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A presumed drug cartel assassination squad Monday gunned down the leading candidate for governor in a state bordering Texas , putting a chill on Mexico just six days before local and regional elections.

Assailants fired on the two-vehicle caravan of Rodolfo Torre Cantu , a candidate in Tamaulipas state, as he was driving toward the airport in Ciudad Victoria en route to one of his final campaign appearances.

Four of Torre Cantu’s aides and supporters were also reported killed.

The slaying of Torre Cantu , a burly, white-haired 46-year-old surgeon, marked the highest-level political killing in Mexico since presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994.

President Felipe Calderon convoked an emergency session of his top security officials and emerged solemnly to condemn the “cowardly assassination.”

“Organized crime will never achieve its objectives. It will not overcome our faith in democracy nor will it make us yield our confidence in the future of Mexico ,” he said in a 10-minute televised statement to the nation.

Torre Cantu was the candidate of a coalition led by the Institutional Revolutionary Party , or PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000. He had a double-digit lead over his nearest rival for Sunday’s elections. The PRI has governed Tamaulipas state for eight decades.

“Nothing will intimidate us,” PRI spokeswoman Beatriz Paredes said in a short statement about the killing.

Opinion polls say voters will punish Calderon and his ruling National Action Party in Sunday’s vote in anger over soaring drug-related violence in Mexico , which has cost some 23,000 lives since he took office in late 2006.

Elections will occur Sunday in 14 of Mexico’s 31 states. In 12 states, voters will choose governors, regional and municipal leaders. Voters will pick regional legislators in the other two states.

Source: Tim Johnson for McClatchy Newspapers.

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