CHIHUAHUA, Mexico — A former deputy in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s party has been arrested as part of an investigation into the illegal use of public money to fuel his party’s campaigns in Mexican elections last year, state officials announced on Wednesday.
former deputy, Alejandro Gutiérrez, is one of several allies of Mexico’s
president suspected of taking part in an embezzlement scheme to propel his
party’s chances at a time of deep dissatisfaction with the government,
according to former officials connected to the scheme and hundreds of pages of
documents reviewed by The New York Times.
arrest of Mr. Gutiérrez, a veteran figure who helped control the finances of
the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, is part of a widening
inquiry into the enormous corruption that occurred under the previous governor
of the state of Chihuahua. The governor was a close friend of Mexico’s
president and a rising star in the party before he fled to the United States to
avoid corruption charges.
against him has already ensnared more than a dozen former state officials, some
of whom are now cooperating with the authorities.
investigation is spreading and threatens to reach the highest ranks of
government, according to testimony from the former state officials and
financial records obtained by The Times.
Gutiérrez is being investigated in connection with what former state officials
call a nationwide plan to funnel tens of millions of dollars in public money to
help the party’s candidates in gubernatorial elections in 2016.
money was sent to states with friendly governors in the party, who then created
a trail of government contracts with fake companies that ultimately sent the
money back for use in campaigns, according to the testimony and records.
time, top officials in the PRI were worried about losing the state elections in
June 2016. The former state officials say the pattern of embezzling money to
finance elections occurred in several states where the PRI was frightened of
documents reviewed by The Times focus largely on the embezzlement scheme in
Chihuahua. According to the records, millions of dollars were transferred in
January 2016 from the federal government to the state for the purpose of
funds were then shuffled and diverted to four companies used to embezzle money —
businesses that the nation’s tax auditor has blacklisted as front companies,
according to the government contracts reviewed by The Times.
companies, supposedly hired by the state of Chihuahua to provide educational
services, received around $14 million in their accounts, according to the
contracts and the bank records showing that the money had been received.
companies provided no such services, according to affidavits from current
education officials in the state. Instead, the money was turned into cash and
returned to the PRI to be used for election campaigns, according to the former
state officials connected to the scheme.
them, Ricardo Yáñez, the former minister of education in Chihuahua, described
the plot in a sentencing document. He is serving a four-year prison sentence.
of the money went to politicking, however.
$230,000 was deposited directly into a business account operated by Mr.
Gutiérrez, the former PRI deputy, according to bank records and witness testimony.
governor of Chihuahua announced the arrest on Twitter on Wednesday evening,
describing it as a “joint operation with the federal and state police.” The
governor said that Mr. Gutiérrez had been charged with embezzlement.
federal Finance Ministry denied that any illicit payments had been made,
contending that the nation’s budget system had been “strengthened with strict
controls” on multiple fronts “to guarantee” accountability in the use of public
trail of payments outlined in the documents suggest a tie between the
embezzlement scheme and the party at a national level.
and bank records show that millions of dollars went to some of the same phony
companies, or companies connected to them, in the states of Sonora and Durango.
Bank records also show hundreds of thousands of dollars in deposits to some of
the companies by the state of Colima. And in their testimony, the former state
officials connected to the scheme said it was carried out in the states of
Veracruz and Tamaulipas.
officials in Veracruz did not respond to repeated requests for comment. And the
current governor of Tamaulipas, an opposition politician who won his seat
during the 2016 elections, said a review by his employees found no contracts
with the four main fake companies.
still unclear who else may have taken part in the scheme.
sentencing document, Mr. Yáñez, the state education minister who has already
been convicted, is quoted as saying that both Mr. Gutiérrez and Chihuahua’s
former governor, César Duarte, told him that the money had been sent from the
federal government to finance the party’s election campaigns. He said they told
him the same plan had been carried out in several states.
Duarte has fled to the United States, where he is avoiding federal and state
corruption charges, including allegations that he stole more than $300 million
while in charge of the state.
Duarte’s daughter is an American citizen, and according to legal documents reviewed
by The Times, the former governor applied for a green card.
Duarte is believed to be living in Texas and New Mexico. Attempts to reach Mr.
Duarte by phone and through visits to 10 properties in and around El Paso that
are believed to belong to him were unsuccessful.
of Mr. Peña Nieto’s party at the time of the campaign finance scheme, Manlio
Fabio Beltrones, has long been allied with the president and his family.
Beltrones is also named in the sentencing document. Mr. Yáñez said he was told
by the former governor that Mr. Beltrones had hatched the plan. Attempts to
reach Mr. Beltrones on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
document, Mr. Yáñez said that he met with Mr. Gutiérrez, the former PRI deputy,
and other officials at the party’s headquarters in Mexico City. At that point,
the PRI had already lost the election and the mind-set of the participants
switched to damage control.
campaign cases are part of a wide-ranging investigation underway in Chihuahua,
where the new governor, Javier Corral, has assigned his attorney general to
delve into corruption.
leeway that prosecutors have been granted by Mr. Corral is rare in Mexico,
where investigations are seldom begun and, if permitted, rarely reach higher
than low-level functionaries.
months, prosecutors have slowly worked their way through a roster of former
officials who served under the previous governor, Mr. Duarte, pressuring them
January 2016, the state of Chihuahua was facing financial headwinds and needed
help making payroll. Jamie Herrera, the former state finance minister under Mr.
Duarte, needed nearly $16 million to ease the financial strain.
later, in a seven-page contract, the federal Finance Ministry granted the
request. According to the governor’s office, a two-day turnaround for such a
large request was staggeringly fast.
reason for the transfer, according to the former state officials, was a hoax.
In reality, they said, Mr. Gutiérrez, the former PRI deputy, had called
officials in Chihuahua to have them to ask for the money from federal
officials, the testimony shows.
operation, the state officials explained, was a complex, tried-and-true way to
embezzle funds. The officials were given the names of four companies that would
supposedly provide educational services for the state — front companies from
which party operatives could siphon the money.
received about $5.2 million for selling the state human resources software.
other companies were paid millions for training and educational services,
according to the contracts reviewed by The Times.
to contracting specialists, the amounts paid by the state were astronomically
high for the services they provided.
payments moved swiftly. By the end of February, contracts had been drafted and
signed by the state officials, and by April the checks were cut to each of the
roughly $15.8 million sent to the state by the federal government, the party
only asked that $14.4 million of it be returned to it, according to the
testimony from state officials. The rest, they said, could be spent as
officials in the state saw fit.
each of the companies, the money was then transferred to dozens of other
companies, several of which also appear on the national tax authorities’
blacklist of front companies, according to the documents.
there, it disappeared. The only clue as to where it went lies with the
testimony of the two former state officials, who were told by party officials
that the money was turned into cash spent on campaign financing.
Jesus Esquivel is the Washington correspondent for the newsmagazine Proceso.
Paulina Villegas contributed reporting from Mexico City.