The long arm of the policía

The arrest of two fugitive Mexican governors

Their flight was embarrassing. Their capture is a good sign
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ONE of the odder pieces of evidence turned up by investigations of Javier Duarte, a former governor of the state of Veracruz, was an exercise book with his wife’s scrawl. “Sí merezco abundancia” (“Yes I deserve wealth”), she had written, over and over. During six years in charge of the state on the Gulf of Mexico, Mr Duarte allegedly did his best to acquire it. He was arrested at a resort in Guatemala on April 15th, after six months on the run. Five days earlier Tomás Yarrington, an ex-governor of the northern state of Tamaulipas, was nabbed in Florence, Italy. He had been eluding justice for five years.

The two fugitive governors are both former members of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to which Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, belongs. The attorney-general has investigated at least 11 state governors since 2010, nine of them from the PRI. Mr Peña once praised Mr Duarte and two other tainted governors as exemplars of the PRI’s “new generation”. This does its image no good ahead of an election in June in the State of Mexico, Mr Peña’s political home. The outcome will be a harbinger of next year’s presidential election (in which Mr Peña cannot run again). The governors’ arrest is a sign that the country is cracking down on corruption, though not yet hard enough.

Veracruz under Mr Duarte became “a state of terror”, according to the International Crisis Group, an NGO. At least 17 journalists were killed during his administration, from 2010 to 2016. He is being investigated on suspicion of having moved 233m pesos ($12m) of public money into ghost companies. Mr Duarte’s successor alleges that state hospitals administered fake cancer drugs to children during his rule. In 2016 the PRI lost control of the state for the first time in more than 80 years. Mr Duarte resigned in October, two months before the end of his term, and disappeared by the time an arrest warrant was issued a few days later.

Mr Yarrington, who governed Tamaulipas from 1999 to 2005, has been charged with collaborating with the Gulf Cartel, a drug gang. According to the Wall Street Journal, the state’s government provided bodyguards for him even as he was on the run from federal charges.

Such crookedness is an old problem. “Corruption is not a disagreeable characteristic of the Mexican political system: it is the system,” wrote Gabriel Zaid, an essayist, 30 years ago. At state level it may have got worse. When Mr Zaid was writing Mexican presidents (all of them priistas) removed governors almost at will. With the arrival of democracy in the 1990s power was dispersed and the president’s influence waned. In 2000 Vicente Fox of the National Action Party became the first non-PRI president in seven decades, but faced governors who were mostly from the former ruling party. To win their co-operation he sent more money and gave them licence to behave more or less as they wished. His successors have continued that practice.

The arrests of Messrs Duarte and Yarrington suggest that tolerance is waning. A freedom-of-information law (in force since 2003), social media and more assertiveness by the press and civil society have made it harder for politicians to get away with wrongdoing. The federal government faces the most scrutiny, but the demand for accountability is spreading to the states. A new “anti-corruption system” is supposed to police all levels of government, by co-ordinating corruption-fighting agencies and strengthening the federal auditor, among other things. It has yet to make a difference. Mr Peña no doubt hopes that voters will remember his party for chasing wrongdoers rather than advancing their careers.

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