As Mexico's Interior Minister, Miguel Osorio Chong is expected to help lead the government's efforts against organized crime, but allegations that he had links to the Zetas during his time as governor of Hidalgo state could represent a major liability to the new administration.
Newly-elected President Enrique Peña Nieto took office on December 1, appointing Osorio Chong, a fellow Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) politician, to serve as his Minister of the Interior. The position holds tremendous importance in the country, and the person who holds it is considered the most important member of the president's cabinet. Mexico's Interior Minister is tasked with looking after internal affairs, submitting bills to Congress and serving as a spokesperson on matters of national security.
The official is also the ultimate head of the country's main intelligence agency, the Center for Research and National Security (CISEN), a division of the Interior Ministry. The previous adminstration's Interior Minister, Alejandro Poire, had a reputation as a dedicated defender of former president Felipe Calderon's confrontational approach towards drug trafficking organizations, and was one of the most visible lieutenants in Calderon's "drug war."
Peña Nieto has vowed to largely adhere to the security policies of his predecessor, there is reason to doubt whether Osorio Chong can fill this same role for the new president. Osorio Chong, who served as governor of the state of Hidalgo at the same time as Peña Nieto was governor of Mexico state (2005-2011), faced repeated accusations during his term that he maintained links with organized crime in Hidalgo, particularly with the dominant criminal group there, the Zetas.
In 2010, the Mexican Attorney General's Office (PGR) opened a preliminary investigation into claims that Osorio Chong, along with several members of his administration and other political elites in Hidalgo had received payments from Zetas leader and Hidalgo native Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, alias "Z-3." According to the allegations, the officials accepted bribes from the Zetas boss in exchange for a license to operate with relative impunity. Adding weight to these claims is the fact that the group is believed to have significantly expanded its presence in Hidalgo under Osorio Chong's administration, deeply penetrating the state's police force. Osorio Chong vehemently denied any links to drug trafficking organizations and in 2011, just before he stepped down as governor, the PGR exonerated Osorio Chong after a preliminary inquiry.
In May investigative news site Reporte Indigo reported that according to copies of bank statements two of Osorio Chong's brothers, Luis and Eduardo, had transferred nearly $8 million in suspicious funds -- an amount which cannot be explained by their licit incomes -- to HSBC bank accounts in Panama over the course of just one year. Osorio Chong again dismissed this accusation as an attempt to tarnish his reputation, and bank officials denied the existence of the account numbers listed in the report. The PGR cleared the Osorio Chong brothers in July, citing insufficient evidence.
However, the fact that HSBC was under investigation at the time for facilitating the money laundering ventures of Mexican drug cartels casts doubt on the statement issued by the bank. As InSight Crime has reported, HSBC's lax controls have been shown to allow Mexican drug cartels to launder billions of dollars by transferring money to the United States. The bank likely only escaped criminal charges due to concerns that it would effect the US economy, and was forced to pay a $1.9 billion settlement instead.
The allegations against Osorio Chong and his family have not gone beyond preliminary investigations, and there are currently no charges against him. Still, they hark back to the PRI's activities during its heyday in power, marked by cronyism and backdoor deals with drug trafficking organizations. Analysts and opposition politicians have already accused the PRI of considering a "pact" with drug cartels in order to stem violence in the country. If further evidence of such activities comes to light it will doubtlessly harm Peña Nieto's efforts to cast himself as a fresh face in a modern, 21st century democratic party.