The Shocking, Bloody Tale of Mexico’s Most Corrupt Governor
Javier Duarte was nabbed in Guatemala after allegedly stealing billions from Veracruz, where scores of journalists were murdered under his watch. But questions about his arrest remain.
TIJUANA, Mexico—“I’m good, thanks,” said Mexico’s worst living former governor at his extradition hearing on Wednesday, when asked by a Guatemalan judge if he wanted the Mexican embassy to be informed of his arrest.
“From what I understand, Mexico is totally aware of the situation,” said the now disgraced politician, politely noting that Mexican federal authorities were present during his arrest at a Guatemalan resort last Saturday.
But beyond those who were present and involved, this week just about everyone in Mexico was watching details of the high-profile arrest emerge, and opining on the governor’s detention, which finally came about due to a joint effort between Mexican authorities and Interpol in Guatemala.
He had been on the lam for six months.
The arrest of Javier Duarte, the former governor of Veracruz—one of Mexico’s most cartel-embattled states—curiously followed the arrest of yet another of Mexico’s many fugitive governors, Tomás Yarrington of Tamaulipas, who was nabbed by Italian authorities the week before while out on an evening stroll in Florence.But Mexico’s chronically scandal-plagued president, Enrique Peña Nieto—who tweeted “mission accomplished” when Mexico’s most wanted drug lord, Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, was arrested last year following a months-long manhunt—did not have much to say about either of the two disgraced governors this week.
Despite Mexico’s utter lack of involvement in Yarrington’s arrest, which Italian authorities said resulted from U.S. intelligence, the president attempted to take credit for reining in both governors while very briefly commenting on the detentions.
Both of the now disgraced governors made their careers under the umbrella of the country’s ruling party—the oxymoronically named Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
The president, during his 2012 election campaign, praised the Veracruz governor Duarte, calling him one of the “youthful” faces of a “new political generation” for the PRI—a party that was labeled “a dinosaur” after ruling, uninterrupted, for more than seven decades until finally being unseated in 2000. President Peña Nieto’s election brought the party back into power in 2012.
But while campaigning, then-candidate Peña Nieto specifically named three young Mexican governors as exemplary figures in “the new PRI.”
All three governors turned out to be criminals. And then became fugitives.
“These detentions are a firm and forceful message from the Mexican State against impunity,” the president said on Monday—not mentioning Yarrington or Duarte by name—before swiftly moving on to other matters.
But all across Mexico this week, the people were skeptical. And the country has been bubbling with questions.
According to current Tamaulipas governor Francisco García Cabeza de Vaca, Yarrington, who left his post five years ago, was under the official protection of the state government until as recently as last October, when his security detail was finally revoked—roughly the same time Governor Duarte fled Veracruz, and then the country.
Yarrington, who ran the state bordering Texas from 1999 to 2005, was often praised by then-Texas Governor George W. Bush, who called him “a friend.”
“Tomas [Yarrington] is terrific, worked with him a lot,” Bush said in 2000, just months before his election as the 43rd U.S. president. Bush, at the time, had even personally reached out to the now-disgraced governor to request leniency for several Texas residents who illegally brought guns into Mexico.
But that, of course, was before it became known that Yarrington’s campaign was funded by the Gulf cartel, which then thrived and expanded under official protection, as its gruesome death squad—the fearsome paramilitary-styled Zetas—broke off to form their own cartel.
The former governor is wanted in both the U.S. and Mexico on charges related to drug trafficking, organized crime, and money laundering. And both countries will be contending for custody of the criminal politician, whose extradition will be decided by a Florence appeals court.
But Yarrington has been long forgotten as just another corrupt dinosaur politician.
This week, the spotlight was on rosey-cheeked Javier Duarte, the greasy 43-year-old former governor of Veracruz, whose creepy facial tick—inopportune smiling—was on full display as he sat handcuffed this weekend, in the custody of Guatemalan Interpol.
News of his arrest, rather than serve as a “forceful” blow to corruption as the president hoped, has served to fuel a number of raging and widely varying theories—none too outlandish to be believed in a country where the wildest stories have become official truths.
Mexico, remember, allowed its last most wanted fugitive, “El Chapo”, to escape—not once, but twice—from maximum security prison. First, the government claims, in a laundry cart, then years later through the shower drain in his prison cell, which led to a mile-long tunnel burrowed underneath the prison.
In Mexico, the word unbelievable is often meant literally.
The story of the arrest on Guatemalan soil of Mexico’s most wanted man since El Chapo, Javier Duarte—who somehow managed to remain fugitive for even longer than that fugitive, the world’s most powerful drug lord since Pablo Escobar—has sparked equal incredulity this week.
Duarte, Mexico’s villain du jour, has been accused of everything from replacing chemotherapy drugs for dying children with an inert saline solution—as alleged by his successor, Governor Miguel Angel Yunes—to granting a dozen dubious contracts to the Brazilian engineering giant Odebrecht, which on Monday was fined an unprecedented $2.6 billion by a U.S. judge for bribing officials in a dozen Latin American countries, including $10 million doled out to Mexican officials.
But, mostly, Duarte’s name has become synonymous with one thing: stealing.
Lots of stealing. Unprecedented stealing.
The people of Mexico, from laymen to politicians, have spent years calling Duarte a criminal.
But it wasn’t until May of last year—when investigative journalists at Animal Politico dropped a bombshell report revealing the vast network of collaborators facilitating Duarte’s efforts to bleed his state dry—that the proof became undeniable.
Duarte is accused of leaving the state of Veracruz near-destitute, and draining public coffers for his own enrichment through a complicated scheme involving an untold number of public officials, private businesspeople, and family members.
Officially, on the lowest end of the spectrum, the Mexican Attorney General’s Office has timidly accused Duarte of taking about $22 million from the state.
But, less forgiving estimates, like that of Mexico’s Federal Auditor’s Office, have calculated the drain on federal and state funds at well over $3 billion missing or misappropriated during just three years of Duarte’s nearly-six-year term.
Juan Manuel Portal, who heads the government office, called the theft “historic” last November. But the staggering sum of state and federal funds that Duarte is alleged to have stolen or otherwise diverted from Veracruz is still being tallied.
According to Arturo Angel, a reporter for Animal Politico—the news organization that first evidenced the breadth of the governor’s impropriety last May—the latest total has reached an unfathomable 73 billion pesos.
That’s roughly $3.8 billion.
By that measure, Duarte was stealing about $76,000 an hour during his term as governor. Or, more than $1.8 million for each of the 2,130 days he spent in office.
Worse, this theft had seemingly been an open secret for years before the news outlet revealed its enormity, precipitating the investigation that would push Duarte into hiding. Federal auditors had been aware of the inconsistencies since 2012, but their complaints had been consistently and officially ignored.
When the governor finally stepped down last October, he said he was doing so to “face the false accusations” against him.
“I’m not going to flee,” he said in his final television interview before abruptly disappearing.
The interim governor, Flavino Ríos, admitted he facilitated Duarte’s escape via helicopter. While in air, the helicopter changed routes several times before finally taking Duarte to a getaway car that drove him to Chiapas, where he remained until fleeing to Guatemala.
Last Halloween, two weeks after he went missing, outspoken Catholic priest Alejandro Solalinde tweeted that Duarte was hiding in Chiapas, the Mexican state bordering Guatemala. Father Solalinde had received the tip from community members, he said, who had seen heavy military presence guarding the area. The priest said, then, that if Duarte left the country it would be because of the government’s omission.
According to the official version, parroted by Mexico’s deputy attorney general Alberto Elías Beltrán this week, the first real clue to Duarte’s whereabouts didn’t come until two weeks later.
On November 10, a man was arrested at the Chiapas airport carrying two passports with pseudonyms and the photographs of Governor Duarte and his wife, Karime Macías Tubillo, along with $7,500 in cash. He was released hours later and not charged with any crime.
According to the deputy attorney general, the big break in the case, which led Mexican authorities to the Guatemalan resort where Duarte was arrested on Saturday, came the day before the arrest, when Duarte’s family was briefly detained en route to Guatemala.
Duarte’s wife’s sister, her husband, and their children boarded a plane to Guatemala from Mexico State last Friday, along with Duarte’s children and mother-in-law. They were travelling with roughly $16,000 in cash—a stash of euros, dollars, and pesos—and were fined for the undeclared money.
But they were allowed to travel regardless, authorities said, in order to lead authorities straight to Duarte’s hideout at the upscale lakeside resort in Guatemala.
“Javier Duarte is on his way,” wrote the Veracruz-based journalist Alejandro Aguirre Guerrero in a column for El Universal, two days before the arrest, and one day before the revealing Duarte family plane trip was booked.
In the days before the arrest, the journalist said over the phone, federal sources told him that Duarte would be “arrested in Central America on Saturday.”
“I was authorized to make that public,” he said. “But I decided to not publish that information, because I didn’t want to accidentally blow the whistle before Duarte could be brought in. I feared interfering in the arrest, or hindering justice.”
“According to the official version of events, there isn’t any reason that [federal authorities] should have known that the family was headed to Guatemala, nor that Duarte would be detained on Saturday,” he said. Although, Aguirre said, his source had told him weeks before that Duarte had “poked his head out,” signaling his network of conspirators that he was running low on cash and thirsty for more.
Guatemalan prosecutor Thelma Aldana Hernández confirmed on Monday that authorities in her country were not asked to detain the fugitive until the day of his arrest, April 15.“My sources confirmed, as they were honing in on him, that Duarte was the only one the government would arrest—not his family or wife,” said Aguirre, who last year won the National Journalism Prize for his coverage of Veracruz.
“One thing I considered, a logical conclusion really, is that the whole thing was arranged ahead of time,” Aguirre said, echoing the theory that has resoundingly predominated this week in Mexico. “That’s what this would lead you to believe. It is suspicious, really.”
When Aguirre was given the go-ahead on Thursday to publish that Duarte would be arrested on Saturday, he wondered—“as anyone would”—if perhaps he was being used by official sources, as a way to give Duarte the nod. But the journalist was judicious in what he chose to reveal publicly.
“I asked my source if it was planned that Duarte would agree to turn himself in in exchange for [authorities] not pursuing his family,” he said. “But I was unable extract a response. Not even a wink.”
Inconsistencies and unanswered questions abound. According to Mexico’s deputy attorney general, Alberto Elías Beltrán, who led the effort on Mexico’s behalf, Duarte was arrested in the hotel lobby on Saturday without incident.
But the arresting officers in Guatemala said the former governor was cornered while attempting to flee the fifth floor of the hotel, after authorities deactivated the elevators and WiFi. He initially denied being Javier Duarte, they said.
But the deputy director of Interpol in Guatemala, Manuel Noriega, told the Associated Press that Duarte was asked to leave his room, and agreed to do so voluntarily. “I’m Javier Duarte, the governor,” he allegedly said. “There’s nothing to do now but tell the truth.”
Guatemalan Interpol also said that someone from the Mexican Attorney General’s Office called the former governor’s hotel room, informed Duarte that he was surrounded, and suggested he give himself up. Authorities then met him at the door of his room, they said, but allowed him to go back inside, alone, to speak to his wife and children, before being calmly escorted downstairs.“I have questions. You have questions. We all have questions,” journalist Alejandro Aguirre told me. “There’s definitely a hole in the story.”
“I want to know why he wasn’t immediately deported to Mexico,” he said, like Sinaloa cartel boss El Chapo was when he was detained in Guatemala in 1993 under similar circumstances. “And why his family is still free.”
“I deserve abundance. I deserve abundance. I deserve abundance. I deserve abundance,” read an obsessive mantra written over and over, consuming one full page of a notebook found abandoned in a large warehouse in Córdoba, Veracruz.
The warehouse, whose contents were seized in late February and proudly presented to the press by the state’s current governor Miguel Angel Yunes, was full of items ranging from personal to public property. The random surplus included over-the-top oil portraits of Duarte and his wife, art, framed family photographs, gifts, antiques, a grip of fancy pens, collectibles, sports memorabilia, hoards of dishware, boxes of school uniforms, expired goods, and dozens of wheelchairs.
Duarte’s wife, Karime Macías, who headed the state’s social services agency, kept meticulous notes, and appears to have left a clear trail of complicity in her husband’s (alleged) crimes in the pages of her diaries.
The stash of more than a dozen notebooks—whose pages are filled with lists of bank account numbers and hand-drawn maps of illegally acquired properties both foreign and domestic—appear to be a roadmap of the couple’s greed, written in girlish script.
But, beyond Duarte’s wife, a bevy of her family members have also been tied to the governor’s improprieties. Like Duarte, and his network of official collaborators, Karime’s family acquired costly properties throughout the U.S. and Mexico, which have not yet been officially explained.
During a government raid in February of a Chiapas home belonging to his in-laws, authorities discovered more than $50,000 in cash—but this is, admittedly, pocket change compared to the more than $12 million in cash found stuffed inside cardboard boxes inside another raided Duarte-linked home in Mexico City.
A half-dozen of Karime’s family members were even on state payroll during his administration—one cousin was made finance secretary, another named head of communications.
The man detained, and subsequently released, in Chiapas last October, carrying phony passports for the governor and his wife, was unveiled as Karime’s cousin.
Another of her cousins who was also on the payroll, Brenda Tubilla, was linked to a shady plane-load of money that has never been fully explained.
Veracruz officials were detained after flying to Mexico State from Veracruz with suitcases containing more than $1.3 million in cash. Duarte’s officials claimed the cash was meant to pay for an upcoming state-programmed festival that his wife’s cousin was in charge of organizing, and the money was eventually returned to the Veracruz government—with interest.
In one of Karime’s 2012 diary entries, photographed by the journalist Aguirre who visited the warehouse after the raid, she wrote about keeping a straight face, while dining with celebrities and reporters from TV Azteca, as rumors swirled about the plane full of cash.
“Pieces of the puzzle began falling into place, assembling the full story of the detained airplane,” reads the journal entry from the day after the discovery. “Throughout this, I watched and successfully made sure that the atmosphere over dinner remained as though everything were normal (and it was!).”
Quoting another dinner guest, a prominent businessman married to a well-known telenovela star, she wrote, “Governing is like trying to hold up two columns made of sand at all times.”
She could have guessed, then, that it would all eventually come crashing down. But likely expected it never would. “The plane belonged to the government,” the journal entry concludes.
Karime’s parents are under investigation for Duarte-related financial crimes, and her sister and brother-in-law were travelling to Guatemala this weekend with envelopes full of excessive cash intended for Duarte. Yet, despite the doubts that have arisen about her and her family, Mexico’s deputy attorney general has made it clear that they are all free to do and travel as they please.
After Duarte told a Guatemalan judge on Wednesday that he would not accept extradition until Mexico formally submits a request—which could take several weeks, but must be filed in less than 60 days—Duarte’s family left the continent.
His wife, children, and in-laws were spotted hours later at an airport in Colombia. From there, his children and mother-in-law reportedly flew to England.
“As a Veracruzano, I obviously celebrated his arrest just as much as anyone else. When Duarte first disappeared, it was like a weight had been lifted off our chests,” Aguirre said, speaking as a journalist who watched the state transform under the disgraced politician.
Beyond the theft, graft, cronyism, and corruption, Duarte leaves a tainted legacy that includes the horrific murder of no less than 17 journalists in his state during his term.
But there were others, too, like photojournalist Ruben Espinosa, who was brutally murdered alongside the human rights activist Nadia Vera—both of whom fled the state weeks before, alleging Duarte wanted them dead.
Despite the relief many journalists felt when Duarte stepped down, safety conditions continue in a downward spiral. As an unknown number of bodies—more than 300 skulls, and thousands of bone fragments—were discovered in mass graves unearthed in Veracruz in the span of one week this past March, journalist Ricardo Monlui was brutally murdered in the state. The following week, another reporter was gunned down in Veracruz, but managed to survive despite life-threatening injures.
Under Duarte, Veracruz became the most dangerous state to practice journalism in Mexico, and, according to Reporters Without Borders, one of the 10 most dangerous places for journalists in the world.
But, besides that distinction, Veracruz also, ironically, became the Mexican state with the largest number of news outlets.
The state government had been spending millions on contracts with local media companies—a common, legal, and unfortunate practice in Mexico. But, since Duarte left Veracruz crippled and impoverished, those contracts have all now been put to an end.
According to the journalist Aguirre, many of the local media companies “that became complacent and reliant on those funds” have been forced to shutter. Others have resorted to mass firings.
“One of the papers I work for, Imagen de Veracruz, had huge government contracts,” said Israel Hernández, another Veracruz-based journalist who reports locally and nationally on the state’s situation.
“The policy was strange. You could be critical of the government as an entity, but to mention [Duarte’s] name in the same line as political corruption or diverted resources—absolutely forbidden,” Hernández explained over the phone. “It was okay to blame it on a subordinate, though.”
“Several of us, who had our work stalled internally or were asked to remove his name, would just end up taking those articles to national media outlets instead,” he said. “That’s all common here. The policy was implicit and explicit. By no means is it a secret.”
Hernández was shot three weeks ago while livestreaming an armed encounter that left two dead and more than 20 others injured. He’s recovering well, and said he kept the bullet as a professional souvenir.
“I expected the authorities to ask me for it at some point. One would assume they would would want it as, I don’t know, evidence. But they never came,” he said—not sounding too surprised.
When news of Duarte’s arrest broke on Saturday, Hernández celebrated alongside his fellow Veracruzanos, on crutches at a taco stand—barely on his second day outside since that bullet was lodged in his pelvic bone.
Hernández like many local journalists, has lost colleagues, received death threats, been followed, and otherwise kept on his toes.
Like Aguirre, he said Duarte’s disappearance was felt hard by the state media, but that the arrest brings some symbolic relief for his colleagues.
But both agreed, the end of government media contracts in Veracruz is perhaps the one good thing that came from Duarte’s staggering theft. It’s a practice they’d like to see put to an end, nationally.
Duarte, with his thumb on the local press and in the good graces of the federal government, was “untouchable.”
But now detained in a Guatemalan cell, he is untouchable for entirely different reasons.
Politicians across Mexico leapt over each other this week in an effort to distance themselves from the slimy governor, who—always smiling—posed for enough political photo-ops during his career to provide cannon fodder for politicians of all stripes in Mexico.
Pundits in Mexico are predominantly theorizing that Duarte’s arrest came at an opportune moment for the ruling political party, which is facing contentious elections in several key states come June.
The PRI risks losing municipal seats throughout Veracruz, as well as the governorship of three other PRI strongholds, including Mexico State—where President Enrique Peña Nieto first came to power as governor.
The two PRI governors arrested this week join the ranks of more than a dozen other dirty governors in Mexico. In addition to the pair, three former governors are currently serving time behind bars—all members of the ruling PRI.
At least two other PRI governors are currently under investigation.
And, despite the latest arrests of Duarte and Yarrington, two more Mexican governors are still on the run: Cesar Duarte in Chihuahua—no relation to the disgraced Veracruz governor—and Yarrington’s successor in Tamaulipas, Eugenio Hernández, who is wanted in the U.S. on money laundering charges, but is not being actively sought in Mexico.
They, too, served under the umbrella of the ruling PRI.
Yet, the idea that the governors’ arrests do anything to benefit the ruling party’s chances come state elections this June, and national elections next year, has proliferated this week, however ludicrous at face value.
The leftist populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an early favorite in the 2018 presidential elections, is perfectly poised to ride the wave of both anti-Trump and anti-PRI sentiments in Mexico.
AMLO, as the perennial presidential candidate is popularly known, vociferously contested the results of the irregularity-plagued 2006 and 2012 elections, both of which he claimed to have won.
His very close upset in the two previous elections led, first, to the 2006 appointment of the man known as the engineer of the Mexican drug war, Felipe Calderon—whose wife, Margarita Zavala, will also be running for president in 2018—and then to the subsequent election of current President Enrique Peña Nieto.
But this week, AMLO—whom one would expect to have the least political capital invested in the failed PRI governor Duarte—called his arrest a “political maneuver,” claiming that the government “made the decision to arrest Duarte as a way to throw mud on [the political party he founded] Morena.”
The current governor of Veracruz, Miguel Angel Yunes, has accused AMLO and his party of taking cash from dirty Duarte.
And AMLO, himself, fueled the fire this week by tweeting that Duarte is a “scapegoat,” and calling his arrest “a simulation.”
In Mexico State, arguably the most important state to be decided this June, the candidate for the National Action Party, or PAN—the party that briefly interrupted the PRI’s continuous 71-year rule over Mexico from 2000 until President Peña Nieto’s 2012 election—accused both the ruling party, and the leftist opposition of taking money from Duarte.
AMLO, in turn, accused the PAN candidate of misusing funds received from President Enrique Peña Nieto, who “betrayed” Duarte this week, even after the former governor “gave money to [Peña’s presidential] campaign in 2012.”
As theories and speculation about Duarte’s arrest dominated the news, accounting for 40 percent of opinion columns produced this week, 32 percent of the analyzed columns concluded that Duarte’s case is the worst case of corruption seen in Mexico that involves multiple political players.
As Duarte’s extradition hearing promises to stretch on for as long as one year, his trial in Mexico to answer questions about the myriad crimes he is accused of will be severely postponed.
With Duarte out of the way, and conveniently silenced by the prolonged extradition proceedings, the dust has yet to settle on just who those players are. And what’s left is a cloud of confusion and conspiracy.
“Duarte knows a lot,” said journalist Aguirre. His colleague Israel Hernández said, “He knows too much.”
But what he knows Mexico will not in time for state elections. And it is unlikely his case will be resolved before Election Day, 2018.
What happens this June at the state level promises to set the political stage on which the presidential election will be fought.
And, as is typical during Mexican campaign seasons, already a political foodfight has broken out before the starting bell. As Duarte’s connections continue to be revealed, and his name is weaponized and flung about like hot fudge, political players are bound to get a little dirty.
According to opinion polls released this week, 40 percent of those polled said the ruling PRI will be most negatively impacted by his arrest. But a close 37 percent believed leftist presidential candidate AMLO’s Morena party will likely take the biggest hit.
As for Duarte, making a slow crawl through a potentially year-long extradition process before he can even begin the next lengthy process in Mexico, 74 percent of those polled believe that Duarte is guilty.
Yet nearly just as many—63 percent—said it is unlikely he will be punished.