Months before Mexico's presidential elections, political rivals are trading accusations over $1.9 million in cash found stuffed into a state official's luggage at a Mexico airport, a find that has inflamed rampant speculation about the possibility of organized crime or illegal campaign money influencing the July 1 presidential election.
The wads of cash, many of them bank fresh 1,000-peso bills, were found when police decided to search passengers arriving on a private flight to Toluca, the capital of the home state of leading presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto.
The money came from Veracruz, a Gulf coast state governed by Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, known as the PRI. The state official carrying the cash said he was making a hurried payment to a legitimate company for consulting services.
President Felipe Calderón's National Action Party called that explanation "an insult to the intelligence of Mexicans," whose tax laws, crime problem, strict campaign finance laws and economic problems make carrying large amounts of cash very unusual.
"It is no coincidence that this amount of money was taken to Toluca ... and that is precisely where the campaign of the PRI's favored son, Enrique Peña Nieto, operates," National Action said in a statement.
The PRI thundered back that the search, which authorities say had been random, was politically motivated.
"The PRI rejects any attempt to carry out a political persecution or the partisan use of law enforcement against political rivals," the PRI said in a statement. "This is the kind of thing being done with the ill-intentioned and unfounded accusations that Veracruz state money was being used to support PRI campaigns. That is absolutely false."
Analysts said both sides could be right.
"We have not only become accustomed to corruption, but that even when it appears they (police) are fighting corruption, the only thing they are really doing is trying to strike political blows," said columnist and political analyst Jorge Zepeda Patterson.
The federal government, which is controlled by National Action, has refused to return the cash until the PRI government of Veracruz clears up all the doubts about it.
Mexico has strict limits on the amounts of money that can be spent on political campaigns. The PRI's presidential candidate will be limited to spending 495 million pesos ($38.4 million) for the entire campaign.
Peña Nieto holds a wide lead in most opinion polls on the July 1 presidential election.
His party has made strenuous efforts to re-brand itself as a law-abiding and transparent party that has left behind the legacy of corruption that marked much of its seven decades of autocratic rule, which ended when the National Action Party defeated the PRI in the 2000 presidential election.
"I categorically deny that these seized funds have anything to do with the campaign," Peña Nieto told reporters Tuesday. "And these allegations don't seem very reliable to me."
No one has alleged any links of the cash to drug trafficking or money laundering, although Veracruz state has been wracked by drug violence. Calderón said last fall that the state had been turned over to the Zetas cartel and he sent troops there to regain order.
Veracruz state Finance Secretary Tomas Ruíz said the cash was part of an approved state budget expense aimed at boosting tourism to festivals. He said it was being rushed in one lump sum to pay the firm before the state's Feb. 2 Candelaria or Candlemas celebration, an annual week-long festival famous throughout Mexico.
The company, Industria 3, appears on Mexican government purchasing websites as having received other governmental contracts for similar work.
In a telephone interview, Industria 3 executive Eduardo Fragoso refused to give details on the company's contract, or discuss why the payment was made in cash. But he confirmed a statement saying the company had been contracted to "organize, promote and do publicity for" fairs in Veracruz state.
An advertising trade group official said big cash payments "are not a common practice" in the business. Alfonso Castañeda, assistant director of the Mexico's advertising and public relations industry chamber, said such firms often wait some time to get paid or are paid in partial increments as work is done.
Juan Vergel Pacheco, a leader of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, called the state government's story "absurd and infantile," noting that at very least, the cash shipment violated government accounting procedures and tax laws.
The movement of money that way shows up in plain-old corruption scandals, Zepeda Patterson said. Corrupt officials often use vaguely worded "consultancy" or service contracts to get kickbacks, because it is hard to prove the "goods" aren't delivered, or aren't worth as much as is paid for them, he said.
"Typically, the way these things work is that they say, 'I'll give you 25 million pesos, and you give me back 15,"' he said. "Obviously, the political rivals automatically assume that it was money destined for electoral purposes, and that could be ... but it also may have had a lot more vulgar aims, like simply enriching family bank accounts."
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.