Along Mexico border, drug taint on politicians lingers

MEXICO CITY — In dribs and drabs, in Mexican news accounts and U.S. court documents, new allegations are surfacing of ties between politicians and drug lords along the border with Texas.

The accounts involving former top officials in Tamaulipas — a muggy Gulf Coast state that shares a 230-mile border with Texas and is a major conduit for licit and illicit trade — are testing an axiom of Mexican politics that says that even if politicians rub elbows with gangsters, prosecutors rarely succeed in charging them.

"These politicians are generally seen as untouchable, from the lowly municipal level on up," said Raul Gonzalez Cipriano, a political scientist at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, a Mexico City think tank.

So far this year, however, prosecutors have issued court orders barring three former governors of Tamaulipas — all from the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI in its Spanish initials — from leaving Mexico while an investigation of their alleged underworld ties unfolds. Moreover, an arrest in Texas last month of an accused bagman for one of the former PRI governors, Tomas Yarrington, has elevated his case into the national spotlight.

Yarrington, a silver-haired politician with a smooth manner, was the governor of Tamaulipas from 1999 to 2005. During that time, he frequently traveled across the Rio Grande, befriending the consecutive governors of Texas, George W. Bush and Rick Perry.

His state is both a major corridor into the United States — 5,000 tractor-trailers cross the border daily just in Nuevo Laredo — and a bastion of mobsters dating three decades to the reign of Juan Garcia Abrego, a drug lord and founder of the Gulf Cartel. Abrego is serving 11 consecutive life terms in a Colorado prison that's so secure it's known as the Alcatraz of the Rockies.

Security experts describe parallel powers in mob-ridden states such as Tamaulipas: Elected officials hold municipal and state office but gangsters call the shots from the shadows.

"It's not the politicians who run Tamaulipas. It's the Gulf Cartel and later the Zetas," said Samuel Logan, a security expert and co-author of a book due out later this month, "The Executioner's Men," about Los Zetas, a major drug-trafficking group that's branched into many other crimes and is known for its brutality.

Yarrington's name surfaced in a grisly incident Nov. 29, when a corpse turned up at the Christopher Columbus monument in Nuevo Laredo, a bustling border city. Next to the corpse was a banner with a message that mentioned Yarrington. It claimed that he was in business with the former chief of the Gulf Cartel, Osiel Cardenas, who's now in a U.S. prison.

The message also referred to the slain man, Alfonso Pena-Arguelles, and his brother, Antonio, who was living in Texas at the time, and demanded that they return $5 million to Los Zetas.

It turned out that the $5 million referred to a payment by Los Zetas that they thought would buy them political protection in Tamaulipas. They felt ripped off and were irate, and they saw Alfonso and Antonio Pena-Arguelles as bagmen who stiffed them.

What clarified that was a 13-page affidavit filed Feb. 6 in federal court in the western district of Texas in support of an arrest warrant for Antonio Pena-Arguelles, who was picked up two days later in a wealthy enclave of San Antonio.

The affidavit, from a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, cites four DEA-paid informants as saying the Pena-Arguelles brothers had laundered millions of dollars in drug proceeds — first for the Gulf Cartel and later Los Zetas — in the United States and Mexico, and were conduits for payments between the top Zeta leaders and Yarrington to buy political support.

The DEA agent cites one informant as saying he'd seen Antonio Pena-Arguelles with Yarrington on "numerous occasions" in the Mexican state of Nuevo Leon and in the United States. Another informant who worked for Pena-Arguelles provided ledgers containing detailed entries of "millions of dollars in pesos and U.S. dollar payments/disbursements to Tomas Yarrington's representatives and others."

That informant also turned over text messages on a cellphone. One message came from top Zetas leader Miguel Angel Trevino, a ruthless man also known as Z-40 or The Executioner. It referred to a demand for repayment of the $5 million that Los Zetas had given.

"All right, don't pay, however let's see where you'll hide because you well

know you are not going to have a place to hide," it said in part, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit also said Yarrington and a Gulf Cartel leader were behind the successful execution in 2010 of Rodolfo Torre Cantu, a candidate for Tamaulipas governor.

On Jan. 30, Mexican prosecutors ordered Yarrington and two other former PRI governors of Tamaulipas — Manuel Cavazos Lerma, who served 1993-99, and Eugenio Hernandez Flores, who served 2005-10 — to remain in the country. But Yarrington fled to Texas and has since remained out of sight, giving only one interview to a Mexican news portal.

"I deny categorically that I have any dealings, any business, related to drug trafficking. Never. This is false," Yarrington told Animal Politico.

Yarrington maintains a website but didn't return a message left there.

Even if Mexican or U.S. prosecutors obtain enough evidence against Yarrington to charge him with a crime, history shows that politicians rarely stay in jail on narcotics charges.

Only one governor in modern times served a lengthy term. Mario Villanueva Madrid of Quintana Roo, the state around Cancun, who was accused of protecting shipments of cocaine from Colombia, spent nearly a decade in Mexican prisons before being extradited in 2010 for trial in New York state on similar charges.

What's more, drug-related charges against politicians in Mexico routinely collapse.

With television cameras rolling, authorities arrested the former mayor of Cancun, Gregorio Sanchez, in 2010 — only to release him 14 months later after a judge dismissed the case.

In an election-year sweep in 2009, prosecutors had ordered the arrests of 12 mayors in Michoacan state on charges of protecting the once-powerful La Familia cartel. But within months, every one of them had been acquitted. Opponents of President Felipe Calderon use the term "Michoacanazo" to refer to what they say are trumped-up drug charges against opposition politicians to sway pending elections.

U.S. counter-drug officials say, however, that even the most dedicated public servants can't avoid the taint of drug cartels in some areas of the country where mobsters are the de facto overlords.


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