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Mexico is abuzz over the real purpose for the $1.9 million seized aboard a flight


This news story was published on February 3, 2012.
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By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times –

MEXICO CITY — It was a mere $1.9 million, stuffed as brand new bills into two suitcases on a small jet traveling from the drug-rattled state of Veracruz to the hometown of the man likely to be Mexico’s next president.

Suspicious?

Officers from the federal attorney general’s office confiscated the money over the weekend during a search of the plane, which landed in Toluca, capital of Mexico state. They arrested the two men transporting the cash, who said they were Veracruz officials but could not present any paperwork on where the money came from.

As rumors and speculation swirled, officials in the government of Veracruz acknowledged that the money (25 million pesos) was theirs. They said they’d sent it along to a publicity agency to pay for promotions for the Veracruz Carnival. Veracruz Finance Secretary Tomas Ruiz said he sent cash because he was running out of time to make necessary payments.

That unlikely explanation was not sitting well with political opponents of the presidential candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto. Until recently he was governor of the state of Mexico, with headquarters in Toluca, and his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, rules in Veracruz as well.

Was the money a secret cash infusion for Pena Nieto’s campaign?

“Could we possibly be witnessing dirty money from drug-trafficking (going to) Pena Nieto?” the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, said in a statement.

“Don’t come to me with nonsense that the money was to buy tamales,” said a dismissive Gustavo Madero, head of the conservative National Action Party, or PAN.

Smuggled wads of cash conjure up well-known images here of seedy political payoffs and influence-buying, sometimes by drug traffickers and sometimes by more run-of-the-mill corrupt people. A presidential election year makes those concerns all the more relevant, especially with the victor likely to be the PRI, some of whose members have in the past been associated with the illicit drug trade.

Pena Nieto is leading polls by a wide margin months before the July 1 presidential vote. The PRI hopes to defeat candidates from the PRD and PAN to cement its return to power after losing the presidency in 2000, which ended seven decades of near-absolute rule.

The PRI already controls numerous states, such as Veracruz, the source of the mysterious money and where associates of the powerful Sinaloa cartel are fighting the long-dominant Zetas paramilitary drug gang for control, triggering a deadly surge of violence. Authorities, citing widespread corruption and collusion with gangsters, in December disbanded the police force and handed security duties to the military.

The Veracruz government, meanwhile, is petitioning to get the money back, and the attorney general’s office says it is trying to trace where the cash came from.

Efforts to reach the publicity agency mentioned by the Veracruz officials were unsuccessful; the company’s website says it is under construction. And although Veracruz said the two men on the plane worked for the state government, their names appear nowhere in the state’s telephone registries, Mexican newspapers reported Wednesday.

The PRI is furious, asking why that particular flight, of all the flights into Toluca, was searched. Pena Nieto “categorically” denied that the money was for his campaign and wondered whether authorities weren’t picking on his party for political reasons.

Mexicans, long accustomed to corruption in their politics, generally seemed both riveted and repulsed.

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