Spain’s Arrest of an Allegedly Corrupt Mexican Governor Highlights Impunity in Mexico

Humberto Moreira is due to appear in a Madrid court on Friday following his arrest in an investigation into money laundering that reportedly also includes evidence that he was working for the Zetas cartel.
January 21, 2016, 9:35pm
Photo by Juan Manuel Villaseñor/AP

Former Mexican governor and ex ruling party chief Humberto Moreira will appear before a Spanish judge on Friday within an investigation into alleged money laundering.

The Spanish newspaper El Español reported on Thursday that Moreira, who was arrested last week in Madrid, is also being investigated for alleged links to the Zetas drug cartel.

The paper said that the Spanish probe stems from information received from a Texas court that is trying three of Moreira's former collaborators for washing millions of dollars through media and real estate companies. One of these reportedly provided information on Moreira's transfers of 200,000 euros to Spain in a plea bargain.

The accusations against Moreira have come as little surprise in Mexico, where he was long seen as a prominent member of the large club of governors and former governors widely believed to be corrupt and linked to organized crime.

The fact that Moreira is now in the eye of US and Spanish courts has also highlighted how rarely such politicians face sanctions at home.

"Governors can do anything they please," political analyst Jesús Cantú told VICE News. "They effectively control their own legislatures and their own courts. They are masters of their own dominion."

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Cantú said that the roots of this power and impunity lie in Mexico's transition to a full multiparty system in 2000 when the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, lost control of the presidency for the first time in 71 years. This, he said, was followed by the federal government ceding control of the states and the growth of what became known as the feudal governors.

The rise of the feudal governors also coincided with the intensification of efforts by organized crime to control local territories. This would become one of the main triggers of the drug wars that have killed well over 100,000 people across Mexico since 2006.

The return of the PRI to government in 2012 appears to have done little to rein back the power accrued by the governors.

"In certain states of Mexico; politics, the private sector, and organized crime are intertwined," said Jesús Cantú. "If you look at the Moreira case, all evidence points to a potent mix between the three. But, of course, this evidence was produced by US and Spanish prosecutors, not Mexican ones. It's a disgrace."

Moreira was a controversial figure from the start of his term as governor of the northern state of Coahuila from 2005 to 2011.

It began as criticism of personal indulgences, such renaming public institutions after his new wife and daughter, at the same time as rumors began of complicity with organized crime in the violence-wracked state.

Nonetheless Moreira was viewed as a sharp political operator and in 2011 resigned the governorship to become national president of the PRI. His brief was to secure the election of then candidate, and current president, Enrique Peña Nieto.

He didn't last very long in the job after an investigation started by the government of President Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party alleged he had participated in a multi-million-dollar public debt fraud while governor.

State debt ballooned from $27 million dollars to an astonishing $2.8 billion dollars in just five years under his tenure, with at least some of it contracted with falsified official documents.

Moreira lost his job in the PRI, and almost immediately moved to Barcelona saying he was going to study a masters degree there. The Mexican investigation into the alleged fraud, however, was quietly dropped, leaving it to the courts in Texas, and now Spain, to pick up the mantle.

In the US case prosecutors claim that Moreira's former finance minister, Héctor Villarreal, offered public contracts to at least one firm controlled by the Zetas. The unnamed company allegedly operated within Coahuila's lucrative coal mining industry.

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The Zetas emerged as one of Mexico's most powerful criminal factions in the mid-2000s and quickly established a strategic presence in the northeast of the country, notably the states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo León, and Coahuila. Beyond controlling drug trafficking routes in the region, they also ran mass extortion and kidnapping rackets, as well as organized the theft of hydrocarbons.

According to El Español, the current Spanish investigation into Humberto Moreira alleges that he was a "subordinate" of the Zetas. The paper said that the murder of his son José Eduardo — who was found dead on a highway in October 2012 — was ordered in retaliation for Moreira moving money without telling the cartel.

Moreira said at the funeral that his son was killed in retaliation for the police killing a relative of a Zeta leader.

Later the former governor accused prominent figures in the state of profiting from and protecting the Zetas' criminal empire.

"I know that these individuals have financial relationships with [the Zetas]…. They are also guilty of the murder of my son… People with good positions in society, people that pass themselves off as respectable."

Moreira is not the only former governor pursued in other lands.

Eugenio Hernández and Tomás Yárrington — two former governors of the deadly northern border state of Tamaulipas — have been indicted in the US on money laundering charges directly related to organized crime.

Both stand accused of receiving bribes to let drug traffickers operate in peace. Both are fugitives. Neither faces charges in Mexico.

"Unfortunately, the Mexican attorney general often acts in favor of political interests rather than the procuration of justice," said Alberto Fernández, a political scientist at The New School in New York City.

Fernández pointed to current governors such as Javier Duarte of Veracruz and Manuel Velasco of Chiapas, from the PRI and Green Party respectively, whom he claimed have either "intimidated or co-opted" their opponents.

Related: The Former Boss of Mexico's Ruling Party Was Just Arrested In Spain

The gulf coast state of Veracruz has become infamous for the murder of journalists in recent years while local elections in Chiapas last summer were rife with accusations of fraud.

Mexico currently ranks 103rd on the annual Corruption Perceptions Index collated by the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International, alongside Bolivia, Moldova, and Niger.

"Corruption appears to be worse in states where you find two main factors," said Fernández. "One, where the same party has been in power for years, and the governor effectively controls his own congress. Two, when social organizations and the local media are largely co-opted by the ruling party."

He insisted that there are also states in Mexico where abuses of power are "relatively slight," but added that these "tend to have a genuine political opposition and a more independent civil society."

President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in 2012 promising to crack down on corruption and reimpose more control on loose-canon governors. Three years into his term, sanctions against leading political figures are few and far between.

The former governor of Tabasco Andrés Granier Melo was arrested in 2013. He is accused of embezzling $200 million dollars of public money after audio recordings emerged of him bragging of his luxurious lifestyle.

Rodrigo Vallejo — the son of Fausto Vallejo, former governor of the troubled southern state of Michoacán — was arrested in 2014 after a video emerged of him personally meeting with drug lord La Tuta. He was later released.

"We currently have a democracy without the rule of law, and the federal authorities have been absent," said political analyst Cantú. "Mexicans are suffering the consequences accordingly."

Given Moreira's formerly key role in the ruling PRI, the case against him could be particularly embarrassing for the Peña Nieto administration.

The Spanish police tweet announcing Moreira's arrest last week was interpreted by some as just such a jibe.

MisiónCumplida, or Mission Accomplished, the police tweet read, using the same words employed by Peña Nieto to celebrate the recapture of drug lord Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán earlier in the month.

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Follow Paul Imison on Twitter: @paulimison