet had smashed a window of his house. “I’m scared,” he said in a message.

Between 2010 and 2017, 42 mayors were murdered in Mexico (see chart), 12 of them in the state of Oaxaca. A further ten mayors or ex-mayors have been killed this year. A mayor is 11 times more likely than an ordinary citizen to be a murder victim, says David Shirk of the University of San Diego in California.

Some perish because they fight corruption and organised crime. Others die because they side with a gang, becoming targets of its rivals. In 2008 an ex-mayor of Hidalgo, north of Monterrey, was killed by his son, who discovered they were sleeping with the same woman. In Oaxaca, a rural state where drug gangs are weak, many mayors have been killed in disputes over land between villages.

The murdered predecessor of the no-show mayor had been making improvements such as providing drinking water. This angered a cacique (local boss), who thought the mayor was muscling in on his turf. His successor dropped some of the projects.

Mayors’ growing power, and gangs’ new business activities, have increased the risk. Mayors gained control over local finances in the 1980s and 1990s and greater autonomy after Mexico became a democracy in 2000. Old-style gangs worry about shipping drugs along motorways and across borders, both areas of federal responsibility. As they branch out into extortion and local drug-dealing, they come up against mayors. These are more vulnerable than federal and state officials, who have better protection.

Enrique Vargas, head of the country’s association of mayors, wants to change that. He has asked the federal government to provide armed bodyguards for mayors who have been threatened, and to set up an emergency telephone line to the secretary of the interior. That might help. About 1,600 towns will choose mayors in a general election scheduled for July 1st. These mayors will do a better job if they don’t have to worry that a contentious decision will get them killed.