May 26, 2001

Ex-Mexico Governor Arrested and Linked to Cocaine Traffic

 

By TIM WEINER

MÉRIDA, Mexico, May 25 One of Mexico's most wanted men, a fugitive former governor, was arrested late Thursday night in the resort town of Cancún and charged on Friday in New York with helping to ship 200 tons of cocaine to the United States in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes.

Mario Villanueva was governor of the State of Quintana Roo on Mexico's Caribbean coast from 1993 to 1999. He was jailed in a maximum security prison in Mexico City on Friday after two years on the run, officials said.

Mr. Villanueva was the highest- ranking politician in Mexico ever to face a drug investigation while in office. He disappeared in March 1999, less than two weeks before his term in office expired, and with it his constitutional immunity from prosecution in Mexico.

He stands accused of taking bribes to let cocaine traffickers, including former Mexican law-enforcement officials, freely ply the coastlines, highways and airports of his state.

In a 1997 report obtained by The New York Times, a senior Mexican counternarcotics official, Lt. Col. Edgardo Cedillo González, wrote that "great quantities of drugs, including cocaine, are being smuggled through Quintana Roo, approximately four tons a week," and that "among those implicated in the criminal organization is the state governor, Mario Villanueva, alias `el Chueco,' " or "the crooked one."

The drug trade expanded rapidly in his state during his tenure, and federal investigators in Mexico believe that the explosive growth of resorts in Cancún and south down the coast during the 1990's was spurred in part by money laundered from the cocaine trade.

Mexico's attorney general, Rafael Macedo, said Mr. Villanueva had been moving in and out of Mexico freely before his arrest. He was believed to have lived in a retreat in the jungles of Belize, which borders Quintana Roo. It was unclear whether he had intended to turn himself in, as his family said today.

Mr. Macedo and Mary Jo White, the United States attorney in Manhattan, said Mr. Villanueva had been tracked and arrested by the Mexican authorities working with agents of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration.

While on the run, Mr. Villanueva issued taunting statements and gave interviews in which he confessed to taking millions in graft from tourism developers, but denied connections to cocaine. He accused prosecutors of trying "to destroy me physically, psychologically and morally," and warned that he had evidence against unidentified Mexican officials that would rock his Institutional Revolutionary Party, which governed Mexico for seven decades until Vicente Fox was elected president last year.

Mr. Villanueva is accused in Mexico of having worked with the Cancún- based branch of the Juárez cartel to transport cocaine from Colombia through Mexico to the United States.

The two-count conspiracy indictment unsealed today included two cocaine shipments to New York whose delivery he was said to have aided: 3,586 pounds that wound up "in the vicinity of the Holiday Inn, Middletown, N.Y." and 235 pounds sent to an unspecified place in the Bronx. He faces a life sentence and a $4 million fine on each count if extradited, tried and convicted.


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