Mexico Town’s Identity Was Defined by 1 Party. Then, the People Turned on It.

The recently renovated central square in Atlacomulco, in the state of Mexico, long a stronghold of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

ATLACOMULCO, Mexico — It’s in the names of streets and on some of the most prominent buildings. It’s embedded in the colorful murals that adorn the walls of city hall. It’s infused into the local history and lore. And most important, it’s reflected in the way the population has voted for decades.

For generations, the Institutional Revolutionary Party has been central to the identity of Atlacomulco.

The mostly rural municipality, about 50 miles northwest of Mexico City, is often called the cradle of the political party, known as the PRI, which has governed Mexico for most of the last century.

During the decades the PRI dominated Mexico, the centrist party perfected the art of political patronage and took good care of its own. This seems evident in Atlacomulco de Fabela, the municipal seat, a quiet town of narrow streets.

The town’s historic center looks as if it’s been given a fresh coat of paint. Renovations of the central square and a nearby plaza that fronts the covered market and the 17th-century church were completed recently, and a soccer field was replaced with a fancy new sports complex.

Nowhere in Mexico did loyalty toward the PRI run as deep as in Atlacomulco, and the bond seemed eternal: The party’s politicians have occupied the mayor’s office, without interruption, since 1929.

Then came Mexico’s general election on Sunday.

The leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador won the presidency in a landslide, and the PRI lost most of its seats in Congress. It was also crushed in state and local elections across the country.

The party was eviscerated, part of a seismic shift that has left a new political landscape across the country.

But in perhaps the most symbolically devastating result of the day, the PRI even lost the mayor’s race in Atlacomulco — by a vast margin.

“I was surprised because the current president has done the work requested,” said Pedro Martínez, 58, an inspector for the municipality, gesturing toward the central square’s fresh paving stones. “But the people still turned on the party.”

For the party stalwarts here, the bludgeoning was emotionally devastating.

“A resounding defeat, meaning overwhelming, meaning hard, painful,” said Manuel González Espinoza, 60, a member of the PRI’s executive committee in the State of Mexico, which includes Atlacomulco.

“A tragedy,” he muttered, sitting in the PRI’s municipal headquarters in Atlacomulco, a two-story building gloomy with loss.

Some who voted against the party found it a wrenching decision.

For as long as he had been eligible to vote, Samuel Israde had cast his ballot only for PRI candidates. It was automatic.

But on Sunday, Mr. Israde, 54, who works in the municipal treasurer’s office, did what had once been unthinkable: He voted against the PRI in every race.

“When you’re voting against your party, it’s like a knife in your chest,” he said, mimicking a dagger plunging into his heart. “But it was a necessary change.”

He added, “You do it for your children.”

Even voters who stuck with the PRI said they could understand how, in disgust, so many people turned their backs on it.

On a recent evening, Mr. Martínez, the municipal inspector, was standing on the main square keeping an eye on things. Children chased plastic hoops across the square as evening settled on the town and nearby mountains darkened to the color of a day-old bruise.

Mr. Martínez voted only for the PRI candidates last Sunday.

But he recognized that some of the same issues that propelled disgruntled voters around the nation to vote against the PRI were in play in Atlacomulco, including unpopular reforms. Voters across Mexico were also fed up with widespread corruption and impunity, rampant violence and economic inequality.

Rosario Cárdenas Cárdenas, too, stood by the party despite the economic hit her plant nursery has taken recently. Prices for soil and plant pots have gone up, she said, and her business had gotten more expensive to run.

Despite her misgivings about the state of the country, however, Ms. Cárdenas, 30, cast her vote for the PRI’s candidates in local, state and national elections.

“It’s because I had hope,” she explained as she opened her nursery at dawn one morning this week in the rural community of San Lorenzo Tlacotepec. “And hope is the last thing to die.”

On the courtyard walls of the two-story municipal headquarters, murals depict the history and culture of Atlacomulco. There are scenes of indigenous people hunting a buck, weaving fabric, making pottery and farming.

One of the murals, on a wall outside the mayor’s second-floor office, is dominated by the portraits of six former PRI governors from Atlacomulco, including the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto.

This municipality’s name has become synonymous with the party’s dominance in Mexico’s political life. People speak of the “Atlacomulco Group,” an infamous cabal of business and political leaders with roots in this region and a steering influence over the PRI, and so the nation.

On a recent evening, Mr. Israde paused in front of the mural, an impish glint in his eye.

“The PRI,” he said, making the sign of the cross. “Rest in peace.”

But die-hard supporters insist the party will survive.

“The PRI never dies,” declared Isaac Contreras Alcántara, 77, a party loyalist who runs a small restaurant in Atlacomulco. “It will be renewed.”

It is unclear, though, exactly how the party might rise from the ashes.

Mr. González, the state PRI official, said the party must begin its renaissance with an “objective and realistic diagnosis” of itself and its recent leadership at all levels of government, its choices of candidates and its performance during the campaigns and the elections.

“The PRI needs a reconstruction, a new foundation,” he declared.

As devastating as this week’s elections were, however, Mr. González somehow found something to admire in them.

“What happened Sunday is an expression of the democratic maturity in the country,” he said, sounding mostly convinced by his own words. “And that’s very important.”

This understanding, he said, was crucial to rebuilding the PRI, a process that promises to be long and arduous — if it happens at all.

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