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Los Angeles Times

MEXICO CITY - Gunmen on Monday killed a gubernatorial candidate in a highway ambush, just days before an election in violence-stained northern Mexico that he was expected to win.

The killing of Rodolfo Torre, running in the state of Tamaulipas under the banner of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, further shook Mexico amid wide concern that drug-trafficking groups are increasingly flexing their muscle in politics through money and intimidation.

Torre, 46, is the highest-ranking candidate assassinated in Mexico since presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio was slain in Tijuana in 1994. Colosio also belonged to the PRI, which at that time ruled Mexico.

Torre's killing appeared to be a brazen new challenge to Mexican authorities as the federal government carries out a nearly 4-year-old crackdown against drug cartels. In a sign of the high stakes, President Felipe Calderon was flanked by the nation's top security officials when he went before cameras to condemn the assassination, labeling it the work of organized crime.

It was not immediately clear whether the state elections in Tamaulipas would go forward on Sunday as scheduled.

Torre's slaying comes a month after the disappearance in the central state of Queretaro of Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, a power broker in Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, who once ran for president. One theory is Fernandez was seized by an organized crime group.

"The cartels want to show they can reach anyone at any time and in any place," said George W. Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. "Now they've really increased the ante by killing Torre."