Six officials linked to disgraced Veracruz ex-governor Javier Duarte's cabinet have been cleared of all charges or secured early release from jail, prompting renewed suspicions that one of Mexico’s most shocking corruption scandals is being swept under the carpet.
On March 15, Flavino Ríos Alvarado was cleared of multiple charges of influence-peddling and abuse of authority associated with his time as secretary of the interior in Duarte’s administration. Two days after taking over as interim governor following Duarte’s hasty resignation in 2016, Ríos Alvarado allegedly organized a helicopter to facilitate Duarte’s escape.
Duarte served as governor of Veracruz for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI) party from 2010 to 2016, in an administration that became known as one of the most flagrantly corrupt in Mexico. His government stands accused not only of the embezzlement of over $45 million in federal funds as well as of involvement with an upsurge of forced disappearances that left Veracruz one of the most dangerous states in the country. He resigned from office shortly before the end of his term, but fled the country rather than face charges, remaining a fugitive for six months before his eventual capture in Guatemala.
Ríos Alvarado is the sixth Duarte official to be released from jail since the current Morena administration took power in the state on December 1.
Arturo Bermúdez Zurita, the former secretary of public security, Mauricio Audirac Murrillo, Duarte's former treasurer, and Francisco Valencia García, the former secretary of public works, were all released under cautionary measures within days of the new governor’s arrival, although they continue to face charges. Duarte’s former spokeswoman Maria Georgina Dominguez Colio was transferred to house arrest in February, and his private secretary Juan Antonio Nemi Dib was exonerated on March 12.
Given the weight of allegations against these former officials, including massive embezzlement, influence-peddling and abuse of authority, the string of precipitous releases has caused alarm in Veracruz. Most striking is the case of Bermúdez Zurita, who additionally stands accused of participating in the forced disappearance of 15 people later found dead.
Publicly, Veracruz officials on all sides of the political spectrum have condemned the releases, including current National Regeneration Movement (Movimiento Regeneración Nacional – MORENA) Governor Cuitláhuac García. But the timing cannot fail to raise eyebrows.
InSight Crime Analysis
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took a hard line against the former Veracruz governor on the campaign trail, holding up his case as the quintessential demonstration of corruption and impunity in Mexico. But his rhetoric has softened notably since his election, raising questions as to whether his anti-corruption agenda runs more than skin deep.
Demonizing egregious examples such as Duarte is a convenient vote-winning tactic across the political spectrum. But rooting out systemic corruption is a harder, more thankless task.
Despite the supposed autonomy of prosecutors in Mexico, a huge backlog of cases has long meant that high-profile cases like these need a political push to ensure they move forward, *according to Arturo Angel, a journalist from Veracruz who spoke to InSight Crime. López Obrador has repeatedly expressed his reluctance to do so, citing the need to look to the future rather than engage in political “witch hunts.”
Officials from Duarte’s administration have been adept at taking cover under the mantles of other political parties – both the PAN/PRD administration of Miguel Angel Yunes that held the governorship from 2016-2018, and the current Morena administration of Cuitláhuac García, Proceso reported in November. In this context, López Obrador’s pledge not to undertake political witch hunts appears a veiled excuse not to expend resources delving into the vast legacies of corruption that entangle states such as Veracruz.
However, the Morena party in Veracruz has been dogged with allegations of deeper complicity with the Duarte administration. Rumors have abounded since 2016 of an electoral “pact” between Morena and Duarte’s PRI, in which Morena allegedly received payments from Duarte to turn a blind eye to his misdealings, with the aim of electorally sidelining Yunes’ rival coalition of the National Action Party (Partido Acción Nacional – PAN) and the Democratic Revolution Party (Partido de la Revolución Democrática – PRD).
While no proof has been presented in support of these allegations, the rapid release of Duarte’s officials has inevitably intensified such suspicions.
Angel, however, warns against hasty extrapolation. Accusations of association with Duarte have become a political football in Veracruz, with all sides using them to score points against their rivals. For their part, the Morena administration has accused current Veracruz Attorney General and close Yunes ally Jorge Winckler of bungling the charges against the ex-officials and striking deals allowing them to exchange properties for impunity.
While such allegations appear far-fetched, particularly given the open animosity Duarte officials have expressed towards Winckler, Angel proposes a more plausible interpretation.
“The new governor who came in, a rival of Duarte, pressured the Attorney General to get results fast and errors were committed in the compiling of these investigations… This caused some of these cases effectively to fall apart, while others have been severely questioned," he explained.
The Duarte saga is far from over. Four new cases against his former officials are expected to open in the next month, while 26 more are pending in the Attorney General’s Office. The progression of these cases, or lack thereof, will be a key barometer of political will behind the anti-corruption agenda in Mexico, as well as providing clues as to the true alignment of interests in Veracruz.