US, Mexico hunt corrupt, drug-pushing officials

Anna CUENCA
Mexican marines escort a group of alleged municipal policemen working for the Zeta cartel, five members of the same cartel and nine escaped inmates, in Veracruz, in 2011

Crooked cops, greedy governors and pusher-prosecutors: corruption and drug crime reach to high places in Mexico, which is getting a jolt from US efforts to hunt down top suspects.

Analysts say officials have been getting away for decades with corruption in a country dominated by big, powerful drug gangs.

"There is a systemic problem of corruption among the local and state-level authorities," said Alejandro Hope, a former Mexican intelligence agent who is now a security consultant.

In the latest high-profile case grabbing headlines this week, the former Tamaulipas state governor Tomas Yarrington was arrested in Italy on Sunday.

In 2000 he posed smiling with the then-governor of Texas and future US president, George W. Bush.

Expelled in December from Mexico's governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, Yarrington is wanted on charges of drug-related crimes by both Mexico and the United States.

Mexican authorities offered $800,000 for Yarrington's capture. But analysts say what most speeded up his arrest was pressure from up north.

"His detention has happened because the United States wanted it to, not so much because the Mexican government made a decisive decision," says Hope.

Opposition lawmaker Jorge Lopez Martin of the National Action Party called for Yarrington to be judged in the United States and not Mexico, "so that there can be no room for impunity."

- Impunity -

An "impunity index" study last year by the University of the Americas Puebla found that fewer than five percent of crimes reported in Mexico end up being punished.

"There is so much corruption, so much impunity, the judicial system is so easily corrupted and the penal system is so useless that it not only allows the drug trade but actually encourages many people to commit crimes," said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at the Economic Research and Teaching Center.

"They know that the likelihood of being punished is minimal and that with a bit of luck they can buy off the judge and escape."

Police in California last month arrested the chief public attorney of the western Mexican state of Nayarit, Edgar Veytia, accused of trafficking cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine.

"They grabbed him there. Over here no one knew about it," Crespo said.

"Often it is the United States that puts an end to impunity. Here, they turn a blind eye."

- Drugs -

Federal authorities have vowed to crack down on crime, but corruption makes that difficult.

The Federal Police last week acknowledged apparent wrongdoing by a senior agent in its drug squad: Ivan Reyes Arzate, who was serving as a liaison with US police.

Reyes turned himself in to police in Chicago after learning that he was being investigated for warning drug gangs when they were infiltrated or spied on.

The force's commissioner Manelich Castilla vowed to crack down on dodgy officers.

"There will be no place in the Federal Police for those who betray the ideals of this institution and the ideals of the country," he told a news conference.

"They will be pursued and punished."

- Embezzlement -

Mexicans know the cost of drug crime, which has killed thousands. But corruption angers them even more, Hope says.

One recent case involved the fugitive former governor of the violence-stricken eastern state of Veracruz, Javier Duarte.

He was found to have left behind a store of artworks, antiques, luxury goods and even school and medical supplies apparently intended for social programs.

Embezzlement "generates much greater anger than just links to the drug trade," Hope said.

He said the problem goes back years but is being talked about more nowadays thanks to investigative journalism and social networks.

"The public has got fed up... and even more so when it involves the theft of public money."