Why Mexico’s Governors Became A Prime Target of Criminal Groups

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A growing stream of corruption allegations against governors in Mexico exemplifies how changes in the country’s political landscape have inadvertently served to expand these officials’ role in enabling organized crime.

As reported by InSight Crime and other sources, a reputed financial operator for the Zetas criminal group accused former Coahuila Gov. Humberto Moreira of accepting $2 million in monthly payments in exchange for allowing the gang to open hundreds of so-called “narcotiendas” (narco-stores) and giving them virtually free rein to operate throughout the state. As part of the bargain, the Zetas intimidated and attacked political and business enemies of Moreira, according to the testimony of the former Zetas member.

Moreira has denied the charges, and while they have not been verified, they do fit with the broader pattern of Moreira’s tenure at the head of the Coahuila state government, which lasted from 2005 to 2011. After having operated primarily as an offshoot of the Gulf Cartel in Tamaulipas, the Zetas took control of Coahuila in 2007 and 2008. In so doing, they initiated a campaign of kidnapping and extortion that had no local precedent and turned certain cities, such as Torreón, into virtual war zones. Rumors that Moreira was directly responsible for the Zetas’ rise were rampant during his tenure, and since his exit, Moreira’s alleged ties to the criminal group have sparked multiple criminal investigations, including some convictions, against him and his subordinates in the United States.

The grim arc of Moreira’s career is not unusual. Two former governors of Tamaulipas, Tomás Yarrington and Eugenio Hernández, are facing indictments in the United States for allegedly aiding criminal groups. Former Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte is a fugitive with a raft of corruption cases hanging over his heard, while his former counterpart from Sonora, Guillermo Padrés, turned himself in to Mexican authorities in November amid similar allegations.

InSight Crime Analysis

This confluence of stories on governors’ wrongdoing is not a coincidence, but rather a byproduct of a Mexican political system that concedes enormous and largely unchecked authority to the statehouse.

In the post-Mexican Revolution political system that dominated the 20th Century, while Mexican governors enjoyed a great deal of autonomy strictly within their domain, they operated at the orders of a near-omnipotent president. The power of the presidency provided an important check on their power. The multi-party system that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s brought the days of the all-powerful president to an end, but this opening had the unintended effect of vastly increasing the practical control that governors exercised.

If a gang secures the support of a single governor whose state controls a major port or a border crossing, it has likely guaranteed itself a major role in the national criminal landscape.

It is not a coincidence that one of the first examples of the so-called narco-governor essentially coincided with the end of the PRI’s monopoly on Mexican politics. Former Quintana Roo Governor Mario Villanueva went underground days before the end of his term in 1999, amid rampant rumors that, in exchange for bribes much like those Moreira is accused of receiving, he had given the Juarez Cartel of Amado Carrillo free use of his state. After being arrested in Mexico in 2001, Villanueva was later extradited to the United States. After serving a lengthy prison sentence, earlier this month Villanueva was returned to Mexico and subsequently arrested. He is reportedly awaiting another lengthy prison term.

Today, governors rather than presidents exercise practical control over their states’ congressional delegations. They often wield substantial influence over the municipal governments within their states as well, as mayors rely on them for budgetary transfers and for support in advancing their political futures.

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This shift in the political landscape over the past two decades has made governors collectively the most important cohort in Mexican politics, frequently described as modern-day viceroys. Working as a unit, they are capable of scuttling a president’s agenda.

This has consequently turned them into an irresistible target for criminal groups looking for allies within government. The scope of governors’ authority makes it ideal for criminal groups to try to corrupt or otherwise co-opt them. If a gang secures the support of a single governor whose state controls a major port or a border crossing, it has likely guaranteed itself a major role in the national criminal landscape. The Familia Michoacana and the Knights Templar, for example, were largely concentrated in a single state, but that has been enough to make the gangs major players over the past decade.

A gang can leverage the support of a key governor in any number of ways. They can use his government as a sort of beachhead amid a territorial expansion, as the Zetas allegedly did. Most governors control large and relatively effective state police forces, which, when deployed at the service of a criminal group, can be extremely valuable allies.

Criminal groups can also use political support indirectly to lean on local governments. Governors can help gangs by pressuring prosecutors to limit prosecutions against their members, as many laws targeting organized crime are in the realm of state courts. As the chief interlocutors with the federal government, governors can also obstruct federal efforts to target one group or another.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

From a criminal group’s perspective, governors are also more reachable than the president. The fact that they occupy a lower profile than the president makes dealing with governors far less risky. In addition, governors are not burdened with the prerogatives of statesmanship, from monetary policy to foreign relations, which limit time for focusing on law enforcement and security matters. Relative to presidents, governors are also more isolated from pressure from the US government to crack down on criminal groups.

This collective dynamic is behind the spate of cases like Moreira’s and Yarrington’s, among many others. Although much of the commentary on security issues in Mexico focuses on the goals and missteps of the presidency, a great deal of the government’s efforts are channeled through other offices. And as long as Mexican governors in key states are actively boosting the interests of powerful crime groups like the Zetas, there will be a limit to what federal policies can accomplish.

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