By Drazen Jorgic
CUERNAVACA, Mexico Feb 3 (Reuters) — It was supposed to be a festive occasion. Regional politicians, officials and military officers gathered in the Morelos state capital of Cuernavaca for breakfast in February 2022 to mark Mexico´s annual Army day.Cuauhtémoc Blanco, a former Mexican soccer star and the state´s governor, celebrated with red wine. But he wasn´t happy.
Among those in attendance was state Attorney General Uriel Carmona — who had recently been asked by state legislators to investigate the governor´s suspected ties to drug traffickers.As Carmona moved to shake Blanco´s hand and bid him goodbye, the attorney general alleges, the governor grabbed his arm. Blanco said he´d been tipped off that another prosecutor was sniffing around his eldest son´s financial accounts.
A line had been crossed, the barrel-chested Blanco said, and warned: «Now I´m going to mess with your families, and I´m not going to hold back.»
Carmona told the governor that he was leveling threats against law enforcement — a potential felony.He described the encounter in a criminal complaint, viewed by Reuters, filed two days later against Blanco with an independent state anti-corruption prosecutorial body.
The breakfast confrontation and the criminal complaint, which haven´t been previously reported, add to a cloud of scandal over one of Mexico´s most famous men — a legend on the soccer pitch, working-class hero and a rising star in politics.
The dust-up came just six weeks after Mexican newspaper El Sol de México published a photo of the governor posing with three alleged drug traffickers in Morelos. The headline on that front-page photo: «Blanco met with narco leaders in Morelos.» The newspaper said the photo was found on the phone of a drug trafficker arrested by the military in November 2021.
The news outlet did not explain how it obtained the photo, and it´s not clear who shot it.
Mexican drug lords have a long tradition of buying off politicians in exchange for government protection of their illicit trade. The bombshell photo is what prompted state lawmakers to demand EvDEN EvE nAKliYat the investigation into Blanco in complaints filed with state and federal authorities in January 2022.One of the men in the undated image was Homero Figueroa, the purported leader of the Comando Tlahuica crime group. Another, Raymundo Castro, the alleged boss of the Guerreros Unidos cartel in Morelos, had been on the run from authorities since 2014. Reuters confirmed their identities with six law enforcement officials.
In an interview with Reuters, Blanco said Attorney General Carmona, who was appointed by the governor’s predecessor, is a tool of his political enemies.He denied making death threats — or drinking wine at the breakfast.
«I´m not a drug trafficker,» Blanco said in Cuernavaca´s colonial-era government palace building. If you have any questions relating to where and exactly how to make use of evDeN Eve nAKLiyAT, you can contact us at our web page. As for the alleged warning to Carmona, he said: «I´m not so crazy or deranged as to threaten his family.»
Blanco also denied knowing the trio in the photo and dismissed the picture as a routine snap with strangers at a public gathering.That assertion is not credible, two prosecutors and a third source in the state attorney general´s office told Reuters. They said the encounter captured in the photo occurred in a small room of a church complex near Cuernavaca capable of holding about ten people. Rival drug kingpins don´t tend to hobnob at casual mixers, the prosecutors said, and they would have traveled with so many armed guards that Blanco´s own security detail would have known something was amiss.
Blanco´s son, also named Cuauhtémoc, did not respond to requests for comment about the allegation that his finances were under scrutiny by law enforcement.He has not been accused of wrongdoing.
Attempts to reach two of the alleged drug traffickers in the photo — Figueroa and Irving Solano Vera — were unsuccessful. Castro, the third purported gangster, died in prison in 2019.
In many other countries, mingling with suspected drug traffickers might be a political death sentence.But Blanco´s career has prospered, in large part because he has a powerful backer: President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The Mexican leader has transformed the nation´s political landscape in recent years, constructing an electoral juggernaut with his Morena party, which has grabbed power from established parties.His populist pitch to clean up Mexico´s corrupt politics has won him poll ratings that are some of the highest in the world for a national leader.
López Obrador repeatedly has ignored controversy swirling around Blanco, whose athletic achievements and rags-to-riches story have proved electoral gold in soccer-obsessed Mexico.Their alliance dates to the 2018 national elections. Then-presidential candidate López Obrador backed Blanco´s bid for the Morelos governorship, recognizing the ex-player´s appeal, particularly among poor voters at the core of both men´s power base.
The president´s office did not respond to requests for comment for this report.
The probe of Blanco´s suspected cartel ties comes on top of multiple corruption investigations into his activities as a public servant.The inquiries began with his first elected office as mayor of the picturesque colonial city of Cuernavaca from January 2016 to July 2018. On Blanco´s watch, control of the city´s water utility and its cash receipts ended up in the hands of Figueroa, the alleged mobster with his arm around Blanco in the photo, according to Morelos prosecutors, military intelligence documents viewed by Reuters and interviews with five people who worked for the utility.
Blanco said the water utility was «fine» during his tenure and its debts went down, though the utility´s official figures contradict this.
Prosecutors also discovered more than $2 million stashed in four undeclared bank accounts belonging to Blanco, according to a non-public document filed by prosecutors with the Morelos legislature on April 18, 2022, which was viewed by Reuters.The news agency is the first to report on these bank accounts, one of them in the United States. Blanco did not list the accounts on asset disclosures required of all Mexican public officials.
Blanco confirmed the existence of the four accounts to Reuters.»I´ve got an account in the United States. What´s the problem?» Blanco said. Initially, he claimed to have declared them, but when pressed, the governor said he didn´t publicly divulge these assets due to «security» concerns.
He also revealed he has a flat in Chicago, which is undeclared, that he said he is selling.Local property records show Blanco owns a condominium just steps away from the city´s famed Michigan Avenue shopping district, purchased for $450,000 in August 2007.
Blanco said the source of his wealth is money he earned as a footballer, including being paid up to $1 million for commercials when he played professionally in the United States.Blanco played for Major League Soccer´s Chicago Fire from 2007 to 2009.
He said he is happy to have the information about his assets out there so he can «shut the mouths of those assholes.»
«I´ve got nothing to hide,» he said.
Through it all, López Obrador has consistently defended Blanco, calling local government investigations against him «political maneuvering» by his enemies.»They don´t stop attacking, but I support him,» López Obrador said last year.
Blanco, like all elected officials in Mexico, enjoys immunity from prosecution while in office. He has not been charged with any crime.
Prosecutors in April asked the Morelos state congress to impeach Blanco so that he could be stripped of that shield.But state lawmakers aligned with López Obrador have stymied those efforts. In September, the ex-soccer star ditched his Social Encounter Party to join the president´s Morena.
Blanco´s political career may yet hit new heights.In Morelos, he is being touted as a possible Morena candidate for the 2024 race to be mayor of Mexico City, one of the country´s most influential offices. Blanco said running for mayor is a possibility, but it would depend on his poll ratings, and he would need «authorization» from López Obrador.
Two government officials and a Morena party politician familiar with the situation told Reuters they doubt Blanco can leapfrog more experienced rivals to win the nod from his new party.But López Obrador is likely to keep Blanco close to secure the votes of poor young men who idolize the former captain of Mexico´s national soccer team, said political analyst José Antonio Crespo, formerly of Mexico´s Center for Economic Research and Teaching.
«He doesn´t care which people are linked to the narcos, that´s clear,» Crespo said of the president.»What´s important to him is winning. It doesn´t matter how or with whom.»
FROM THE SLUMS TO THE STATEHOUSE
Blanco, 50, is one of Mexico´s all-time sports greats. After breaking through in the early 1990s with Club América, the country´s most successful soccer team, the pugnacious attacker quickly became a fan favorite.Supporters adored his style, melding combativeness with silky smooth dribbling skills.
At the 1998 World Cup in France, he awed fans with his signature «Cuauhtemiña» move: trapping the ball between his legs and jumping between two defenders.Even his name dazzled. Cuauhtémoc was the last Aztec emperor, a warrior whose name signifies the «descending eagle» dive-bombing its prey.
Blanco grew up in Mexico City´s Tepito neighborhood, one of Latin America´s most notorious slums, where he honed his toughness and street smarts.In a 2015 ESPN interview he recalled peddling pirated cassette tapes as a kid. He would go on to earn millions playing for clubs in Spain and the United States. Tabloids lapped up his party-animal persona and combustible relationships with models and telenovela stars.
In 2014, as age and injuries forced Blanco to contemplate retirement, two little-known politicians in Cuernavaca say they approached him with a proposal.Brothers Roberto and Julio Yáñez, who at the time ran the small Social Democratic Party, wanted to harness Blanco´s fame to wrest the mayor´s office from established parties.
The brothers told Reuters that Blanco at first resisted their overtures to run for election, telling them he «hates politics.» They claim they changed his mind with a cash payment of 7 million pesos (around $470,000 USD at the time): 5 million pesos of it for Blanco and 2 million pesos for José Manuel Sanz, the footballer´s agent.The Yáñezes said the money was put up by a group of businessmen who wanted access to the mayor and to secure public contracts if Blanco won. The Yáñezes declined to name the businessmen.
Blanco said he was approached by the Yáñezes about entering the mayoral race and mulled the idea for a month before committing because he disliked politics.But he said no money changed hands and that there was no contract. «It´s totally a lie,» Blanco said, in reference to the Yáñezes´ allegations, first reported by Mexican media in 2016.
Sanz likewise denied receiving kickbacks.»It´s false,» he said of the Yáñezes´ claims.
Roberto Yáñez showed Reuters a signed copy of Blanco´s contract laying out expectations for the candidate´s run. The soccer star was instructed to pose for photos with prospective voters, dash off autographs and greet women with a kiss, according to the document, which Blanco has claimed is fake.
What´s undisputed is that Blanco was a sensation on the campaign trail.Voters queued for hours to snatch selfies and get soccer balls signed, ultimately carrying him to victory over more seasoned competitors. «I fucked them over,» he crowed on election night in June 2015.
Blanco quickly adopted some practices of his predecessors.He doled out top jobs to friends and family. He established alleged links with drug traffickers, according to two prosecutors and 2019 military intelligence documents seen by Reuters. And he significantly worsened the fortunes of SAPAC, Cuernavaca´s water utility, according to former agency head Remigio Alvarez and five current SAPAC employees.
SAPAC´s long-time nickname among locals is caja chica, EVDeN eVe NAkliYat or «petty cash,» for its reputation as a honey pot for politicians.Blanco´s arrival signaled a new era for the utility, alleged ex-chief Alvarez, opening the door to organized crime. «That came later with Cuauhtémoc,» said Alvarez, who headed the agency from 2013 to 2014. He provided no documents or other evidence to back up his claims.
Blanco denied allowing organized crime to flourish at SAPAC.»It´s not true,» he said.
His alleged collusion with organized crime is emblematic of what Mexican authorities say is a wider shift across Mexico in recent years. Groups that once focused almost solely on narcotics are diversifying how they make and move money, spreading into almost every corner of Mexican society.
Morelos prosecutors told Reuters they believe Blanco «delivered» control of SAPAC to Figueroa, the alleged head of the Comando Tlahuica cartel.They say Figueroa skimmed cash payments from utility customers and paid kickbacks to the mayor for the privilege. The five SAPAC employees who spoke with Reuters described a takeover by the gangster.
Starting around 2016, the five said, more than a dozen armed men working on behalf of Figueroa suddenly appeared at the utility´s headquarters.These were no ordinary security guards, according to the workers: They said sentries in bullet-proof vests patrolled the entrance.
Inside, men in civilian clothes watched over cashiers´ windows where water customers lined up to pay their bills in cash.Many clients had no choice but to do so, the employees said, after SAPAC that year eliminated the option to pay by debit card or at convenience stores. Three Cuernavaca residents confirmed this reduction in payment options, which they said were restored after about a year.
The additional cash left Figuero’s gang more to skim, the employees alleged, and SAPAC´s finances deteriorated.The utility slowed payments to vendors and fell behind on paying employees´ health insurance and payroll taxes. During Blanco´s tenure as mayor, the utility´s known debt increased 58% to 403 million pesos ($21.6 million) by the end of 2018, according to a public SAPAC document.
Figueroa also warned two employee unions operating at SAPAC that he would brook no dissent, the five employees said.They recounted that during a 2017 labor dispute, the alleged mobster sent men to beat up one syndicate leader. Separately, Figueroa phoned SAPAC headquarters and asked to talk with another trade union chief on speakerphone, so that other staffers could hear him deliver a threat, two of the employees said.
«I know where you live and I´m going to kick your fucking ass,» Figueroa told that union chief, according to the two workers, evdeN eVE NAkLiyat who said they witnessed the exchange.»If you don´t drop your demands, we are going to disappear you.» The syndicate leaders backed down and kept quiet, the workers said.
Reuters could not independently verify the workers´ account of events.
Figueroa could not be reached for comment.
When Blanco stepped down in July 2018 to run for governor, his successor as mayor, Antonio Villalobos, refused to honor Blanco´s suspected agreement with the Comando Tlahuica cartel, according to a military intelligence document viewed by Reuters.Instead, individuals linked to other mafia moved to seize control of the utility from Figueroa, the five SAPAC employees told Reuters.
At least four people linked to SAPAC have died violently in the past four years in turf battles over the water service, three Morelos officials told Reuters.Villalobos was arrested in September and charged with abuse of office over alleged corruption at SAPAC. He remains in jail.
Villalobos could not be reached for comment and Reuters could not ascertain whether he entered a plea. Neither his attorney or a family member responded to requests for comment.
FOLLOWING THE MONEY
Blanco´s stint as mayor was widely panned by political commentators.Still, as national elections loomed in 2018, presidential candidate López Obrador chose Blanco over his own party´s contender to run as governor of Morelos on a coalition slate. By this time, Blanco had left the Social Democratic Party for the Social Encounter Party.
«He likes me very much because I´m not a politician,» Blanco told Reuters, in reference to the president.
Once elected, Blanco again dished out top jobs to friends and family.Sanz, his former sports agent, continued as his chief of staff. The governor placed buddy and ex-soccer player Luis Hernández Mondragón in charge of the Acquisitions Office, overseeing procurement of goods and services worth tens of millions of dollars.
Hernández told Reuters via WhatsApp that the post required someone with the «full confidence» of Blanco to fight corruption. He said was given the job because he «always acted with honesty and morality.»
Some staffers took to calling Blanco the «absent governor.» In his first year on the job, Blanco´s official calendar showed no work activities on 207 out of 365 days, according to a freedom of information request by a local accountability organization, Morelos Rinde Cuentas.»As a footballer he got used to playing on Sundays and not working Mondays,» a former Blanco staffer told Reuters.
Blanco dismissed claims of his indolence as an unjust smear attempt by his critics.
Scandals soon rocked Blanco´s government.In March 2020, Mexico´s Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF), which investigates suspected financial crimes, in a news conference said that it was scrutinizing members of Blanco´s inner circle. The UIF claimed to have uncovered about 750 million pesos ($40.2 million) in irregular banking transactions, including huge cash deposits, executed by then-Chief of Staff Sanz, three family members and two other associates, UIF documents viewed by Reuters show.
The UIF that month handed its evidence to the federal Office of the Attorney General (FGR), headed by Alejandro Gertz, and asked prosecutors to take up the case, according to that non-public 93-page UIF document reviewed by Reuters.
Between 2014 and 2019, individuals close to Blanco had made bank deposits and transactions that investigators concluded likely originated «from illicit activity,» the report said.The purpose of the alleged scheme, the document said, was to hide the origin or ownership of the assets.
Federal prosecutors verified most of the suspect transactions unearthed by UIF investigators, according to nearly 200 pages of non-public FGR documents reviewed by Reuters.No charges have been filed, and the case has stalled for unknown reasons, according to a source familiar with the probe.
Gertz, the attorney general, did not respond to a request for comment on the status of the investigation.
Sanz denied wrongdoing.He told Reuters the federal investigation «is now over» and he had been «exonerated,» claims that have not been confirmed by prosecutors.
Blanco, too, denied wrongdoing. «I´m clean,» he said in the interview.
More allegations soon surfaced.In September 2021, Gerardo Becerra, the official anti-corruption advisor to Blanco, quit the government and publicly alleged widespread graft relating to public contracting. Becerra said he stepped down because the administration was not interested in stopping it.
«I started to get all the information about the corruption of the government of Cuauhtémoc Blanco,» he said.»They stopped me, they didn´t like it.»
Becerra did not specify who in Blanco´s administration allegedly kept him from doing his job.
He told Reuters he filed a confidential complaint to Morelos´ anti-corruption prosecutorial body alleging that 96% of contracts handed out during Blanco´s tenure were no-bid deals that violated state law.Morelos law requires a minimum of three bidders to ensure competition.
Blanco denied Becerra´s claims, saying they are «not true.»
Hernández, Blanco´s procurement chief, did not respond to a request for comment on Becerra´s allegations.
Local prosecutors digging into corruption allegations against the governor uncovered three undeclared Mexican bank accounts belonging to Blanco containing a total of 16 million Mexican pesos ($858,000).They also found a U.S. bank account with $1.25 million (23.3 million pesos), according to the non-public documents filed by prosecutors with the Morelos state congress in April 2022 asking lawmakers to impeach Blanco.
In their request, prosecutors accused Blanco of illegal enrichment and alleged that his «assets have increased in an important and inexplicable manner» during his stint as a public servant.
Days later, López Obrador publicly backed Blanco.And local lawmakers from Blanco´s Morena party, helped by a handful of allies from other parties, blocked the impeachment.
In August 2022, Blanco´s brother Ulises Bravo Molina was placed in charge of the local branch of López Obrador´s Morena party in Morelos.The following month, Blanco switched parties, saying he joined Morena with «pride, gratitude and determination».
September 2022 brought a new source for public speculation about Blanco and the alleged drug traffickers who posed with him in the now-famous photo.
That month, the Latin American hacker group Guacamaya leaked a trove of classified documents from the Mexican military.Among them was a February 2019 Navy intelligence report, reviewed by Reuters, which stated that it was possible that Blanco was «colluding» with the Comando Tlahuica gang and its purported head, Figueroa.
Mexico´s Navy did not respond to a request for comment.Figueroa could not be reached for comment.
Another document in that cache, a May 2019 Mexican Army memo, referenced the two other alleged drug traffickers shown in the undated photo with Blanco: Raymundo Castro, the Morelos boss of the Guerreros Unidos cartel, and his cartel colleague Irving Solano Vera.
The memo summarized a conversation Solano had with a Mexican Army intelligence agent shortly after the May 2019 capture of Castro by federal police.Solano told the army that Castro had cut a deal with Blanco: Guerreros Unidos could act with «absolute impunity» in Morelos if Castro backed the governor´s political campaign and kept violence low on his turf, Solano alleged.
Castro was killed in a prison brawl in October 2019, according to authorities.Solano was captured by the Mexican military in February 2021. He is believed to be in a maximum-security lock-up and could not be reached for comment. Reuters was unable to determine the identity of his legal counsel. Names of his attorneys were not listed in court records viewed by Reuters, EvDen EvE nakLiyat a common practice in Mexico in drug trafficking cases due to security concerns.
Three Mexican security officials told Reuters that Castro and Solano also worked alongside the Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which has a partnership with Guerreros Unidos.U.S. authorities rank Jalisco New Generation among the world´s most dangerous transnational crime organizations. They blame it for flooding the United States with fentanyl and other synthetic drugs that kill tens of thousands of Americans every year.
Blanco stood defiant amid a flood of disparaging news coverage following the leaks.»He who has nothing to hide, has nothing to fear,» Blanco said in an Oct. 10, 2022 statement. «Let them investigate.»
In Cuernavaca, the state´s one-time tourist hotspot, many fearful residents now scurry home before dark. In Blanco´s four years as Morelos governor, homicides in the state increased by 50% to 1,174 in 2022 from 783 in 2018, federal government data show.In the same period, murders declined 8.2% nationally.
On a park bench in Cuernavaca, Marcelo Rocha, a 71-year-old pensioner, complained of crime and water shortages plaguing his neighborhood. He said he regrets voting for Blanco.
«He has failed us a lot,» Rocha said.
Blanco dismissed any notion that he´s on the side of alleged traffickers in the photo or any other outlaws.He told Reuters he´s working to bring alleged kingpin Figueroa to justice.
«I have never entered into a pact with drug traffickers or criminals,» Blanco said. «I´m not a damn criminal, a crook or a bad person. I´m a well-mannered man of principles.» ($1 = 18.6527 Mexican pesos) (Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Additional reporting by Mike Berens in Chicago; and Dave Graham, Stephen Eisenhammer, Diego Oré and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by Marla Dickerson)