The capture of a fugitive ex-governor shows that Mexico is capable of netting its most wanted if there is sufficient political will. But if authorities want to eliminate the abuse of power by officials, ethics rather than politics must be the key force behind these manhunts.
"Yes sirs, I am Javier Duarte de Ochoa, I'm the governor, there's nothing left but to tell the truth."
Duarte initially tried to deny his identity to Guatemalan police when he was nabbed in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Panajachel, in Guatemala's Sololá department, where he had been holed up with his wife for two days, reported the BBC. He left his room to buy a bottle of liquor, which was when he was seized by authorities working as part of a bilateral effort with Mexico's government and Interpol.
Duarte faces dozens of charges related to organized crime, corruption and embezzlement -- accusations that prompted him to resign from his post before the end of his term and eventually go underground. Mexico's Attorney General's Office issued a warrant for his arrest days after he absconded and offered a reward of 15 million pesos (about $810,000) for information leading to his capture.
Duarte's case has come to symbolize one of the most abhorrent examples of institutional corruption in Mexico, and it is a huge embarrassment for President Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI).
During his tenure as governor, which began in December 2010, Duarte oversaw a spike in drug-related violence and disappearances. The International Crisis Group recently described Veracruz as Mexico's "State of Terror" in a report that argued Duarte and his administration "governed with the intent of hiding or denying these crimes, and ensuring their culprits a free rein."
The discovery of mass graves in Veracruz has become depressingly frequent. One uncovered in mid-March contained the remains of some 250 people. Reporters Without Borders recently labeled the state during Duarte's tenure as the most dangerous place for journalists in Latin America, with the majority of the murders of journalists in Mexico taking place there during his time in office.
Duarte's administration also failed to account for some $2.6 billion of federal funds received by Veracruz between 2011 and 2015, according to the Wall Street Journal. He and his co-conspirators allegedly siphoned off nearly all of the public money allotted to combat insecurity in the state, reported Animal Político.
The capture of Duarte comes less than a week after Tomás Yarrington, another ex-governor on the run from the law, was arrested by authorities in Florence, Italy.
Yarrington's extradition, which has been requested by both the United States and Mexico, could prove trickier than that of Duarte, especially following further revelations in the days following his capture that Yarrington was placed under state police protection when he was wanted by authorities both in Mexico and the United States. Documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal show he was assigned eight state policemen as bodyguards last year.
InSight Crime Analysis
Mexican authorities deserve some credit for the arrest of Duarte, as they do with the capture of any fugitive. He had become a liability for the PRI; Peña Nieto referred to him as part of the new generation of party leaders when he was running for president in 2012, reported the Los Angeles Times.
The same can be said for Yarrington, also of the PRI, who is accused of drug trafficking in Mexico and importing and distributing drugs, money laundering, bank fraud and illicit money operations in the United States.
But the arrests of both Duarte and Yarrington are based more on political than ethical forces, underlining the age-old problems within Mexico's justice system.
As InSight Crime wrote last week regarding the Yarrington case, the PRI is desperate to show strength on issues of corruption and abuse of power ahead of gubernatorial elections in June 2017 and presidential elections in 2018. Duarte and his terrible performance contributed to the PRI's loss of the state of Veracruz to a coalition of opposition parties in regional elections last year for the first time in its history.
Other, arguably more dangerous, criminals in Mexico continue to elude justice, yet Mexican authorities managed to track down both Yarrington and Duarte in other countries, albeit with the help of other law enforcement agencies. In some cases, it seems that Mexican authorities delay decisive action until they become unable to resist increasing pressure to locate and detain these suspects. One example is the recent re-arrest and extradition of Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo," which came after Guzmán became famous as the world's most-wanted drug lord and went on the lam for a second time from a high-security prison.
As security analyst Alejandro Hope pointed out in an op-ed for El Universal, Nemesio Oseguera Cervantes, alias "El Mencho," the leader and founder of the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) remains at large in Mexico, overseeing a criminal network that continues to grow its domestic and international reach. Yet despite his status as one of the most-wanted criminals in both the United States and Mexico, he remains a free man -- for now.
In another illustration of this dynamic, Mexico's justice system took years to act against Duarte, and only did so after he and his ostentatious abuses became impossible to ignore. Arguably, the PRI had little choice but to rein him in and make him a scapegoat.
Although Duarte and Yarrington are now behind bars, there are numerous other ex-governors or former elected officials who remain at large despite facing charges of crimes like corruption, illicit association and money laundering. (The newspaper Excelsior maps them here in this graphic.)
Last year alone, five former governors were accused of corruption. Fugitive ex-governor Eugenio Hernandez Flores was reportedly photographed voting in gubernatorial elections in early June last year, despite being the on the wanted list of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Between 2000 and 2013, during which Mexico had 63 governors in power across different administration periods, the press reported 71 cases of corruption against 41 different governors, only 16 of whom were investigated and only five of whom were found guilty, according to a 2016 report by the Mexican Institution for Competitiveness (Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad – IMCO).
The message to other corrupt officials at large seems to be that they should keep a low profile rather than stop engaging in criminal activities altogether. Creating these political scapegoats in high-profile cases could encourage discretion, rather than desistance, by those on the take in a country where corruption is so endemic.
Finally, although Duarte's arrest could help improve the PRI's image in the eyes of voters ahead of the upcoming elections, it comes too late to reverse the decline and social decay in Veracruz.
The governorship has now passed to Miguel Ángel Yunes under a coalition of the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional – PAN) and the Democratic Revolution Party (Partido de la Revolución Democrática – PRD). Yunes vowed to restore security to the state during his first six months in office, but instead has seen a new wave in violence prompted by cartel wars as well as the reconfiguration of the government-organized crime nexus following the change in political administration.