The Mysterious Recurring Case of Mexico’s Disappearing Governors

  • Deep culture of impunity keeps Mexican officials above the law
  • Hiding in the trunk of a car on the way to your escape chopper

The hunt for Mexico’s Javier Duarte, the former governor of Veracruz state who went underground last month after being accused of looting billions in taxpayer money, is getting close to the end, according to federal Attorney General Raul Cervantes.

He disappeared about a month ago and is now, or was recently, in Puebla state, Veracruz’s governor-elect, Miguel Angel Yunes says. For a time, Duarte was said to be hiding out on a ranch in the southern state of Chiapas. How’d he get away? He took flight, literally, in a state-owned helicopter. He got to the heliport in the trunk of a car, according to one report.

Javier Duarte

Photographer: Marco Ugarte/AP Photo

 

However, it’s been a couple weeks since Cervantes said that, and in the meantime the government has had to appeal for the public’s help by posting a reward. On Sunday, the government seized bank accounts, businesses and properties belonging to the fugitive, the kind of concerted effort that hasn’t been a hallmark of justice when it comes to governors of Mexican states.

Because before Duarte there was Eugenio Hernandez, and Tomas Yarrington, and Jorge Torres Lopez, and Mario Villanueva, and, until last week, Guillermo Padres. (There are still others.) All governors at one time, all who took it on the run, trailing corruption charges like clanging cans that fell on deaf ears.

Crooked governors have evaded the law for decades in Mexico, either through agreements struck with presidential administrations or an inability of law enforcement to seize them or their assets, says Mike Vigil, the former head of international operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Duarte, 43, fled just as investigators said they were closing in on him, leading to howls of criticism for allowing him to slip away under their noses.

Corrupt and Contented

"Many governors in Mexico are corrupt,” said Vigil, whose territory included Mexico until his retirement in 2004 and who wrote the book "Metal Coffins: The Blood Alliance Cartel." "It’s rare that we can get to these governors because many times they’re protected” by the administration in power. Marko Cortes, lower-house leader of the opposition National Action Party, or PAN, concurred, saying Duarte’s escape "appears as if it was something agreed upon.”

Read more: Bloomberg View’s assessment of the challenges corruption presents Mexico

Enrique Pena Nieto

Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg

It was supposed to be different this time. Enrique Pena Nieto returned the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to the presidency in 2012 partly on an anti-corruption platform, yet the scandals continue (including his own). He took to the Supreme Court earlier this year to overturn laws passed in Veracruz, Quintana Roo and Chihuahua that allowed the sitting governors of those states to nominate judges and comptrollers.

The PRI has reacted to Duarte’s alleged crimes by stripping him of his membership, but not, evidently, access to state-owned helicopters. Flavino Rios, who took over as interim governor in Veracruz, says airport officials didn’t know there was a warrant for Duarte’s arrest when he ordered the chopper, which took him from Xalapa to Coatzacoalcos, a city in Veracruz. 

Promises Unkept

Duarte’s escape makes Pena Nieto’s promises ring hollow, says Alejandro Schtulmann, president of Mexico City-based political-risk advisory firm Empra.

"He was literally allowed to escape,” Schtulmann said. "Why they didn’t have eyes on Duarte is unbelievable.”

Maybe not, when you consider that as little as 2 percent of crimes committed in Mexico end in a conviction, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

"The federal government had plenty of time to investigate Duarte, and they waited all these years,” Schtulmann said, going back to 2013, when the PAN brought a criminal complaint against Duarte, accusing him and other officials of unlawful use of public funds. Then came multiple complaints, starting two years ago, that Duarte had faked the return of 4.8 billion pesos ($235.7 million) in allegedly misdirected funds to its treasury.

Press officials for Pena Nieto and Cervantes, the attorney general, declined to comment.

The president is likely to take the fall for Duarte’s disappearance. "The biggest blow to Pena Nieto is going to be in upcoming elections,” Schtulmann said.

Fall Guy

In June, The PRI candidate to succeed Duarte suffered the party’s first gubernatorial defeat there ever. The PAN, along with allied parties, took seven of the 12 open governorships. The national election will be held in 2018 and, if current polls continue to trend, it’s not looking good for the president and his party.

Following reporting from news website Aristegui Noticias that Pena Nieto’s wife, Angelica Rivera, bought a home from a government contractor, his approval rating plunged. While both the president and his first lady were cleared by a government investigation in 2015 and Rivera sold the house, Pena Nieto’s rating is at the worst level of any president in almost two decades.

Alonzo Pena, who served as deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement until his retirement in 2010, described a scenario he said was provided by investigators from both sides of the border in which money stolen from the states or accumulated through friendly terms with drug cartels winds up on a larger stage.

Government on Drugs

"A lot of these corrupt governors, who were either stealing money from government coffers of their states or taking money from cartels, have used a lot of that money to help presidential campaigns," said Pena, who also served as the Department of Homeland Security’s first attaché at the U.S. embassy in Mexico City. "They lost control. There was no more authority. The authority became the cartels."

Hernandez, the former governor of Tamaulipas, was indicted by the U.S. in 2015 for money laundering. He surfaced long enough to be found voting there this year, and he’s still out there somewhere. Yarrington, also a former Tamaulipas governor, first said he wasn’t running from a U.S. money-laundering investigation, then disappeared anyway. He’s at large in Mexico City, Vigil says, despite an extradition request by the U.S.

Padres, once governor of Sonora, turned himself in on Nov. 10 to answer charges of money laundering after more than a month on the run. He’s the only contribution to this diaspora of elected fugitives who comes from an opposition party, leaving the balance to represent the PRI. Torres Lopez, an interim governor of Coahuila, has been charged in the U.S. with financial crimes and is, yes, currently a fugitive.

‘Crooked One’

Finally, there’s Villanueva, aka "El Chueco,” or "crooked one," a former governor of Quintana Roo from the PRI. He was caught eventually, in 2001, after staying hidden for two years. He pleaded guilty in New York in 2013 to one count of conspiracy to launder money and received an 11-year sentence. But his assets, which were seized by the Mexican government, were returned to his family. New York state Attorney General Preet Bharara at the time accused Villanueva of allowing the Juarez Cartel free movement of cocaine through his state, the Associated Press reported. 

All of the governors who have gone on the run have denied any wrongdoing on multiple occasions, apart from Villanueva.

Duarte, the big fish, benefited in part from a recent law that prohibited his detention until there was a proper warrant for it. Police had no authority to move without it, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio said, and by the time it was obtained, he was gone.

In addition to the treasury fund allegations, news reports have alleged Duarte and his associates pocketed government funds through sham shell companies. Human-rights groups have implicated him in the deaths of journalists in Veracruz, more than a dozen of whom were killed during his term. He has denied any wrongdoing, saying some local journalists are linked to criminal groups targeted by rival gangs.

Those are just the journalists, though. Hundreds of corpses have turned up in mass graves across Duarte’s state. While Duarte hasn’t been charged with murder, their discovery underscores how little has changed.

"The influence of governors runs so deep,” Empra’s Schtulmann says, "that they are able to corrupt the whole system.”

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