Thursday, October 20, 2016

Warrant for Mexican Ex-Official, Now on the Run, Is Seen as a Step in Graft Fight

Photo
Javier Duarte, who resigned as the governor of Veracruz last week, at the attorney general’s headquarters in Mexico City in August. CreditMarco Ugarte/Associated Press
MEXICO CITY — The lush Gulf Coast state of Veracruz, Mexico, suffered all kinds of mismanagement during the nearly six years that Javier Duarte was governor.
Tens of millions of dollars meant for social programs were diverted to phantom companies. Older people were so impoverished by looting of the state’s pension funds that they marched in protest. The state’s main university was stripped of much of its budget. And all the while, Veracruz was plagued by violence, including the murder of 17 journalists, according to figures compiled by a special state committee.
Now it has all appeared to have caught up with Mr. Duarte. Last week, he resigned the governorship, 48 days before the end of his six-year term. Then a federal judge this week issued an arrest warrant for him on racketeering and money-laundering charges. Mr. Duarte, who has denied the charges, vanished before he could be taken into custody.
For Mexicans, the sight of a public official accumulating an inexplicable fortune while in office is bitterly familiar. It is much more unusual to see such officials called to account, and the question raised by the Duarte case is whether it is a turning point. Will it be the first of many such prosecutions meant to seriously address corruption, or just a one-of-a-kind escape valve for public pressure?
“Corruption has started to have a political cost,” said Juan E. Pardinas, the director general at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness. “The discussion has already changed the luck of these people.”
First, though, the authorities have to track down Mr. Duarte. The interior minister, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, bristled on Wednesday when reporters asked whether the government had somehow let Mr. Duarte escape.
“How strange to bring this up, when the facts show that it is this government that is going after these types of actions, ” he said.
Until now, the government has seemed reluctant to combat the culture of impunity that lets corruption fester.
Public disgust was galvanized two years ago by a report that President Enrique Peña Nieto’s wife had quietly bought a luxury mansion from a government contractor on highly favorable terms. Since then, corruption has emerged as a central political issue, contributing to electoral losses for the president’s party in several states, including Veracruz.
There have also been moves in the national legislature to strengthen Mexico’s anticorruption laws, but the measures are complex and will not take full effect for a year or more.
Mr. Peña Nieto’s government has said it supports a web of new agencies set up to audit public funds and swiftly punish their misuse, but has moved slowly. The president has not proposed a candidate to be the new anticorruption prosecutor, and the office of federal comptroller has gone unfilled for three months.
Mr. Peña Nieto argues that corruption is a social problem and that all Mexicans share the blame.
“There is nobody who can dare to cast the first stone,” he said in a speech on Sept. 28. “Everybody has been part of a model that we are shaking off and want to change.”
Among those who have benefited most handsomely from that model are some of Mexico’s state governors, who face few checks on their power. With rare exceptions, though, governors suspected of corruption have been untouchable.
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President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife, Angelica Rivera, in Mexico City for Mexican Independence Day on Sept. 16. CreditMario Guzman/European Pressphoto Agency
In part, they have been shielded by laws that make it difficult for the federal authorities to audit state governments swiftly and prosecute wrongdoing by state officials. But the governors’ impunity is also linked to the important role they play in electoral politics.
“The money from Veracruz goes to the whole country,” Mr. Pardinas of the competitiveness institute said.
Mr. Duarte, 43, belongs to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or P.R.I., which ruled Mexico almost without challenge for generations until losing the presidency in 2000; Mr. Peña Nieto won it back for the party in 2012.
Two other outgoing P.R.I. governors also face allegations of corruption, which they have denied. But so does a former governor from the opposition National Action Party, who, like Mr. Duarte, disappeared last week after a warrant was issued for his arrest.
“There is a risk that all the parties end up swapping prisoners, and there’s no change at the roots” of corruption, said Mauricio Merino, a professor of public administration at CIDE, a university in Mexico City.
Mr. Duarte’s case looms the largest right now, both for the amount of public money that is missing and for the anger he has engendered in Veracruz.
The federal auditor, Juan Manuel Portal, said this year that he had asked the state to explain discrepancies of almost $2 billion over four years.
In May, the online publication Animal Político tracked some $35 million in state funds paid on contracts to supply local social programs. The supplies were never delivered and the contractors turned out to be fraudulent.
The party withdrew its protection for Mr. Duarte after the opposition won the June election in Veracruz, normally a bastion for the P.R.I. “It is absolutely clear to me that the party responded with a great deal of rancor and left him on his own,” Mr. Merino said.
Under Mr. Duarte, Veracruz’s troubles had been mounting for years, as social programs and public works projects slowed to a halt, according to Hilario Barcelata, director of the public finance observatory at the Universidad Veracruzana, which the government starved of cash.
“The state government turned into a criminal organization that handled the state finances however they felt like doing,” Mr. Barcelata said. “But this was only possible due to complicity with the federal government.”
Why? Alberto Olvera, a history researcher at the university, said that “Duarte’s reckless practices would support the federal government’s political agenda and benefit some officials at the federal level.”
The lawmakers and others who helped devise the country’s new anticorruption mechanisms argue that they will go a long way toward preventing any future governor from doing what Mr. Duarte is accused of doing — once the mechanisms are in place, that is.
“A little bit of patience will help,” Mr. Merino said.

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