REPORTING FROM MEXICO CITY-- It was a mere $1.9 million, stuffed as brand new bills in two suitcases on a small jet traveling from the drug-rattled state of Veracruz to the hometown of the man likely to be Mexico’s next president.
Officers from the federal attorney general’s office confiscated the money over the weekend during a search of the plane, which landed in Toluca, capital of Mexico State. They arrested the two men transporting the cash, who said they were Veracruz officials but could not present any paperwork on where the money came from.
As rumors and speculation swirled, officials in the government of Veracruz acknowledged the money (25 million pesos) was theirs. They said they’d sent it along to a publicity agency to pay for promotions for the Veracruz Carnival. Veracruz Finance Secretary Tomas Ruiz said he sent cash because he was running out of time to make necessary payments (link in Spanish).
That explanation was not sitting well with political opponents of the presidential candidate, Enrique Peña Nieto. Until recently he was governor of the State of Mexico, with headquarters in Toluca, and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rules in Veracruz as well.
Was the money a secret cash infusion into Peña Nieto's campaign?
"Could we possibly be witnessing dirty money from drug-trafficking [going to] Peña Nieto?" the leftist Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) said in a statement.
"Don't come to me with nonsense that the money was to buy tamales," said Gustavo Madero, head of the conservative National Action Party (PAN).
Peña Nieto is leading polls by a wide margin ahead of this summer's presidential election. The PRI hopes to defeat candidates from the PRD and PAN to cement its return to power after losing the presidency in 2000, which ended seven decades of near-absolute rule.
Efforts to reach the publicity agency mentioned by the Veracruz officials were unsuccessful; the company's website says it is under construction. And while Veracruz said the two men on the plane worked for the state government, their names appear nowhere in the state's telephone registries, Mexican newspapers reported Wednesday (link in Spanish, registration required).
The Veracruz government is petitioning to get the money back and the attorney general's office says it is trying to trace where the cash came from. Peña Nieto "categorically" denied the money was for him and wondered if authorities weren't picking on his party for political reasons (link in Spanish).
Mexicans, long accustomed to corruption in their politics, generally seemed both riveted, and repulsed.
-- Tracy Wilkinson and Cecilia Sanchez
Photo: This photo released by the attorney general's office shows an official counting money Jan. 28 seized from a jet at the Mexico State airport of Toluca. Credit: Associated Press