As Election Approaches, Mexican PRI Party Suspends Drug-Linked Ex-Governor

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The PRI party, which held Mexico’s presidency for seven decades, has said it will suspend a former governor accused of taking bribes from drug cartels, in an effort to contain the possible damage to the party’s image in the run-up to presidential elections.

From 1999 to 2004, Tomas Yarrington (pictured) was governor of border state Tamaulipas, one of the parts of the country worst hit by drug violence in recent years. In January this year, there were reports that he, along with the two other most recent Tamaulipas governors, all members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI)·, were under investigation by Mexico’s attorney general for taking bribes from cartels. In February, US federal documents signalled Yarrington as having accepted millions from the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, as the LA Times reported.

On Tuesday, US prosecutors moved to confiscate more than $7 million-worth of property in Texas owned by the former governor, or by his associates, which prosecutors say was purchased with drug money. The following day, the PRI announced it was suspending his membership until the accusations were resolved, reports the AP. Yarrington denies the accusations, and has claimed that he does not own the properties in question. (See Reporte Indigo’s video report, below, on the allegations.)

The former governor took to Twitter on Wednesday to deny rumors that he had been arrested in Texas, saying he was calm, at liberty, and was not facing any criminal charges in the US.

InSight Crime Analysis

The fact that US authorities have not moved to charge Yarrington suggests that they have not yet gathered enough evidence to build a solid case against him. Indeed, the timing of the Mexican investigation into Yarrington and his PRI colleagues, just months before the election, raises concerns that the allegations could be, at least in part, politically motivated.

The PRI is highly sensitive to allegations of drug ties as it has a good chance of winning back power in the July presidential elections. Its candidate Enrique Peña Nieto is currently leading in the polls, with 46 percent against 26 percent for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the left-leaning Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), and 24.6 percent for Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party (PAN).

However, the photogenic Peña is dogged by the questionable past of his party. Mexico’s drug trafficking industry grew to its present size and power under the PRI, which is widely considered to have cooperated with and turned a blind eye to the cartels.

Peña recently released a 10-point plan promising to respect civil liberties, in an effort to placate critics who say the party remains oppressive and corrupt. This has not quieted protests against the party, with university students across the country holding mass demonstrations this week.

Peña is trying to distance himself from his party’s past. He has repeatedly rejected any talk of a pact with trafficking groups, and is not proposing any major departures from the security strategy of President Felipe Calderon. He says, for example, that he  supports using the military to fight organized crime — a major plank of Calderon’s strategy.

A version of this piece appeared on the Pan-American Post.

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