New US sanctions against a former Mexican state governor and a top magistrate for links to the Jalisco Cartel has showcased ongoing links between the upper echelons of politics and organized crime, as well as Mexico’s continued inability to bring corrupt officials to justice.
On May 17, the US Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued sanctions against Roberto Sandoval Castañeda, the former state governor of Nayarit, and Isidro Avelar Gutiérrez, a senior magistrate. The two men allegedly received bribes from the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG) in exchange for issuing favorable judicial rulings and misappropriating state assets.
“Officials such as Isidro Avelar Gutiérrez and Roberto Sandoval Castañeda callously enrich themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens,” said Sigal Mandelker, the US Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.
The two men, along with a number of Sandoval’s relatives, among others, have been accused of conspiring with CJNG member Gonzalo Mendoza Gaytan, alias “El Sapo," who is believed to control the cartel’s activities in the busy tourist city of Puerto Vallarta just across the border in neighboring Jalisco state.
SEE ALSO: Jalisco Cartel News and Profile
Sandoval is also accused of having links to other top Mexican criminal groups, such as the Beltrán Leyva Organization. He left his position as governor in disgrace in September 2017 amid a swirl of corruption allegations.
He has categorically denied these latest claims, stating on social media that he had been informed of the move by OFAC and “placed himself at the disposal of the relevant authorities for any information they may require.”
Mexican authorities have moved swiftly to act on these charges. On May 20, the Attorney General of Nayarit seized 11 properties belonging to Sandoval, mostly in the capital Tepic, of which he used to be mayor.
This is the 10th instance OFAC has issued sanctions related to the CJNG and officials having collaborated with the group. From 2015 to 2018, the Treasury Department tracked an intricate series of assets bought by the CJNG’s financial arm, Los Cuinis, to launder drug trafficking profits.
InSight Crime Analysis
The charges against Sandoval were predictable. His own former attorney general, Edgar Veytia, pled guilty to drug trafficking charges in New York in January. The Sandoval administration has also been accused of systematically dismantling Nayarit’s judicial and forensic capabilities, allowing crime to thrive and ignoring mass graves.
But past instances of Mexican individuals being targeted by OFAC have not always led to charges in their home country. Most famously, top Mexican footballing star Rafael Márquez was accused of involvement with drug trafficking in 2017 and faced no repercussions in Mexico.
This time may be different. Beyond the seizure of the former governor’s properties, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has jumped on this opportunity to state that he will go after all “narco-judges.” His government has reportedly opened new investigations into other judges who may have also received bribes.
This speed in following up on US charges may be a positive trend. Previous governments have had a preoccupation with bringing down top drug kingpins rather than running down criminal connections within their ranks.
And even when corrupt state governors and their entourage have been jailed, they have often been released suspiciously early into their prison sentences.
With the CJNG now being one of Mexico’s largest and most dangerous criminal groups with sway across the country, its ability to corrupt state officials at all levels is unlikely to be weakened.