Fearing Corruption Inquiry, Former Mexico Party Chief Moves to Block Arrest

Manlio Fabio Beltrones in Mexico City in 2016.

MEXICO CITY — For decades, Manlio Fabio Beltrones has presided over Mexican politics with an assured hand, wielding enormous power, amassing a personal fortune and skating past scandals that might have dragged down a less capable operator.

But a sweeping corruption case is threatening his legal and political future — as well as the prospects of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, which governs the nation under President Enrique Peña Nieto.

The case involves the illegal siphoning of millions of dollars in public money to fund his party’s political campaigns in 2016. Cooperating witnesses contend that Mr. Beltrones, the party’s president at the time, designed and spearheaded the plan, according to documents and testimony reviewed by The New York Times.

The investigation, which has been brought by prosecutors in the state of Chihuahua, has already ensnared one of his top lieutenants. Dozens of others have been arrested or flipped by prosecutors in the state.

Mr. Beltrones has not been charged, and he maintains his innocence. But last month, with the investigation gathering momentum, he took an unusual step to protect himself: He filed an injunction in Mexican federal court, hoping to temporarily suspend any possible arrest warrants against him, according to a statement he released and documents reviewed by The Times.

He said the injunction was not an admission of guilt, but was intended to prevent him from being swept into what he called a highly politicized case pursued by overzealous state officials. He declined to be interviewed for this article.

But in Mexico, the action carries tremendous political weight. The very step of defending himself against possible arrest would have been unthinkable for a man of his stature even a few years ago, analysts said.

“The investigation breaks the notion of the untouchable figure,” said Vidal Romero, a political-science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. “Figures like Beltrones being investigated — although the common belief is that it will be very difficult for him to actually go down — is a sign of a change that we are experiencing as a nation.”

Driving the case is the governor of Chihuahua, Javier Corral, a member of a rival party who has made it his mission to unearth the staggering corruption under his predecessor, a former stalwart in Mr. Beltrones’s party.

Few figures around the country have been willing to challenge the governing party as directly as Mr. Corral has. And in Mexico, where corruption investigations are often quashed or thwarted before they begin, his gambit has exposed notable weaknesses in the Mexican political system, rattling it at the highest levels.

“Corruption has made the establishment so fragile that one person can shake it,” said Juan Pardinas, the general director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, an anticorruption group. “It’s not clear yet if this person will win. The fight is still going, and the system is going to use all of its resources to stop it.”

The case began in 2016, ahead of elections for state governors across Mexico. As president of the governing party, known as the P.R.I., Mr. Beltrones was in charge of its campaigns, an uphill battle given Mr. Peña Nieto’s low approval ratings.

According to former officials, politicians and analysts, using public resources for unauthorized political purposes is not a new phenomenon in Mexican politics. But 2016 was an especially challenging year for the P.R.I., given its low popularity.

The plan — according to court documents, bank records and a review of public contracts — was simple.

The federal government sent money to states controlled by P.R.I. governors under the premise of legitimate budgetary needs, according to testimony from cooperating witnesses and interviews with individuals familiar with how the arrangement worked.

That money was then sent to phony companies, which were supposed to fulfill state contracts for services like education. But ultimately, the money was funneled to campaigns, according to testimony from cooperating witnesses.

In Chihuahua, the amount totaled about $14 million, according to the government contracts and bank records reviewed by The Times. But individuals aware of the effort claim it went beyond a single state and were exerted nationwide.

While the total amount funneled to other states is unclear, The Times found contracts and bank records that show millions of dollars went to some of the same phony companies, or companies connected to them, in the states of Sonora, Durango and Colima.

But for all the coordination, the P.R.I. campaigns may have been undone by the very corruption that was supposed to give them a boost.

In private conversations since the election, some officials have grumbled that, despite their best efforts, the money didn’t always make it to the campaigns, according to two individuals with knowledge of the arrangement who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid incriminating themselves.

Along the way, various intermediaries siphoned off portions of it, leaving the intended beneficiaries with less than promised, they said. The governing party, which had hoped to rise to victory on the back of corruption was instead undone by the corruption within its own ranks, they said.

One of the former deputies of the governing party, Alejandro Gutiérrez, is accused of taking part of this, according to records presented by prosecutors in Chihuahua. Of the millions of dollars sent to Chihuahua for electoral purposes, Mr. Gutiérrez directed some $230,000 to a company he owned, the records show.

The results of the 2016 campaign were humiliating for the party. The P.R.I. lost elections in 7 states, including some where they had held power for more than 70 years, and Mr. Beltrones was forced to step down as party president. Then came the investigations under the new governor, Mr. Corral, whose efforts have put the entire party on alert.

This is hardly the first time Mr. Beltrones has been against the ropes. In various phases of his career, he has faced political exile, only to reinvent himself and work his way back into the halls of power.

In 1997, when he was the governor of the state of Sonora, Mr. Beltrones was accused by some American officials of having links to drug traffickers. The claims were serious enough that the American ambassador at the time considered revoking his Mr. Beltrones’s visa to the United States.

Most people thought Mr. Beltrones was done after that. He left his governorship and did not have another major political position for years. But by 2003, he was back, having found his way into the center of the action as a crucial intermediary between the P.R.I. and the administration of Vicente Fox, the first non-P.R.I. president in 70 years.

A new era for Mr. Beltrones followed. He became known as a politician capable of maintaining power even when his party was in the opposition, able to broker deals with his rivals and retain his own influence, lawmakers recall.

As other politicians of his generation fell by the wayside, Mr. Beltrones evolved. Through charm, guile and a shrewd ability to read the winds of change, he galvanized his reputation as Mexico’s timeless politician, the ultimate power broker even when his party was out of power.

Perhaps his most powerful moment came when he allied himself with another former president, Felipe Calderón of the rival National Action Party, whose election was so contested that one opposition party blocked his entry into Congress to keep him from being sworn in as president.

Mr. Beltrones, according to some versions of the story, helped sneak Mr. Calderon into Congress using a back door. And then Mr. Beltrones helped ensure that his fellow party members from the P.R.I. were in attendance to achieve a quorum and allow Mr. Calderón to be sworn in.

Some Mexican lawmakers described Mr. Beltrones’s role during Mr. Calderon’s tenure as something of a prime minister. As the head of the opposition, Mr. Beltrones had tremendous power over the president’s agenda, able to marshal his party members to approve or reject it.

Supporters and critics alike say that Mr. Beltrones’s reputation during this era as a politician willing to work with his rival has helped him remain in power.

“Manlio has achieved longevity, which is rare in politics,” said Eduardo Olmos, a former federal representative for the P.R.I. and an ally of Mr. Beltrones. “He has been coherent with his beliefs and actions — reliability, making deals, and effective dialogue with people who not only think differently than him but lead different political parties.”

Mr. Beltrones has managed to garner respect from tough critics as well. Javier Garza, a former editor of the newspaper El Siglo de Torreón, recalled an interview he had with Mr. Beltrones several years ago. The men talked for two hours, bouncing from tax reform to energy reform to education.

Mr. Garza said he was skeptical, leery of the politician’s history. But as the meeting wore on, his reputation as corrupt dinosaur — a term sometimes used for veteran politicians here — gave way to surprise.

“When he left, I was like, ‘Wow, I agree with this guy,’” Mr. Garza said. “I mean, his tail hasn’t even made its way out of the building yet, but he’s convinced me.”

On Thursday, Mr. Beltrones was named an official coordinator for the P.R.I. presidential candidate, José Antonio Meade, who has been suffering heavily in the polls and has struggled to excite voters. Mr. Beltrones will take over coordination in several states — including Chihuahua, where the suspect financial dealings are under scrutiny.

It’s a metric of how important Mr. Beltrones is to the party — and how much Mr. Meade needs a boost from the elder heavyweights of the P.R.I. — that he has been selected.

“The P.R.I. and Meade see him as essential to having any chance at election success,” said Duncan Wood, the director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute.

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