A former Mexican governor pleaded guilty to money laundering charges in an American courtroom last week, a rare example of one of organized crime’s political backers being made to answer for his activities.

Mario Villanueva (pictured), who pleaded guilty to charges of money laundering in New York on Thursday, served as governor of Quintana Roo, the tropical state where Cancun is located, from 1994 to 2000. Not coincidentally, during that time period the Juarez Cartel of Amado Carrillo Fuentes grew to dominate the Yucatan Peninsula, using Cancun in particular as a halfway point from cocaine-laden flights travelling from Colombia to the US-Mexico border.

Villanueva’s protection of Carrillo’s group was long suspected. Reports of the Juarez Cartel operating in Cancun were common, and Carrillo’s rival and partner, Rafael Aguilar, was murdered on a yacht anchored in the resort town in 1993, allowing Carrillo to consolidate his control of the organization. Consequently, as the end of Villanueva’s term approached in 1999, so did suspicion that, with the expiration of the immunity from prosecution that his post provided, he would be a likely candidate for arrest.

Faced with that prospect, Villanueva fled weeks before he left office, and was a fugitive for two years. Following his arrest in Quintana Roo in 2001, he served six years in a Mexican prison after being convicted for money laundering. Moments after his release in 2007, he was arrested again, and placed into custody as the US and Mexico began to arrange his extradition, which was eventually carried out in 2010.

The US money laundering conviction carries with them a sentence of up to 20 years, so Villanueva, who is 64 and suffers from various medical problems, seems a good bet to spend the rest of his life in the US prison system. Should he survive, he faces deportation to Mexico and further charges in his native country--while awaiting extradition, he was also convicted on sundry charges related to organized crime that collectively carry a penalty of 30 additional years. Considering that 15 years ago he was an up-and-coming governor in Mexico’s ruling party, this represents an appropriately decisive punishment for the crimes for which he has been convicted.

However, despite a political system with extensive links to the nation’s organized crime groups, Villanueva’s case is all too rare. In this context, it is hard to escape the feeling that what put the Quintana Roo governor in prison wasn’t the decision to work with Carrillo so much as his failure to do so quietly, or merely bad luck.

While the identification and punishment of corrupt police has turned into a laudably regular occurrence in Mexico, Villanueva is the only politician of such stature to be either convicted in Mexico or extradited to the US for protecting criminal groups in recent years. A trio of ex-governors from the northeastern state of Tamaulipas are under investigation for their ties to the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, but none have yet been charged, much less convicted. A couple of days before Villanueva’s plea, Mexico’s Justice Department announced that it was also investigating Jose Reyes Baeza Terrazas, the governor of Chihuahua for much of its recent decline into chaos, for possible ties to the Juarez Cartel. Other governors, both past and present, are chased by rumors and suspicions, but none have been charged.

Some other high-profile attempts to punish politicians linked to the drug trade have blown up in the federal government’s face. The 2009 arrest of dozens of state and local officials in Michoacan, an incident dubbed the michoacanazo, resulted in not a single conviction; each of those arrested were released for a lack of evidence. In 2011, the arrest on weapons charges of Jorge Hank Rhon, a scion of a major political family and a former Tijuana mayor and who’d long been suspected of illicit activities, fell apart when it was revealed that the arresting soldiers manipulated the crime scene.

Worse still, governors suspected of illegal activity or who are demonstrably ineffective in tamping down on organized crime are rarely subjected to political punishments. Reyes Baeza, for instance, handed over his post to a fellow member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, in 2010. This despite not only the suspicions of a less than pristine administration, but also Juarez’s nearly 20-fold increase in homicides from Reyes Baeza’s first year in office (2004 in which 198 people were murdered) to his last (2010, in which Mexico’s statistical agency Inegi registered 3,766 killings), and the corresponding recognition of the city as the most dangerous in the hemisphere, if not the world.

At the same time, criminal groups have been ruthless in punishing politicians who threaten their interests. Dozens of mayors and legislators have been killed in recent years, with criminal groups in most cases presumed to be behind the attack. Consequently, the prevailing incentive structure for Mexican politicians fails to adequately discourage collusion with criminals. While a mayor who refuses to protect a gang is risking his life, if he agrees, the chances are that he won’t face legal problems in the future, nor will his political allies suffer the consequences of his misdeeds.

Until this changes, the cycle of political corruption will be difficult, if not impossible, to break.

Investigations

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