MEXICO CITY – The arrest of an ex-governor of the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas caps a five-year, seemingly desultory search for the ruling-party politician accused of organized crime and money laundering.
It may have been one of the least serious searches in history. Analysts say the government was loath to arrest one of its own, a man who both reflected badly on the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, and who may have held sensitive information on other corrupt officials.
U.S. prosecutors have publicly alleged since 2012 that Tomas Yarrington accepted millions of dollars in drug cartel bribes and invested it in Texas real estate. But Mexico didn't offer a reward for his capture until last November.
The current Tamaulipas governor, Francisco Garcia Cabeza de Vaca, said that up until last year, Yarrington — who left office in 2005, and faced charges since 2012 — still had a government-provided bodyguard assigned to him. The farcical nature of a policeman assigned to guard him while he was on the lam ended only because Garcia Cabeza de Vaca won the 2016 elections and belongs to the opposition National Action Party, or PAN, the party said in a statement Monday.
Yarrington's long-cold trail finally led to Italy, where he was detained, according to an announcement Sunday.
In a statement, the PRI praised the arrest, but acknowledged it had taken the party four years to expel him after the allegations first surfaced.
Yarrington is the first of a triumvirate of PRI fugitive governors accused of corruption to be arrested.
The other two are Cesar Duarte and Javier Duarte — no relation — the ex-governors of Chihuahua and Veracruz states, respectively. Both supposedly have international detention notices, but despite being very well-known and recognizable figures, no trace of them has been seen since they left office last year.
But few well-known politicians have been on the lam as long as Yarrington, who allegedly took bribes from the Gulf and Zetas cartels to allow them to operate in his state. In the ensuing years, the gangs essentially took over Tamaulipas, killing thousands of people, instituting a reign of terror of widespread kidnapping and extortion. The state was left littered with mass graves and burned-out homes.
Raul Benitez, a security expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, said Yarrington appears to have assumed a false identity and gone to live in Florence, Italy to avoid capture. The key to catching him, Benitez said, came when authorities traced phone calls he made to his family in Mexico.
But Benitez also thinks politics came into play, and perhaps Yarrington's disastrous dealings with drug gangs.
"The government had protected a lot of PRI governors, and now has to go after some of the corrupt ones," Benitez said. "The mixture of corruption and drug trafficking is explosive, and it was very hard for the government to stand by."
The chief prosecutor of another PRI-governed state, Nayarit was arrested in the United States on drug charges last month.
But it doesn't necessarily mean that the other two fugitive governors will be caught soon. Both are accused of embezzlement and other crimes.
Edgardo Buscaglia, an international organized crime expert and consultant, noted that governors of Mexico's 31 states have traditionally enjoyed a sort of de-facto immunity because they are major sources of illegal financing for their party's campaigns.
They traditionally take money from state coffers, bribes from legitimate businesses and cash from drug gangs, and use it to ensure the election of a successor who won't investigate them. With few checks and balances in place, the governors face little accountability.
"The governors are the main architects of this mafia-style financing for electoral campaigns" said Buscaglia. "When they become public embarrassments, like Duarte and Yarrington, the prosecutors will act under international pressure, but they have a lot of information that could bring down half of the ruling class."
He suggested that their long periods on the lam allow the ex-governors to negotiate exactly how much prison time they will face and how much of their illegal fortunes will be seized.
"They are negotiating their apprehension, their fortunes. That is why, miraculously, the ex-governors can't be found."