I n 2012, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto presented Javier Duarte, then governor of the coastal state of Veracruz, as part of a “new generation” of politicians and lauded him as an example of political renovation within his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) party. Around five years later, Mr. Duarte is considered a symbol of the type of corruption so pervasive in Mexican politics, having been arrested on Saturday in Guatemala.
Suspected of having embezzled nearly $3 billion of public funds during his six years in office, Mr. Duarte had been on the run for six months. Pictures taken immediately after his capture show the fugitive ex-governor handcuffed but openly displaying what one Mexican commentator called a “mocking and cynical” smile, a gesture by some interpreted as a sign that he was able to negotiate a deal with the authorities.
The fact that his arrest came one week after another former PRI governor, Tomás Yarrington of Tamaulipas, was captured in Italy after nearly five years on the run added fuel to this theory. However, there has been no concrete evidence that the two arrests were linked.
“These recent detentions are a strong and forceful message of the Mexican state against impunity,” said Mr. Peña Nieto. Yet many suspect a hidden agenda, partly because the justice system took years to take action.
The Mexican Index of Peace 2017 says only 5% of Mexicans believe criminals always get sentenced for their acts.
Timing might be key here, as gubernatorial elections are held in June and presidential elections scheduled for next year. Changing Mexicans’ perception that corrupt officials enjoy impunity would be crucial for the ruling party at a time when support is dropping.
"These manhunts seem politically motivated”, a desperate attempt “to show voters that they are tough on corruption,” Deborah Bonello, senior investigator at InSight Crime, an investigative think-tank focused on organised crime in the Americas, told The World Weekly. "Both Duarte and Yarrington are sacrificial lambs for the PRI.”
Twelve Mexican ex-governors are currently facing charges of corruption, money embezzlement or drug-related activities.
When pressed last year about his praise for Mr. Duarte in the past, the president only reluctantly acknowledged it. By then, his “model” governor had already turned into a shameful burden.
The approval ratings of Mr. Peña Nieto, who has faced corruption allegations himself, have dropped to a historic low of 12%.