GUATEMALA CITY – A fugitive former Mexican governor accused of pilfering millions of dollars from state coffers was aided by a network of accomplices who helped him evade justice in Guatemala, where he was eventually captured after six-month manhunt, officials said.
Authorities were tipped off to the presence of ex-Veracruz state Gov. Javier Duarte in Guatemala by the Nov. 10, 2016 detention of a person carrying two passports with photographs of Duarte and his wife — but with different names — at the airport in the Mexican border city of Tapachula.
Investigators "identified many homes, telephone numbers and vehicles related to people who helped Javier Duarte from Mexico City in the logistics of his stay and movement in Guatemala," Omar Garcia Harfuch, head of the Criminal Investigation Agency in Mexico's Attorney General's Office, told a press conference in Guatemala City.
The 43-year-old former Institutional Revolutionary Party governor had come to symbolize official corruption to many in Mexico, where he is wanted for money laundering and organized crime. He is accused of running a corruption ring that allegedly pilfered millions of dollars from Veracruz's coffers, and stripped its schools and hospitals of their resources.
Prosecutors have directed Mexico's Foreign Relations Department to request Duarte's extradition.
He was captured Saturday at a hotel in Panajachel, a picturesque town on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala's highlands, with the cooperation of that country's police and Interpol office. He was taken under heavy guard to a military prison in Guatemala's capital on Sunday.
"I have no comment, thank you," Duarte said to a question from The Associated Press as he entered the prison.
In the past, Duarte has denied the allegations against him, saying he had not stolen a single peso of state money or diverted government funds overseas.
"I don't have foreign accounts," he said last year. "I don't have properties anywhere."
Authorities think he entered Guatemala by land in November or earlier, and traveled between the city of Antigua and other provinces where he had properties.
"During the investigation, it came to light that various private airlines offering services to the region were charged with transporting (Duarte) to different points in Guatemala," said Garcia Harfuch.
Garcia Harfuch did not provide the names of the network of people who helped Duarte from Mexico City. But authorities in Mexico vowed to recover the money Duarte allegedly stole and bring to justice his accomplices.
"The network of accomplices and strawmen" who helped Duarte must be brought to justice, said Alberto Elias Beltran, the deputy legal prosecutor for international affairs at Mexico's Attorney General's Office.
Political analyst Alejandro Hope said it is difficult to judge whether Duarte's capture — the second in a week of a high-profile, fugitive former PRI governor — will boost PRI President Enrique Pena Nieto's image in fighting corruption.
"In the best case it will give him a small boost in the short term but it also draws attention to the corruption of the governors," said Hope. And Duarte "knows a lot of things about a lot of people."
Duarte was governor of Veracruz from 2010 until he left office Oct. 12, 2016, two months before the scheduled end of his term, saying he was doing so in order to face the allegations against him. But he promptly disappeared and had been sought by Mexican authorities ever since.
Mexico says it has found millions of dollars purportedly linked to Duarte, frozen more than 100 bank accounts and seized property and businesses tied to the former governor. A reward of 15 million pesos ($730,000) had been offered for his capture.
Duarte has also been criticized for rampant violence in the state during his administration, as drug cartels warred for territory and thousands of people were killed or disappeared. The dead include at least 16 journalists slain in Veracruz during his six years in office.
His detention comes a week after Tomas Yarrington, the ex-governor of Mexico's Tamaulipas state, was arrested in Italy, also on allegations of organized crime and money laundering.
Another ex-governor, Cesar Duarte of Chihuahua state, is also wanted on suspicion of corruption and is said to have fled to El Paso, Texas. He is not related to Javier Duarte.
All three ex-governors were members of Pena Nieto's PRI.
The party, which expelled Javier Duarte on Oct. 25, 2016, applauded his arrest.
"The PRI calls for all the relevant investigations to be carried out and, respecting due process, for the ex-governor of Veracruz to be punished in an exemplary fashion, as well as anyone who is confirmed to have taken part in his criminal ring," it said in a statement.
Verza reported from Mexico City.