MEXICO CITY – The arrest of Cancun’s mayor on suspicion of protecting two violent drug gangs as he campaigned for governor has heightened fears that cartels are muscling their way into Mexican politics. There are also worries the gangs are tightening control over the country’s most important tourist resort.
Gregorio Sanchez faces drug trafficking and money laundering charges a year after his police chief and other close collaborators were arrested for allegedly protecting cartels, said Ricardo Najera, a spokesman for the federal Attorney General’s Office.
Sanchez is suspected of tipping off and protecting the Beltran Leyva and Zetas drug cartels — gangs known for brutal tactics including beheading rivals. He had taken a leave of absence as Cancun mayor to run for governor of Quintana Roo state, known for turquoise Caribbean waters and white-sand beaches marketed as the Mayan Riviera.
The mayor is the first candidate in the July 4 elections formally linked to cartels, but fears have been rising that drug gangs are infiltrating the vote in several states through intimidation and bribes.
On May 13, gunmen killed a mayoral candidate in a town near the border with Texas after he ignored warnings to quit the race. Several other candidates have received threats, and in some towns near the U.S. border, some parties couldn’t find anyone to run for mayor.
High-level corruption remains one of the biggest impediments in the fight against drug trafficking in Western Hemisphere countries that have become key smuggling corridors. In Jamaica, security forces are fighting supporters of a major drug trafficking suspect who has ties to the ruling party and is resisting extradition to the U.S. In Guatemala, the national anti-drug czar and police chief are under arrest in a case involving cocaine and slain police.
The Sanchez case will be another tough test for Mexico’s judicial system and its ability to successfully prosecute high-profile drug and corruption cases.
The last effort largely fizzled: A year ago Wednesday, 10 mayors from the western state of Michoacan were arrested in an unprecedented sweep against elected officials accused of protecting drug gangs. All but two have been released for lack of evidence, undercutting Calderon’s efforts to show politicians are not immune in his U.S.-backed campaign to wipe out cartels and those who protect them.
“Mexico is very much infiltrated by these gangs and they reach very high levels,” said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. “Calderon has show extraordinary bravery but the question is whether he succeeds. And if he doesn’t, things will fall back into a viscous normalcy. Eventually, the government has to demonstrate that it can exercise authority.”
Cancun, the most popular destination in Mexico for foreign tourists, has long been a major transshipment point where bundles of cocaine wash ashore after smugglers drop drugs from boats or small plans for gangs to retrieve and move on to the U.S.
The resort city is also a hotbed of corruption. Former Quintana Roo Gov. Mario Villanueva was extradited last month to the U.S. to face charges of conspiring to import hundreds of tons of cocaine through Cancun. Last year, Cancun police chief Francisco Velasco was arrested on suspicion of protecting the Zetas. He was also questioned in the assassination of an army brigadier general hired to root out police corruption in the city, although he was never charged in that crime.
Tourism officials can do little beyond holding their breath as the conflict unfolds.
“We regret that that Cancun’s image is once again in the middle of a problem that affects us all,” said Rodrigo de la Pena Segura, president of the Cancun Association of Hotels.
Sanchez’s leftist Democratic Revolution Party called the charges against him politically motivated. The party’s national leader, Jesus Ortega, predicted the case would fall apart like most of the investigation against the Michoacan mayors, whose arrests two months before congressional elections also drew allegations of political maneuvering.
“Just like the case of Michoacan, it’s a political ploy using the resources of institutions that are supposed to be imparting justice,” Ortega said.
Najera denied any political motivation behind Sanchez’s arrest and said the evidence includes several protected witnesses and documents from the finance secretary showing that Sanchez lived well beyond his means.
He said the mayor had bank withdrawals amounting to more than $2 million, a sum that does not correspond to his declared income. That was more detail than authorities ever revealed in the case of the Michoacan mayors.
One of more than a dozen siblings born into a family of humble means, Sanchez led a real estate business before venturing into politics for the first time in 2006. Ortega said the success in real estate helps explain Sanchez’s wealth.
A Twitter account linked to Sanchez’s website asked supporters to protest his arrest and vote for him anyway. The mayor pledged to bring services to the poor living on the outskirts of the glittering Cancun resort.
After his police chief was arrested, Sanchez insisted he was continuing the fight against city corruption. Last year, he fired 30 police officers allegedly in the pay of criminal gangs.