A federal investigation into three former governors of a Mexican border state may be a sincere attempt to crack down on political links with organized crime, but has sparked accusations of politically motivated law-enforcement.
Reports of the investigation into Manuel Cavazos Lerma, Tomas Yarrington, and Eugenio Hernandez — the three most recent governors of Tamaulipas — began to emerge earlier this week. The men headed the government in Tamaulipas, which is the site of such border crossings as Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo, from 1998 through 2010.
The governors are suspected of having links to groups like the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas. As online publication Reporte Indigo reports, a document from the special organized crime unit of Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office, dated January 13, refers to an investigation into these alleged ties. Among the specific crimes that the governors are accused of committing are money laundering and accepting illegal payments. As part of the investigation, federal agencies were instructed to record every instance in which any of the governors or 46 of their family members and political associates left the country.
While investigations into such high-profile officials are rare, the suspicions about Tamaulipas politicians being linked to criminal groups are not. The state government has long been accused of protecting the Gulf Cartel and fostering the rise of the Zetas over the past decade. In 2009, renowned journalist Carlos Loret de Mola said the state was “without a doubt” the most dangerous in Mexico in terms of “the social decomposition and the penetration of drug traffickers in all of the structures.”
Tamaulipas is significantly less violent than many other states also linked to drug trafficking, which is probably linked to the fact that the total infiltration of its institutions makes it more stable. However, the region has grown more bloody with the 2010 split between the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel. In the most notorious act of violence in Tamaulipas’ recent history, a candidate for governor, Rodolfo Torre Cantu, was murdered less than two weeks before the 2010 election.
Notwithstanding Tamaulipas’ deep relationship with drug trafficking, the investigation into three governors from an opposition party, and subsequent leaks to the press, just a few months before a presidential election has sparked allegations that the process is serving political ends. Calderon faced similar charges after the so-called “michoacanazo” in 2009, in which dozens of state and local officials in Michoacan were arrested just weeks before key mid-term elections. Ultimately, none of the officials arrested — who represented all of the major parties, including Calderon’s — were convicted.
Mexican governors are often described as operating like “viceroys,” with extensive control over state and (indirectly) over municipal budgeting within their territories. They also control far more capable police forces than the mayors at the municipal level, and, as the foremost state-level liaison with the federal government, they exercise a significant amount of influence over the deployment of federal troops.
This extensive control over their states makes the governors high-value targets for organized crime groups, who have a much greater freedom of movement in states where they have a friendly relationship with the governor. Probably the most famous such case is that of Mario Villanueva, the ex-governor of Quintana Roo who was accused of allowing the Juarez Cartel use Cancun as a stepping stone for Colombian cocaine in the 1990s. After serving a prison sentence for money laundering in Mexico, Villanueva was extradited to the US in 2010, and remains behind bars.
Other figures connected to state governments are not jailed, but targeted by vengeful drug gangs. Torre Cantu’s murder weeks before his election to the head of Tamaulipas’ government — he had an insurmountable lead in polls at the time of his murder — is the most famous case, but there have been other recent aggressions.
Last month, a hardware business owned by Sinaloan Governor Mario Lopez Valdez was burned in Mazatlan, killing one employee. Many interpreted the assault as a warning to the governor. In December 2011, a convoy in which Ruben Moreira, governor of Coahuila, and his family were travelling was attacked by gunmen, though no one was seriously hurt.
Governors in Chihuahua, Mexico’s most violent state for the past several years, have been particularly vulnerable. In 2009, a convoy including former Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes was attacked along a highway in his state, resulting in one bodyguard being killed and two injured. His successor, Cesar Duarte, suffered the murder of two nephews in separate incidents just before taking office, while he was still governor-elect.