MEXICO CITY — When Italian police captured a fugitive Mexican ex-governor this week, Mexicans joked that his arrest lowered the number of governors on the lam from four to three.
Tomás Yarrington, who ran the now hyperviolent state of Tamaulipas on the Texas border from 1999 until 2005, was detained after dining out in Florence on Sunday, ending five years as a fugitive. Yarrington, 60, is accused in the United States and Mexico of money laundering, racketeering and taking bribes from the Gulf Cartel and Los Zetas — criminal organizations that have battled over Tamaulipas and turned a strip of Mexican border cities along the Rio Grande into no-go zones.
Yarrington also joins a long list of Mexican former governors who have been busted for bad behavior. At least 41 governors were accused of corruption between 2000 and 2013, according to the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO), a think tank, with just 16 facing criminal investigation and four being arrested. In comparison, all nine U.S. governors accused of corruption in the same period were arrested.
Critics blame the phenomenon of governors going rogue as an unexpected byproduct of Mexico's democratic opening, which has seen authority decentralized and public-spending decisions sent to the state and local levels. Once peons of the president — who hired and fired them at his pleasure during the days of one-party rule — governors have amassed power and privileges in the country’s 31 states, where counterweights such as courts, auditors and legislators offer little resistance.
“Some Mexican states look more like fiefdoms than democracies,” said Manuel Molano, deputy director of IMCO. “In some states the press is completely controlled, congress is completely controlled.”
Yarrington once aspired to the presidency, running as a primary candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in 2006. He also hails from the early generation of governors to confront competitive elections, a 1990s development critics in Tamaulipas said led politicians in the state to tap organized crime for money, manpower and muscle for close campaigns.
Yarrington denies any wrongdoing.
A decade or so later, the PRI fielded younger candidates, including the current president, Enrique Peña Nieto, who were presented as fresh faces in a party commonly lampooned as a dinosaur. But the newcomers were often worse than their elders, critics contend, ignoring some time-honored rules.
An axiom of Mexican politics posits: I rob, but I build. The new wave of governors, from all political parties, “forgot the part about building,” said Ilán Semo, a historian at the Iberoamerican University here.
The scale of the alleged corruption is staggering and came to be symbolized by Javier Duarte, the portly, bespectacled governor of the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz between 2010 and 2016. The state gained notoriety during his term for the slayings there of 20 journalists and the discovery of mass graves, including one containing more than 250 skulls.
Separately, investigative reporters uncovered schemes in which Duarte and his alleged accomplices siphoned millions of pesos from the public purse into shell companies.
Further investigations exposed his wife’s shopping sprees, while his successor in office announced the finding of a warehouse full of the Duartes’ alleged loot, including portraits of the first couple, furniture and even wheelchairs presumably taken from the state’s health service and intended for use as giveaways in elections.
Duarte, 43, resigned shortly before his term ended last fall and fled in a government helicopter. It turned out he wasn’t the only governor of that name to come under scrutiny.
Chihuahua state prosecutors last month accused former governor César Duarte of embezzlement and evading justice by residing in El Paso Duarte, 53, denies the charges and called the actions against him “political persecution.”
The Justice Department and Mexico’s attorney general’s office issued a joint statement Tuesday, saying they were “working together on a legal strategy which will allow Tomás Yarrington to face justice in both countries.”
Some Mexicans, including members of the opposition National Action Party (PAN), expressed hope that Yarrington would face U.S. justice — “to avoid the entire network of complicity that he had,” PAN congressional spokesman Jorge López Martín told reporters — and voiced doubts about Mexico’s commitment to capturing fugitive governors.
Mexican media also aired accusations that the Tamaulipas government had until recently supplied Yarrington and his successor, Eugenio Hernández (also a fugitive, accused of money laundering by a Texas court, but not in Mexico), with security details, at state government expense.
“You still get a lot of corruption in the U.S. with gerrymandering, logrolling and pork-barrel politics, but if you are a criminal and you take the cash for purposes other than what it was earmarked for, then you will end up in jail,” Molano said. “In Mexico, that just doesn’t happen.”