Fugitive Mexican ex-governor arrested for graft, awaits extradition

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - A former Mexican state governor on the run from police for more than five months who has come to symbolize corruption within the country’s ruling party was arrested on Saturday night in Guatemala and now awaits extradition.

Former governor of Mexican state Veracruz Javier Duarte (C) is escorted by authorities after he was detained in a hotel in Panajachel, Guatemala 15 April 2017. REUTERS/Danilo Ramirez

Javier Duarte, wanted on charges of graft and organized crime, was detained in a hotel lobby in the picturesque lakeside town of Panajachel, 80 miles (130 km) west of Guatemala’s capital, the national police said in a statement.

Local television footage showed a calm Duarte, formerly governor of Veracruz state, being led by police outside the hotel on Saturday night, his hands cuffed behind his back.

Duarte, who has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, was at the hotel for a couple of days using an assumed identity along with his wife; she has not been charged with any crimes.

“He wanted to pass as a Mexican tourist,” said Stu Velasco, deputy director of Guatemala’s national police.

Duarte likely entered Guatemala by land sometime in early November, and used private planes within Guatemala while on the run, said Omar Garcia, chief of criminal investigations within Mexico’s attorney general’s office, at a Sunday news conference at the Mexican embassy in Guatemala.

He declined to detail Duarte’s travels in the Central American country, or who was helping him, but said he had kept a low profile in Panajachel.

“He didn’t leave his hotel room,” said Garcia.

Duarte, 43, was transferred early on Sunday to the Matamoros prison in downtown Guatemala City, a facility known for holding drug traffickers and former Guatemalan government officials charged with corruption.

Slideshow ( 4 images )

Rodrigo Sandoval, a Guatemalan lawyer representing Duarte, visited him at the prison later on Sunday morning.

“I had the opportunity to talk with Mr. Duarte, and he says he’s waiting for his extradition and for his lawyers in Mexico. My understanding is that he will accept extradition,” said Sandoval.

Agriculture and oil-rich Veracruz, on Mexico’s Gulf coast, is one of Mexico’s largest states, and it has historically been a stronghold of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Elected governor in 2010, Duarte presided over a sharp deterioration in security in the state punctuated by the discovery of mass graves and a spate of killings of journalists during his watch.

He has been accused of carrying out massive personal enrichment schemes with illicit resources, potentially totaling in the hundreds of millions of dollars and involving assets in Mexico and abroad.

Duarte is charged with using ghost companies to transfer and hide public funds.

Once seen as a rising young star within the PRI, Duarte was expelled from its ranks in October as accusations of graft mounted.

He resigned as governor that same month, a few weeks before his six-year term was due to end.

In June, Miguel Angel Yunes of the opposition National Action Party won a hotly contested race to succeed Duarte in a stinging defeat for the PRI, long the political party of the state’s governors.

“He plundered our state, and left us in a financial disaster,” said Yunes at a news conference in Boca del Rio near Veracruz city, celebrating the arrest.

Yunes said 1.2 billion pesos ($65 million) had been recovered from Duarte’s illicit diversion of public funds and added that “billions of pesos” still remain in the possession of Duarte family members, former officials and criminals who posed as businessmen.

Several of Duarte’s top cabinet officials have been arrested on corruption charges, while others are being investigated.

($1 = 18.4977 Mexican pesos)

Additional reporting by Dave Graham, Anahi Rama and David Alire Garcia; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Bill Rigby