This excess is more public than ever, pushing Mexicans to a boiling point.
Empowered citizens, transparency laws and a freer media are now exposing the schemes that governors have used to siphon public funds for their private use. But though the scrutiny has produced mounting evidence of misdeeds, the governors have rarely faced justice.
Governors, who like presidents serve one six-year term, control state legislatures, state auditors and state prosecutors — a dominance that gives them the power of a modern potentate.
That leaves it to federal prosecutors to pursue wrongdoing, but the response has been tepid.
“In the majority of cases, it reaches no further than a complaint or an arrest warrant,” said María Amparo Casar, the executive president of Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, an activist group.
The governors “know how high the level of impunity is,” said Ms. Casar, whose research has found that of 42 governors suspected of corruption since 2000, only 17 were investigated. Before the most recent arrests, only three were in jail.
“They know that it will be the people below” who take the fall, she said. “Or that the prosecutor can’t put together a good case, or that the judge can be bribed.”
Of all the governors, Mr. Duarte of the Gulf Coast state of Veracruz has become the emblem of the country’s corrupt state leaders, particularly those from President Enrique Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI.
During the more than 70 years that the party governed Mexico without interruption, it became synonymous with corruption. The cases crisscross the map.
Mr. Yárrington, the former governor arrested in Italy, is wanted by both Mexico and the United States on charges that he took bribes from drug cartels to allow them free rein in his state, Tamaulipas, which borders Texas on the Gulf Coast.
His successor, Eugenio Hernández, who was also a PRI member, faces United States money-laundering charges. He has not been seen in public since last June.
The new opposition government that took over in Tamaulipas last October found that the outgoing PRI governor had assigned eight state police officers to protect Mr. Yárrington and four more to Mr. Hernández.
Irving Barrios, the incoming attorney general, told Mexican television last November that he reassigned the officers and reported the protection to the federal attorney general’s office. It was not clear whether the police officers were accompanying the fugitive former governors by that time.
In Nuevo León, Mexico’s northern manufacturing hub, the former governor Rodrigo Medina is a free man while a court reviews embezzlement and other charges against him.
No political party is immune, though.
Guillermo Padrés, who governed the northwestern border state of Sonora for the opposition National Action Party, is in jail as he defends himself against charges that he diverted public funds to family businesses.
Even before the corruption charges emerged last year, though, the residents of Mr. Padrés’s desert state were shocked to learn that he had built an illegal dam on his ranch to irrigate his commercial walnut orchard.
Outrage over corruption finally pushed Congress last year to agree to a package of new anticorruption laws. A citizens’ commission, which was sworn in this month, will oversee how well those laws are enforced.
But it will take time for them to take effect. In the meantime, some in the political establishment have found at least one way to sabotage the laws: Congress has delayed naming an anticorruption prosecutor.
And activists who pushed for the changes say they have become targets. They have received threats by text, newspaper columns have questioned their motives. Computers were stolen this month from the headquarters of one anticorruption group, Causa en Común. Tax auditors have appeared at several organizations.
For now, the arrests of Mr. Duarte and Mr. Yárrington give Mr. Peña Nieto’s government an opportunity to claim two decisive blows against corruption — even though both men were arrested abroad. The timing is fortunate, coming at the start of an election season in which clean government is a major demand of voters.
In June, Mr. Peña Nieto’s home state, the State of Mexico, will choose a new governor in a race that is widely seen as a bellwether ahead of next year’s general election. The state is a PRI bastion.
Despite an early career among some of the PRI’s most corrupt figures, Mr. Peña Nieto won the presidency in 2012 promising to lead a new generation of his party. Among the governors he praised as a fellow reformist was Mr. Duarte.
But it did not take long to see that Mr. Duarte presided over a government that operated with unusual avarice.
As the state’s debt doubled, the federal auditor said last year that he had asked the governor’s team to explain some $2 billion in budget discrepancies over four years. Retirees marched to protest the looting of the pension fund, and academics complained that the budget of the state’s flagship university was stripped.
An investigation by the online publication Animal Politico found that $35 million destined for social programs was paid instead to phantom companies.
The corruption even extended to the health system. The federal health ministry said in February that it had found doses labeled as the cancer drug Avastin, which on testing, proved to be fake. The ministry also found 23 metric tons of expired medicine in the state’s warehouses.
At the same time, a surge in horrific violence, including the murder of 17 journalists, was accompanied by the disappearance of thousands of people and the discovery of mass graves. Through it all, Mr. Duarte brushed off the violence and swore that he was innocent of stealing any money. An election changed his luck. Last June, the PRI lost governorships in six states, including Veracruz, to the opposition.
Mr. Duarte was suddenly a pariah in his party, clearing the way for the federal government to investigate. Realizing that his time was up, Mr. Duarte disappeared in October, a week before a judge issued an arrest warrant on charges of organized crime and embezzlement.
Since then, two other former PRI governors who lost their states to the opposition have followed his example.
Last month, the new governor of Chihuahua announced that his predecessor, César Duarte, had slipped across the border to El Paso to evade a state investigation into the embezzlement of public funds. César Duarte, who is not related to the former Veracruz governor, has said that he is innocent.
In Quintana Roo, which is home to the resort of Cancún, the former governor, Roberto Borge, is nowhere to be found.
In his case, the warning first came from citizens’ groups whose investigations discovered elaborate schemes that enriched Mr. Borge’s family and friends. In one ruse, the state’s labor relations board assessed enormous penalties on wage claims brought by phantom employees. To pay the debts, the board seized properties and sold them, according to a report by the business magazine Expansión and Ms. Casar’s group, Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity.
Mr. Borge also sold plots of public land to his mother, his lawyer and his friends for a fraction of their value. Although the federal attorney general’s office has seized 25 such properties, no arrest warrant has been issued for Mr. Borge, who is thought to be in the United States.
The local activist group that spent years digging for evidence of the land sales feared that Mr. Borge would never be held to account.
“They never expected that they would lose and that’s why they were so brazen,” said Fabiola Cortés, the director of the group, We Are Your Eyes. “They were sure that there would be continuity. They had control of the press and they bought the votes.”
Ms. Cortés, who has sought federal government protection from a program to protect journalists after she received threats, said the attorney general was moving slowly.
“They can’t just stand there with their arms crossed,” she said. “But it would be suicide for them to say that all PRI governors are corrupt.”
Instead, she said, “They are taking small steps ahead of the elections.”
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