The handcuffed Javier Duarte (C), former governor of the Mexican state of Veracruz, is escorted by police following his arrest in Panajache municipality, Solola departament, Guatemala, 150 km west of Guatemala City on April 15, 2017. Duarte, a fugitive from justice suspected of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars, will be processed for extradition to Mexico. / AFP PHOTO / CARLOS ALONSOCARLOS ALONSO/AFP/Getty Images
Javier Duarte is escorted by police following his arrest in Guatemala on Saturday © AFP

A fugitive former governor from Mexico’s ruling party, who became a symbol of official corruption and impunity after fleeing corruption charges over a $3bn hole in state accounts, has been arrested in Guatemala, authorities said.

Javier Duarte, 43, was detained in a hotel in Panajachel, on the shore of the volcano-ringed Lake Atitlán in the company of his wife, the deputy director of Guatemala’s national police told a Mexican television station. Mexico’s attorney-general’s office confirmed it was seeking his extradition to face charges of organised crime and embezzlement. 

Images aired on social media showed the burly former governor of the south-eastern state of Veracruz being escorted into a vehicle by Interpol agents, his hands cuffed behind his back. Mr Duarte, who had called the allegations of wrongdoing “a calumny” before going on the run last year, put up no resistance. 

Under the watch of the politician once hailed by Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto as part of a new generation in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI), the state of Veracruz was bankrupted and became one of the most dangerous in the country. The Veracruz state comptroller says close to 55bn pesos ($2.97bn) went missing from official coffers.

Mr Duarte’s disappearance was an embarrassment for the Mexican government, itself tainted by graft allegations, as it proudly touted its national anti-corruption drive. His arrest comes a week after that of Tomás Yarrington, a former governor of the northern state of Tamaulipas who is wanted on money laundering and drugs trafficking charges in the US and Mexico. Mr Yarrington was arrested in Italy after five years on the run. 

Mr Duarte’s alleged misdemeanours include that his government creamed off some 950m pesos ($50m) through the award of state contracts to 131 phantom companies. In addition, the Veracruz government’s debt tripled to almost 88bn pesos during Mr Duarte’s six-year term, according to the current administration. 

But one of the most chilling allegations is that the former governor, who used a state helicopter to make his getaway in October, shortly after vowing he would never flee, was complicit in a scam that stole the chemotherapy drugs for child cancer patients in Veracruz, who were administered water instead. Before fleeing, Mr Duarte vehemently protested his innocence. 

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least four journalists from Veracruz were killed for exercising their profession under Mr Duarte’s governorship, which began in 2010. The oil-rich state has become one of Mexico’s most violent, a fact illustrated in grisly detail by the recent discovery of mass graves with 250 skulls found at one site. 

The ruling PRI hailed Mr Duarte’s arrest and called for an “exemplary sanction” for the politician, who was expelled from the party in October, affirming “Mexico is changing”.

But Marco Fernández, an investigator at think-tank México Evalúa and professor at the Tec de Monterrey university, recalled how Rodrigo Medina, former PRI governor of the state of Nuevo León, had been jailed in January only to be released after less than a day. He has since won an injunction preventing his arrest pending investigation into alleged illicit enrichment, which he denies.

“[The arrests of Javier Duarte and Tomás Yarrington] are signals that allow us to begin to have some hope that we’ll start to see a reduction in impunity, but we have to be cautious,” Mr Fernández said. Two other recent former governors accused of stealing official funds are still on the run, he noted. 

The PRI built a reputation for graft during its uninterrupted 71 years in power from 1929 to 2000. Brought back to the presidency by Mr Peña Nieto in 2012, it has failed to convince voters things have changed and business leaders often complain that corruption is worse than ever. 

The federal government has been rocked by scandals over alleged conflicts of interest involving Mr Peña Nieto’s wife and his foreign minister. They have denied wrongdoing but the storm helped send the president’s popularity to record lows. 

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