Despite being handcuffed at the wrists and flanked by Interpol agents, fugitive Mexican governor Javier Duarte wore a disconcerting grin moments after his arrest in Guatemala on Saturday. It was the smirk, many Mexicans observed, of a man accustomed to getting away with it.
Having allegedly embezzled 55 billion pesos ($2.97 billion) in public funds in just six years, the portly 43-year-old former governor of Veracruz state has come to personify the rampant corruption and impunity that plague Mexican politics. Yet analysts say his arrest, like that of Tomás Yarrington, another fugitive ex-governor captured in Italy six days earlier, is an example of “selective justice” that will do nothing to solve these deep-rooted problems.
Six months after fleeing the country with the alleged support of dozens of political allies, Duarte was caught at an exclusive hotel beside Lake Atitlán where he and his wife had been staying under false names and paying in cash. Duarte, who has always maintained his innocence, now faces extradition to Mexico, where he stands accused of money laundering and organized crime.
On Monday, President Enrique Peña Nieto, who had previously called Duarte his friend and lauded him as part of a “new generation” in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), called the arrests “a firm and forceful message from the Mexican state against impunity.”
Yet the Mexican public is not convinced. Both fugitives were captured in Interpol-led operations after managing to slip out of Mexico undetected. Duarte fled Veracruz in a government helicopter allegedly lent to him by his interim successor, while Yarrington reportedly had eight state police officers assigned to protect him even after five years on the lam.
“The government has realized that Mexicans are absolutely fed up with political corruption, privilege, and impunity.”
The former governor of northeastern Tamaulipas state, Yarrington was eventually detained by Italian police, Interpol, and U.S. Homeland Security agents in Florence last week. Wanted in both Mexico and the United States, he is accused of drug trafficking, bank fraud, racketeering, and laundering millions of dollars for the Gulf and Zetas cartels.
David Pérez Esparza, an investigator who specializes in corruption and organized crime, told VICE News that both Duarte and Yarrington’s arrests have far-reaching impact and could embolden Donald Trump as he seeks to renegotiate NAFTA and force Mexico into paying for his border wall.
“The Trump administration will want to demonstrate that Mexico’s ‘bad hombres’ aren’t just migrants but also Mexican leaders, in order to delegitimize Mexico in negotiations,” he noted.
For critics of the Mexican government, Duarte’s case reinforces this perception of public officials.
In just under six years, the once-rising star in Mexican politics bankrupted the eastern state of Veracruz, having allegedly funneled public contracts through dozens of shell companies. In January the current governor, Miguel Ángel Yunes, accused Duarte’s administration of treating children with cancer with distilled water instead of chemotherapy.
Veracruz became one of Mexico’s most violent states under Duarte’s watch, with one mass grave discovered in March holding over 250 human skulls, all presumed cartel victims. Journalists didn’t fare much better — at least 17 local reporters were murdered and several others disappeared during his term, making Veracruz one of the world’s most dangerous places for journalists.
Following his capture, opposition leaders called for Duarte’s entire network of accomplices to face justice. Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper reported the existence of a Whatsapp group comprised of 90 people, including federal and state congressmen, mayors and other politicians, dedicated to helping Duarte flee the country.
“Political corruption is a systemic problem.”
“We need to know the mechanisms that allowed them to benefit from public resources, what campaigns they financed, how the PRI benefited and the role played by the federal government in this dark and painful story,” said Clemente Castañeda, a federal congressman from the Citizen’s Movement party.
Enrique Toussaint, a political analyst, believes the PRI, which has governed Mexico for much of the last century, aims to present Duarte and Yarrington’s arrests as evidence that it’s cracking down on corruption within its ranks ahead of important midterm elections in June.
“The government has realized that Mexicans are absolutely fed up with political corruption, privilege, and impunity. So when certain players lose their states and their political capital they bring charges against them, but this is only selective justice,” he told VICE News.
“It makes it look like our justice system is improving because we’re punishing someone for corruption but we leave their accomplices and enablers to one side and only go after the figureheads demanded by public opinion.”
Since the beginning of 2016, former governors of Coahuila, Sonora and Nuevo León have also been arrested for misuse of public funds, while former Chihuahua governor César Duarte (no relation to Javier) went on the run in March after facing similar accusations.
To end this pattern, Toussaint said, Mexico must start to tackle the broader problems of corruption and impunity by creating a truly autonomous investigative body and ensuring that a critical press can operate freely.
“Political corruption is a systemic problem,” he said. “It’s not about individuals.”
Duncan Tucker is a freelance journalist based in Mexico.
Cover: Mexico's former Veracruz state Gov. Javier Duarte is escorted by an agent of the local Interpol office inside a police car as they arrive at Guatemala City, early Sunday, April 16, 2017.