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Drug allegations may hamper former Mexico ruling party's return

The PRI candidate for president is the front-runner. But allegations of drug payoffs involving a former PRI governor could remind voters of the party's past.

March 04, 2012|By Ken Ellingwood, Los Angeles Times
  • Mexicos former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, hopes to ride back to power behind Enrique Pena Nieto, its handsome young presidential candidate, and a rejuvenated image.
Mexicos former ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party,… (Alexandre Meneghini, Associated…)

Reporting from Mexico City —  

In a race widely deemed his to lose, Enrique Peña Nieto's greatest hurdle may be his own party.

Mexico'sformer ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, hopes to ride back to power behind its handsome young presidential candidate and a rejuvenated image.

But new allegations of drug payoffs to a former PRI governor have shoved the party's often-shady legacy to the forefront of the campaign, reminding voters of the sort of graft that marked the party's rule before it was booted in 2000 after seven decades of near-absolute control.

The fresh accusations of PRI corruption emerged last month in an affidavit by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration in a federal court in Texas. U.S. agents, citing four confidential informants, say leaders of the Gulf cartel and Zetas gang funneled millions to Tomas Yarrington, the former PRI governor of the northeastern state of Tamaulipas.

Mexicans have low expectations of politicians in any party, and the latest reports have prompted more resignation than shock. But analysts say the charges could help reshape the presidential race by summoning the ghosts of the PRI's past. Drug trafficking took off under the PRI, often with the help of corrupt Mexican officials.

In a campaign in which crime is a central issue, President Felipe Calderon of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN, and his allies appear to believe the PRI's past may be its Achilles' heel when voters head to the polls July 1.

Many observers saw hardball politics behind recent leaks that Mexican authorities also are investigating Yarrington, as well as two other Tamaulipas ex-governors, all members of the PRI. All three have denied wrongdoing.

"It's a strategy to remind people that the PRI equals corruption, so that people might remember that the rise of drug trafficking occurs mainly in PRI governments, and that this is what would come [with] Enrique Peña Nieto," said Alfonso Zarate, a political analyst in Mexico City.

Commentator Hector Aguilar Camin, writing in the daily Milenio newspaper, said the Calderon administration's strategy is to turn the election "into a referendum, a vote of yes or no, on returning the PRI to Los Pinos," referring to the Mexican White House.

Calderon has been hammered by rivals over drug-related violence, which has killed more than 50,000 people since he declared war on traffickers in late 2006. But the PAN seems intent on steering blame back to the PRI, in part by arguing that it has failed to ensure public safety in states where it rules.

Yarrington, who governed from 1999 to 2004, is not charged in the U.S. case against Antonio Peña Arguelles, who was arrested in Texas last month on suspicion of money-laundering and has pleaded not guilty.

But the former governor figures prominently in the case. The 14-page affidavit says he and other Tamaulipas officials took money from two drug lords, with Peña Arguelles acting as a go-between. Peña Arguelles allegedly used banks on both sides of the border to launder millions in illicit cash, including proceeds belonging to Yarrington.

The payments were aimed at buying "political influence within the government of Tamaulipas, Mexico, through former Governor Tomas Yarrington," according to the affidavit, filed Feb. 6 in U.S. District Court in San Antonio.

Yarrington has labeled the allegations "absolutely false" and said he is willing to talk to prosecutors to clear his name.

Separately, Yarrington and the other ex-governors, Manuel Cavazos and Eugenio Hernandez, are reportedly under investigation by Mexico's attorney general. Mexican officials confirmed the investigation, without offering elaboration, after word of it was leaked to the press.

The PRI faces another old-style scandal in the northern state of Coahuila, where officials racked up $3 billion in unexplained debt around the time it was run by then-Gov. Humberto Moreira. Mexican federal authorities have issued arrest warrants for seven former Coahuila officials, though not for Moreira.

Moreira denies authorizing the borrowing, saying it happened after he left the governor's office in the hands of a stand-in to run for the PRI's presidency last year. He won, but stepped down in December in the face of growing disenchantment among some party elders.

It remains to be seen whether any of these troubles stick to the 45-year-old Peña Nieto, who consistently has held a double-digit lead in most polls over the PAN's Josefina Vazquez Mota and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD.

Peña Nieto has not commented on the allegations involving Yarrington. The PRI's president, Pedro Joaquin Coldwell, has said party members are responsible for their actions, but he called on Mexican authorities to not use the justice system for political ends.

The early skirmishing suggests that the campaign may shape up as a slugfest over which party is most responsible for Mexico's crime crisis.

But a strategy of tarring the PRI carries risks, even if tales of corruption under its former rule are legion, analysts say. For one thing, none of the parties is free of suspicion involving current or former governors. For another, scandal-weary voters are likely only to be moved by solid evidence of wrongdoing.

"You're getting into very dark waters when you start talking about governors and the federal administration, very deep waters," said Joy Langston, a political science professor at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics. "You had better be willing to back it up."

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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