Mexican governor accused of embezzling billions detained in Guatemala

David Agren
Javier Duarte term as governor of Veracruz state was marred by the deaths of 19 journalists during his time in office. Photograph: Reuters

A fugitive former Mexican governor was captured Saturday night in a Guatemala tourist town, ending a six-month manhunt for a politician accused of egregious acts of graft in a country accustomed to corruption scandals.

Javier Duarte was detained by Guatemala’s national police in Panajachel, 140km west of Guatemal City, acting on an Interpol warrant for his arrest. Mexico’s foreign ministry said in a statement it would ask for Duarte’s extradition.

Duarte previously governed the state of Veracruz from 2010 to 2016, but resigned in the waning months of his administration as accusations mounted – and after his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) lost control of the governor’s office for the first time.

He fled in a government helicopter allegedly lent by the interim governor who replaced him, Flavino Ríos, though Ríos denied assisting Duarte.

The escape came to encapsulate the challenge of corruption and impunity in Mexico, along with uncomfortable questions about whether the country’s political class would crackdown on one of their own.

President Enrique Peña Nieto previously lauded Duarte as an example of a “new generation” of leaders in their PRI party, which ruled Mexico uninterrupted until 2000, but is often lampooned with images of dinosaurs.

Duarte eventually became untenable. His administration generated outrage long before he resigned – especially over the 19 journalists murdered during his time in office, prompting press freedom groups to brand Veracruz the most dangerous place to practice journalism.

Violence escalated, along with forced disappearances – more than 250 skulls were recovered from one of the clandestine graves in the state.

Accusations of corruption were also rife. Federal auditors allege he misappropriated more than 55 billion pesos ($US2.97bn), while investigative reporters found a serious of shell companies his associates siphoned money into.

“Talking bad about Duarte has turned into the national pastime,” said Miguel Ángel Díaz, publisher of the online news site Plumas Libres in Veracruz state and a journalist who left the state during Duarte’s administration due to harassment.

“He’s become the laughing stock of Mexico, emblematic of the corruption here,” Díaz said.

Duarte was the second ex-governor to be captured on corruption accusations in less than a week. Tomás Yarrington, ex-governor of the state of Tamaulipas on the Texas border was arrested on 9 April in Italy over accusations he took bribes from the Gulf Cartel and the Mexican criminal syndicate, Los Zetas.

“It’s a system that incentivises acting illegally and generously pays people who stay in the game for power and money,” said Gerardo Priego, former congressman with the right-leaning National Action Party. Those caught, Priego added, are often those breaking unwritten rules or defying party leadership and subsequently “portrayed as thieves and tossed in prison and disgraced for the rest of their lives.”

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