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Ex-Cancun mayor extradited to U.S. on drug charges

He is accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes to help a cartel ferry cocaine across the border.

May 11, 2010|By Richard A. Serrano, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The former mayor and governor of the popular Mexican resort area of Cancun was extradited to the United States to stand trial on allegations of pocketing millions of dollars in bribes to help a notorious drug cartel move more than 200 tons of cocaine across the border, Justice Department officials announced Monday.

Mario Ernesto Villanueva Madrid, dressed in a drab khaki jacket and slacks, was flown late Sunday night aboard a Drug Enforcement Administration jet to New York, where he also is charged with laundering millions of dollars through the now-bankrupt Lehman Bros. investment firm.

His arrest and transfer to the United States marks a major catch for U.S. law enforcement officials, who in the last two years have convicted 12 top Mexican cartel leaders brought to this country. The Villanueva Madrid case is especially significant because it targets the political corruption system in Mexico that for decades has worked arm in arm with the cartels.

This time, U.S. authorities are prosecuting a top government leader who officials say had his own police and state government workers help the Juarez cartel push cocaine into the United States.

"Today, the former governor of Quintana Roo [state] finally faces justice in an American courtroom," said U.S. Atty. Preet Bharara in New York.

John P. Gilbride, special agent-in-charge of the DEA in New York, said Villanueva Madrid "abused the trust placed in him by the citizens of Quintana Roo when he facilitated drug trafficking and money laundering across international borders."

Villanueva Madrid, who appeared Monday afternoon in federal court in Manhattan, once held sway along the fabled Riviera Maya, long popular with American tourists who flock to beach resorts such as Cancun and Cozumel.

He was charged with accepting $19 million in bribes, or up to $500,000 for each time he had his police and government staff allow cartel smugglers to move Colombian cocaine on speedboats and tanker trucks from the beach ports north into the United States, the indictment said.

He pleaded not guilty and was being held without bail.

The Juarez cartel has for two decades been one of Mexico's most violent drug smuggling organizations, specializing in Colombian cocaine.

Villanueva Madrid, 61, became mayor of Cancun in 1990 and was elected governor of the state on the Yucatan peninsula in 1993. A year later, the cartel began establishing operations there, using speedboats and armed guards to ferry drugs along the Central American and Mexican coastlines. According to U.S. prosecutors, the boats usually were loaded with up to 3 tons of cocaine, and in the beginning ranged at night along the high seas to elude the U.S. Coast Guard and the Mexican navy.

But according to the documents filed in court, things changed once Villanueva Madrid was elevated to governor, and "the Juarez cartel paid Villanueva Madrid millions of dollars in narcotics proceeds. In return, Villanueva Madrid placed the police and state government infrastructure of Quintana Roo at the disposal of the cartel."

The indictment said police officers provided armed protection for the cartel boat crews as they unloaded cocaine from speedboats, and then helped escort the shipments hidden inside tanker trucks. In addition, state airplane hangars were opened to the cartel for storing other shipments that came into the Cancun area by plane. Some cartel members were even given police identification cards and gun permits, the documents say.

The charges state that the governor then started transferring millions of dollars into bank and brokerage accounts in the U.S., Switzerland and elsewhere. Some of the money ended up in Lehman accounts, and U.S. prosecutors charged Villanueva Madrid with using that firm to launder his proceeds.

According to U.S. prosecutors, Mexican authorities suspected that Villanueva Madrid was working for the cartel. But they said that under Mexican law, he was immune from prosecution as long as he remained in public office. In March 1999, his term expired and he fled, remaining a fugitive for two years.

By May 2001, he was located and arrested by Mexican officials. His hair had grown out to his shoulders, and he sported a long beard. He had been in hiding in remote areas in the Yucatan, protected by "a network of criminal associates and former aides," prosecutors said.

Villanueva Madrid was convicted of organized crime and corruption offenses in Mexico, but eventually could have been paroled there. The new charges in New York carry a potential maximum sentence of life in prison without parole.

Bharara said a true life sentence would send a signal to Mexican government officials that the United States is serious about clamping down on political corruption that helps the cartels.

"The seeds of today's violent turmoil in Mexico were first sown over a decade ago by alleged criminals like Mario Villanueva Madrid," Bharara said.

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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