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The World

Ex-governor of Mexican state is held

June 22, 2007|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — A former Mexican governor accused by U.S. federal prosecutors of helping smuggle 200 tons of Colombian cocaine while in office was arrested here early Thursday for possible extradition to the United States.

If the extradition is successful, Mario Villanueva would be the highest-ranking former Mexican official to stand trial in a U.S. court.

He's accused in a 2001 federal indictment of conspiring with drug gang leaders to transport tons of cocaine bound for sale north of the border.

The former governor, who has already served six years in a Mexican prison on money laundering charges, could face a life sentence if convicted of drug trafficking offenses in the United States.

Villanueva, 58, earned $500,000 for each cocaine shipment moved by the so-called Juarez cartel during the mid-1990s, according to the indictment filed in U.S. District Court in New York.

After his 1993 election, Villanueva's Caribbean state of Quintana Roo blossomed as a key cocaine transshipment point, and he reportedly took in as much as $30 million in bribes for providing broad protection to smugglers.

Villanueva allegedly used state police to help unload, store and transport shipments, and allowed smugglers access to airports, government warehouses and his state-owned airplane from 1994 to 1998. Some shipments allegedly traveled north in tanker trucks bearing the logo of Mexico's state-run oil company, Pemex.

Villanueva has denied any involvement in drug trafficking. "I think this was a political thing," his wife, Isabel Tenorio, told the Reforma newspaper.

Villanueva disappeared in 1999 while governor of Quintana Roo, home to Cancun and other Yucatan peninsula beach resorts. He enjoyed immunity from prosecution while in office and then dropped from sight a week before his term ended as he learned of his pending arrest by Mexican authorities.

A former Lehman Bros. investment manager in New York pleaded guilty in 2005 to helping Villanueva launder $11 million in drug payoffs through shell companies during a five-year period. She also acknowledged helping him cash out investment accounts when he went on the lam.

Villanueva was arrested May 24, 2001, after being tracked by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration investigators and Mexican federal police. He was being chauffeured around Cancun by a former state police officer and was carrying about $15,000 in cash when apprehended.

The next day, U.S. authorities unsealed the indictments against him. The investigation reportedly began in 1997, after he was linked to cocaine seizures in the Bronx and Middletown, N.Y.

Villanueva spent six years in a maximum-security prison west of Mexico City after his arrest, awaiting a verdict on trafficking and money laundering charges. A judge found him guilty Tuesday of money laundering, and he was ordered released Wednesday for time served.

For a few hours, Villanueva looked like he would be a free man. His wife said Wednesday that the couple planned to "recover the time we lost."

But the Mexican federal attorney general's office issued an arrest warrant pending a decision on the U.S. extradition request, and Villanueva was taken into custody immediately after leaving prison Thursday about 3 a.m.

"They're kidnapping me!" he shouted to TV reporters as he was hauled away.

Villanueva, whose nickname since childhood was El Chueco, or "the crooked one," for his lopsided smile, acknowledged corruption in his administration during a 2000 interview while a fugitive.

"You'd have to be really stupid not to make money in Quintana Roo with the posts I had," he told Milenio magazine.

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sam.enriquez@latimes.com

Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez of The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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