By E. Eduardo Castillo
The Associated Press
U.S. drug agents have evidence that cartel leaders paid millions to a Mexican border state governor and other figures in Mexico's former ruling party in exchange for political influence, according to a court filing in Texas.
Confidential informants told Drug Enforcement Administration investigators that leaders of the Zetas and Gulf cartels made payments to Institutional Revolutionary Party members including Tomas Yarrington, who served as governor of Tamaulipas state in 1999-2004, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in San Antonio, Texas.
The affidavit says the DEA also has obtained ledgers documenting millions of dollars in payments to Yarrington's representatives.
Yarrington declined to comment when contacted by The Associated Press on Friday.
The U.S. investigation could have ramifications for Mexico's July 1 presidential election. The candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, has a strong lead in opinion polls and appears poised to retake the country's most powerful office 12 years after the party was unseated after seven decades of unchallenged rule. The PRI has been fending off allegations of criminal ties from the current ruling party, its main competitor in the vote.
The 13-page affidavit lays out in detail the DEA's case against Antonio Pena-Arguelles, an alleged cartel money-launderer who was arrested Wednesday in San Antonio.
It accuses him of using U.S. bank accounts to funnel millions to Yarrington from leaders of the Gulf and the Zetas. In 2004-2005 alone, it says, he and his brother received $4.5 million from the No. 2 leader of the Zetas, Miguel-Angel Trevino Morales.
The Zetas gang was started by Mexican special forces soldiers who dropped out of the military and initially worked as the Gulf cartel's enforcers before breaking away in 2010 to become a notoriously brutal nationwide cartel of their own, responsible for thousands of kidnappings, slayings and acts of extortion. The Zetas and Gulf cartel then went to war over control of the drug routes running into much of southern Texas, turning Tamaulipas one of Mexico's most violent states.
One of the DEA's four informants told investigators that "during early 2000, Antonio Pena-Arguelles began receiving large amounts of drug proceeds on behalf of Osiel Cardenas, head of the Gulf Cartel, in exchange for political influence within the government in Tamaulipas," the complaint says.
Mauricio Fernandez, head of the DEA's San Antonio office, described the complaint as the result of a lengthy and continuing investigation.
"It's an ongoing matter right now," he said. "A lot of people are working on this."
Mexican prosecutors said late last month that they were investigating former Tamaulipas officials in connection with unspecified federal crimes, a category that includes money-laundering and drug-related crimes. Yarrington and two other former PRI governors, Manuel Cavazos, who served until 1999, and Eugenio Hernandez, who left office in 2010, publicly acknowledged that they were subjects of the probe but denied any links to crime.
In the wake of the revelations, the PRI accused the governing National Action Party, the PAN, its main opponent in the July election, of manipulating criminal justice for political ends.
The PRI's presidential candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, appeared several days later at a rally in Tamaulipas hand-in-hand with Cavazos in a public show of support for the ex-governor, who is now running for a Senate seat.
The centerpiece of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's six-year term has been his heavy militarized fight against drug cartels, and the PAN has been increasingly attempting to paint the PRI as unable to move away from the corruption that marked the autocratic rule that ended with its presidential loss to the PAN in 2000.
Calderon's party seized on the DEA court filing as evidence that the PRI has links to organized crime.
"For months the National Action Party has expressed its concern about the evidence constantly coming to light that current and former PRI governors could be allowing organized-crime groups to operate," Gustavo Madero, chairman of the PAN's national executive committee, told reporters.
Pena Nieto did not directly address the accusations in the DEA affidavit when questioned about them Friday. Standing beside him, PRI head Joaquin Coldwell struck a softer tone than in previous party statements about the probe of the ex-governors.
"Every party member is responsible for his own conduct and behavior, and each party member must carry out his own legal defense," Coldwell said. "What we ask for in this case and others that present themselves ... is that the justice system isn't used in a partisan way, for electoral purposes, and that the constitutional rights of the people who are investigated are respected."
Politicians have long been under pressure from cartels in Tamaulipas. In 2010, gunmen believed linked to one of the cartels ambushed a convoy carrying the leading PRI gubernatorial candidate, Rodolfo Torre, killing him and four of his companions. Torre's brother then ran for the governorship and won.
According to the DEA complaint in Texas, Pena-Arguelles' older brother Alfonso was found slain by a monument in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, last year. Next to his body was a banner accusing Antonio Pena-Arguelles of stealing $5 million from the Zetas. DEA informants said the money had been intended to buy the Zetas influence in the Tamaulipas government through Yarrington's connections, the affidavit says.
On the morning of his brother's death, Antonio Pena-Arguelles received a cellphone text message from Trevino, the Zetas' No. 2, accusing him, Yarrington and the head of the Gulf cartel, Jorge Eduardo Costilla Sanchez, of orchestrating Torre's slaying, the complaint says.
Associated Press writer Paul J. Weber in San Antonio contributed to this report.