MEXICO CITY — In an embarrassing blow to Mexico's justice system, a former governor suspected of links to drug kingpins declared defiantly Tuesday that he had gone into hiding to avoid being jailed.
U.S. and Mexican officials suspect that Mario Villanueva let drug traffickers turn the Yucatan Peninsula state of Quintana Roo and its largest city, Cancun, into a springboard for Colombian cocaine headed for the United States.
Villanueva's six-year term ended Monday, as did his constitutional immunity from prosecution. The Justice Ministry announced late Tuesday that an arrest warrant had been issued for Villanueva on charges of being involved in organized crime and drug trafficking.
But Villanueva, who had dropped from public sight a week earlier, was nowhere to be found. In a statement published in newspapers Tuesday, he said he had fled.
"Harassed by an investigation aimed at incriminating me at all costs in crimes of drug trafficking and drug abuse, I have been forced to make a very difficult personal decision: abandon my land in order to not be jailed," Villanueva said in the statement.
The former governor did not disclose where he was or whether he had left Mexico. He said he would defend himself in the courts but gave no details.
Villanueva's disappearance was an embarrassment for the Justice Ministry, already red-faced about several cases in recent years in which high-profile white-collar criminals fled abroad.
Cartoonists had a field day. One drawing, in the daily Universal, showed Villanueva blithely trotting with his suitcases over the nose of a giant face identified as the Justice Ministry. "Disappeared," was the title.
Villanueva was the first sitting Mexican governor to face an extensive drug-trafficking investigation, according to analysts. Last month, the governor said authorities had informed him of evidence that he had protected drug kingpins and even allowed cocaine to be unloaded at a state airport hangar in Chetumal, the state capital.
Federal prosecutors interrogated the governor March 24. Since then, Villanueva has failed to show up in response to three summonses.
In his letter published Tuesday, he insisted on his innocence.
"I am not a criminal," wrote the ex-governor, a member of the old-guard wing of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. "I am being persecuted for strictly political reasons."
Villanueva maintained that he is paying the price for his feud with PRI leaders over who should have been the party's candidate for governor in Quintana Roo in recent elections.
The Justice Ministry had no comment on the letter. The head of the federal anti-drug agency, Mariano Herran Salvatti, flew to Quintana Roo on Monday, apparently to head the search for the missing governor. He declined to speak to reporters.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration joined the hunt for Villanueva last week. U.S. officials say he has not been charged in the United States. However, they suspect that Villanueva was a key figure in turning the Yucatan Peninsula into a major entryway for U.S.-bound cocaine.
In his letter, Villanueva said the drug charges that he expected to be filed against him were "absurd," especially given that the anti-drug fight in Mexico is the responsibility of federal authorities.
"Where were they, those who are responsible for vigilance at our airports?" he wrote. "Were they my accomplices these past six years? Or were they all inept?"