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Mexico's Crime Prevention Point Man Is Wanted by the Law

The Green Party's Arturo Escobar was already a controversial appointment thanks to a long-dubious reputation, but now prosecutors are seeking his arrest for vote buying as well.
Photo via Flickr

Last September, the appointment of Arturo Escobar as head of crime prevention in Mexico caused uproar thanks to his Green Party's reputation for being politically opportunistic and ethically dubious. Now Escobar has left his post to face possible charges for electoral crimes.

Escobar is accused of vote buying during the Spring mid-term elections through a program plying 10,000 voters with Green Party loyalty cards good for discounts in restaurants, cinemas and grocery stories. Escobar and his party deny any wrongdoing.


The Green Party leader's appointment and exit highlights President Enrique Peña Nieto's tendency to embrace controversial figures even while he is struggling to regain public trust thanks to his government's clumsy handling of the country's security crisis and a series of conflict of interest scandals.

It also raises questions about how this leaves the long-standing alliance between the Mexican Greens and Peña Nieto's governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Related: Mexican Voters Say 'None of Them Can Make a Real Change' As Some Burn Ballots

Meanwhile, crime prevention — Escobar's former job and a central issue in a country struggling with a major security crisis the president promised would be a priority when he took office in 2012 — can seem irrelevant.

"This whole thing with Escobar has nothing to do with crime prevention and everything to do with politics," said Jorge Kawas, a security analyst in the city of Monterrey.

Escobar was always an odd choice as the country's point man to address the root causes of the horrific violence of Mexico's drug wars — such as the poverty, inequality, and lack of opportunities that are the backstory to the drug cartels' ability to recruit new members.

His party famously fought the 2009 mid-term election with the slogan "Death to Kidnappers" in a country with a history of imprisoning innocent people.

Escobar himself was stopped in an airport in impoverished Chiapas state carrying a Louis Vuitton bag stuffed with 1 million pesos on the eve on those elections. He said at the time that the money was intended to cover legal campaigning costs.


He went on to become the most public face of this year's abrasive campaign that blanketed the country with billboards, ran adverts in cinemas to jeers, flooded poor neighborhoods with freebies like T-shirts, backpacks and school supplies, and handed out pesticides to farmers.

Related: Mexico's Green Party Offered Illegal Cash to Sports Stars for Support on Social Media

That campaign — that earned the Green Party record fines — helped Peña Nieto's PRI maintain a working majority in the lower house of Congress after the elections. And then the president brought Escobar into the government.

Anti-crime groups, who sometimes depend on the government for funding and technical assistance, opposed his appointment from the start.

"If you think of Arturo Escobar, you think of corruption," María Elena Morera, director of the anti-crime group Causa en Comun told Radio Formula.

Escobar only spent two months as the president's crime prevention point man — too short for analysts to assess his impact.

Kawas, the security analyst, says it's uncertain if the crime prevention program — full of small scale projects such as organizing sports for kids, planting community gardens in grungy barrios and providing paint for people to spruce up their homes — is producing results.

"The evidence is sketchy," Kawas says. "The worst part is that Escobar was left in charge of a cash cow that could easily be misappropriated given (his programs) unclear methodology in prioritizing actions and resource allocation."


Following Tuesday's announcement of the arrest warrant request for electoral crimes, Escobar was quick to fall on his sword and pack up his office.

"I reject the charges against me and express my full confidence the facts will be made clear," the former undersecretary for prevention and citizen participation said in a statement.

The Green Party released a separate statement calling Escobar, "A firm defender of the rule of law, who we are sure and convinced is innocent."

Presidential spokesman Eduardo Sanchez told reporters that a judge will decide Escobar's fate in upcoming days. He did not say what impact it would have on the governing party's alliance with the Greens.

Many observers find it hard to believe that Escobar would be facing charges without a greenlight from the president — who appointed him without any obvious concern for his long-established reputation.

"He was clearly a party activist with a murky past," said Gerardo Priego, director of the anti-kidnapping group Fundación Impulsa in southern Tabasco state and a former lawmaker with the National Action Party.

Despite rampant speculation over the political backstory, Priego applauded the decision of the prosecutor for electoral crimes, known as the FEPADE, to seek Escobar's arrest.

"What's impressive is that the FEPADE, which is part of the federal government, did something like this. It's not what we were expecting," Priego said. "There have been some sanctions in a few parts of the country, but nothing like going after an undersecretary."

Follow David Agren on Twitter: @el_reportero