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Coke smuggler's arrest unravels alleged corruption of ex-Sonora governor

Documents claim Mexican businessman funneled drug money into Padrés campaign

For six years, the debonair and charismatic Guillermo Padrés Elías was the face of the Mexican government in Sonora. Only 39 years old, Padrés became a fixture in Arizona and New Mexico following his historic election as the governor of the northern Mexican state. 

But even in a nation where corruption has grown all too familiar, a web of graft and criminal collusion that connected Padrés with drug cartels and racketeering was shocking in its extent, according to the account of an alleged co-conspirator and Mexican government documents. 

Padrés and his clique allegedly received millions in illegal campaign contributions from cocaine smugglers, misappropriated millions in government funds, paid off supporters with government contracts and embezzled to buy racehorses in the United States and Europe.

Nearly two dozen people connected with the former politician face investigations for felonies in Mexico, including Padrés' brother and the ex-governor himself.

From 2009 to 2015, Padrés — a member of the conservative National Action Party, PAN — touted trade, emphasizing that warm, personal ties with the United State would lead the region to new prosperity. As a proud graduate of New Mexico Military Institute, in Roswell, Padrés swapped glowing compliments with counterpart Gov. Jan Brewer and her successor, Gov. Doug Ducey. He also created the Sonora-New Mexico Commission and enjoyed frequent contact with that state's Republican governor, Susan Martinez.

But that facade crumbled almost immediately when his term ended Sept. 12, 2015. The political fairy tale collapsed with rumblings of wrong-doing that soon became criminal allegations and then arrest warrants.

Padrés became a fugitive after he ignored court summons, and in October 2015 international police agency Interpol announced that it had issued a "red card" in 190 countries to locate and detain the former governor for extradition back to Mexico.

More than a year later, on Nov. 10, 2016, the hunt for Padrés ended. The ex-governor, in the company of a son, a legion of assistants and renowned criminal lawyer, Antonio Lozano Gracia, surrendered at Reclusorio Oriente, the Mexico City prison where he remains today, and may be for decades.

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Highlights of the case have been reported in Mexico, including by the newspaper Excélsior, and some in the United States, but the details of what led to Padrés' downfall remained largely hidden until now.

Gunshot reports lead to Hermosillo standoff, arrest

Things began to unravel two years ago, with phone calls to police from a posh development in Hermosillo. 

On June 29, 2015, at the Los Lagos Country Club in the northern Mexican city, multiple people reported that a man was firing weapons into the air, disturbing the peace. 

Although it was hardly a priority call, the Policía Estatal Investigadora, or state police, investigated and were told that a middle-aged man had repeatedly discharged a gun and retreated into his home. The shooting and the disturbance in a wealthy and serene residential area was media fodder for weeks in a nation where the well-heeled escape the hassles of the masses in walled estates and country clubs.

The man shooting into the air was Gualberto Gastélum López, 43. 

Gastélum had barricaded himself inside the bathroom of a luxury home at Privada Los Lagos Cerrada Golondrinas 504.

Initially, he told officers that there had been a mistake of identity, and volunteered that he was a friend of then-Gov. Padrés. Then, he offered police a large sum to let the episode pass and free him, an official chronology referred to as a "tarjeta infomativa," or police summary, said.

The summary and other documents were provided to TucsonSentinel.com by state and federal authorities involved in the interrogations of Gastelum and the investigation against Padrés.

After 11 hours, and assurances from the police that he would not be harmed, Gastélum surrendered, the documents said.

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Inside, police found a small arsenal, including two AR-15-style rifles and an AK-47-patterned rifle, along with three pistols, and more than a dozen magazines.

Because firearms violations are a federal matter in Mexico, Gastélum was interviewed by agents of Procuraduría General de la República, or PGR, the federal attorney general. As the interviews continued, investigators realized they had come upon a trove of information. 

The documents provided to TucsonSentinel.com offer a glimpse into the case and describe how Padrés' political campaign allegedly received millions of dollars from a cocaine smuggler, who passed funds through a businessman in Cananea, avoiding Sonora's strict campaign finance laws. 

In exchange for his help, the businessman was repaid with government contracts with the state of Sonora worth up to $35 million, according to the report by investigators. Largely anonymous during Padrés' administration, the two men were key players, and have now become the focus of investigators in Mexico, and likely the United States. 

Gastélum told Mexican investigators that he funneled cash to the governor's campaign in 2008 and 2009, through Alfonso González Morillas, 55, the owner of a construction firm.

Brought together by an interest in horses — also a passion of Padrés' — the two men later helped the governor acquire racehorses worth millions from Arizona, New Mexico, California and Europe, the records show. Mexico's federal attorney general has separate investigations into those acquisitions, which include documents showing that New Mexico and California middlemen created artificially low appraisals in order to minimize taxes.

Padrés love for the animals guided the purchases and construction of racing tracks and a veterinary facility for the horses, and may have been funded through funds garnered through embezzlement and racketeering, the documents show.

An enterprising reporter from Proceso, a Mexico City publication, once sent a drone over a Padrés property in San Pedro el Saucito, near Hermosillo, and pictures revealed a multi-million dollar facility with custom-built stables, maternity wards, surgical facilities and a pool.

In a document compiled by investigators from statements made by Gastélum while he was interrogated, the former cocaine smuggler outlined how he profited from the state government, garnering large tracts of property even as he lent the government money for public works projects. For a weekly payment, Gastélum was given what he described as the freedom to operate as a cocaine smuggler. 

Gastélum said that he paid $20,000 every week to Javier Dagnino Escoboza, who lead Sonora's public-safety communications system, known as C4 or Centro de Cómputo, Control y Comando. 

This allowed Gastélum to smuggle around 176 to 220 pounds of cocaine into the United States, he said. It is unclear from the police report how much he had smuggled in total.

When contacted by TucsonSentinel.com, Dagnino Escoboza denied any involvement in writing and said he did not know Gastelum.

Gastélum also told police that worked with Iván Archivaldo Guzmán, son of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the drug kingpin who was recently extradited to the United States after his arrest, and currently awaits trial in New York. Guzman's son remains a fugitive in Mexico. Gastélum said that he traveled regularly to Panama and Colombia to do his own sourcing of cocaine.

During this period, Gastélum received tracts of property from Padrés and the state government in exchange for periodic loans, one involving a $2.7 million cash loan for work at Estadio Sonora, a major public works project of the Padrés administration. 

A search of Mexican property records confirmed more than a dozen such property transfers in the name of Gastélum and several family members.

Campaign cash

Finally, Gastélum said that he and González circumvented Sonora's strict campaign laws by providing cash to Padrés, when he was a candidate, to fund rallies and pay supporters throughout a state that is two-thirds the size of Arizona, with far-flung metropolitan areas and hundreds of rural communities. 

Campaign limits keep media and travel expenses to a minimum and, many complain, prevent true outreach. Padrés won the election on July 5, 2009, beating the candidate of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or PRI, by nearly 40,000 votes.

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The election of Padrés was a shock; while PRI had lost the occasional mayorship to PAN, and had lost presidential elections in 2000 and 2006, the party had never lost a governor's seat in modern history.

PRI's defeat was a major blow in a country where governors can be powerful so long as they toe the party line. Even when faced with opposition from their local state legislatures, governors are generally strong enough to dictate policy and spending with a minimum of oversight.

The 2009 win came just as PRI faced further losses in elections, as Mexicans continued voting out members of the once-dominant party, offering chances to candidates from both the left and right. 

In exchange for his help, González was repaid through rigged government bids, many through the state's infrastructure department, Secretaría de Infraestructura y Desarrollo Urbano, known as SIDUR, the documents said.

González and his firms, including Diseños y Construcciones del Cobre S.a. de C.V, were awarded approximately $35 million in contracts during the Padrés administration. Several of the jobs were not finished or never performed, according to federal investigators, including several major improvements in Hermosillo, the state capital.

When TucsonSentinel.com asked for an interview, González responded by having an intermediary send a copy of an advertisement published in Mexico in which he denied knowing Gastelum or that he had benefited from a relationship with the ex-governor.

TucsonSentinel.com also reached out to Gastélum by sending a certified letter to CEFERESO 4, the federal penitentiary in Tepic, Nayarit, where he awaits trial, but he did not respond. 

While investigations may continue, Mexican federal authorities will not disclose any follow-up probes stemming from Gastélum's information. 

But, there are indications that Miguel Padrés, the governor's brother, may have used front companies and bank accounts to embezzle money from Sonora into the United States. These charges have been the focus both of a Mexican federal investigation and a Sonora state investigation conducted by a new branch of the attorney general's office, reported La Jornada en Linea, a Mexican news site. 

That same office is also investigating accusations that dozens of horses purchased in Arizona and California were imported for Padrés, but were undervalued when they went through customs in Nogales, Sonora, reported El Financiero.

The Mexican attorney general's office, or PGR, said that Miguel Padrés remains a fugitive. `

Dozens investigated

Revelations from the Gastélum depositions may also be responsible for scrutiny of virtually every member of the Padrés cabinet. Several are under active investigation, indicted or have fled.

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Nearly two dozen officials from Sonora have been accused of, indicted or arrested for felony-level charges, including the governor and his brother.

Roberto Romero Lopez, lieutenant governor during the Padrés administration, was arrested May 22 in Tucson, along with his wife, by agents with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The couple are wanted by the Mexican government on influence-peddling charges.

ICE placed both in immigration detention, and it will now be up to a judge with the Department of Justice's Executive Office for Immigration Review to determine if they may be deported, said a ICE spokeswoman.

They are currently held in Eloy pending their immigration hearings, said the spokeswoman, however, neither ICE nor the EOIR would release details on the couple's cases. 

TucsonSentinel.com sent a request to Romero and his wife asking for permission to see details of their pending cases, but they declined to waive their privacy rights.

On June 20, Mexican officials raided a ranch owned by Romero near Hermosillo. An official with the Public Prosecutor's Office said that the action was part of an investigation into alleged acts of corruption.

Another Padrés administration official, Jorge Morales Borbón, was released on bail in December. The former press secretary still faces charges that he was involved in criminal extortion, and was fitted with a GPS tracker pending his trial, said the Attorney General of Justice in Sonora. 

A former editorial director at El Imparcial, a newspaper in Sonora, Morales Borbón is accused of receiving about $53,000 in exchange for paying an outstanding debt the government owed a communications company.

The scope of the probes into Padrés and his associates is a result of a shift in power in Sonora. Gov. Claudia Pavlovich of the PRI was elected in June 2015. She had campaigned in part on investigating the previous PAN administration in the state, although she was herself dogged by accusations of influence-peddling during her run for office.

'Tradition of entrenched corruption'

Padrés' triumph and descent is the story of Mexico at the conclusion of the 20th century and the onset of the 21st, said Nicolas Pineda, professor of political science at Colegio de Sonora, a graduate school in Hermosillo.

"Mexico had a tradition of systemic, entrenched corruption with a single party, PRI, and for the longest time, PAN was the loyal, noble, honest opposition," he said. "Then, a new generation moved into PAN, not because of ideology, but because they were seeking an entryway into government. In fact, many of this new group came from within PRI."

Padrés, who was in this mold, entered office, "looking a sweet Little Red Riding Hood, but the people he brought with him, a small group with no real ideology, had no sense of public service and were ready to transform him into a leader running the state as a fiefdom," Pineda said.

"In Mexico, we have courts and legislatures, but the truth is that our checks-and-balances are weak and not genuine checks on executive power." The Padrés group, Pineda said, "became deluded by power, a typical story here, believing no one would ever punish them."

The next step for the ex-governor is a trial later this year on two cases of fraud, racketeering and money-laundering. 

One originates with the 12th Circuit of Ciudad de México, the other with the Fourth District, in Mexico State. Authorities in the first case say Padrés misappropriated for himself state and federal funds totaling $11.5 million. 

The Fourth District case alleges he subverted procurement procedures and rigged bids totaling $15 million. Padrés has been denied bail and will be in jail during his trial, expected to start in four or five months.

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Guillermo Padrés Elías/Flickr

Padrés' official photograph as governor of Sonora.

Legal turmoil, arrests and convictions mar aftermath of Padrés term

Below is a partial list of high-level Sonora officials and others connected to the Padrés administration, 2009-15, who have been accused, indicted or arrested:

  • Guillermo Padrés Elías, governor, imprisoned in Reclusorio Oriente, Mexico City, awaiting trial on racketeering, money laundering
  • Miguel Padrés, brother of governor, fugitive, charged by Mexican attorney general office with fraud, embezzlement.
  • Roberto Romero López, lieutenant governor (Secretario de Gobierno), fugitive, illicit enrichment, abuse of public office, embezzlement, abuse of authority. Arrested on May 22 in Tucson.
  • Mónica Paola Robles Manzanedo, wife of Romero and former local deputy, fugitive, illicit enrichment, abuse of office, embezzlement. Arrested on May 22 in Tucson.
  • Luis Felipe Romero López, brother of lieutenant governor, influence peddling, abuse of authority, misuse of power and duties, embezzlement
  • Javier Dagnino Esoboza, head of the state's communications center (Centro de Computo, Control y Comando), or C4, is a state senator until 2018 and enjoys immunity from prosecution.
  • Carlos Villalobos Organista, director, Sonora Revenue Department, (Secretaría de Hacienda), currently in custody in Phoenix, abuse of authority, misuse of power and duties, embezzlement
  • Teresa de Jesus Lizárraga Figueroa, director of ISSTESON, the Sonora state health organization, immune because holds public office, accused of embezzlement, failure to act on legal obligation
  • Robert Francisco Avila Quiroga and Gerardo Encinas Urquídez, administrator, Office of Fiscal Auditing, and under-secretary of Office of Fiscal Auditing, respectively; conspiracy, abuse of public office, illicit enrichment, abuse of office, influence peddling, fiscal fraud involving the federation (federal government).
  • Mario Cuen Aranda, treasurer, (Secretaría de la Tesorería) embezzlement, fraud, obstruction of justice
  • Jorge Luis Ibarra Mendívil, secretary of education, (Secretaría de Educación y Cultura), abuse of authority, abuse of public service, misuse of power and duties, embezzlement.
  • David Tinajero Aguirre, director, IMPULSOR, the state promotion entity, illicit enrichment, false declarations, influence peddling, tax evasion, abuse of authority, failure to fulfill a public duty, failure to exercise fiduciary duties.
  • Héctor Herminio Ortiz Ciscomani, secretary of agriculture, water resources livestock and fisheries, (SAGARHPA) illicit enrichment,abuse of authority, embezzlement, abuse of public office, misuse of public funds, false declarations.
  • José Jesús Bernardo Campillo García, secretary, (Secretaria de Salud), fugitive, illicit enrichment, false declarations, others pending
  • Vicente Angel Sagrestano Alcaraz, coordinator, sports commission (Comisión del Deporte), embezzlement, abuse of office, bribery.
  • Victor Armando Alcaraz Bernal, director, transportation trust fund, (Fideicomiso del Transporte), fraud, abuse of authority, abuse or abandonment of government service, embezzlement.
  • Martín Alejandro López García, director general, Institute for Scientific and Technological Studies of State of Sonora, abuse of authority, abuse of functions, illicit enrichment, conspiracy, influence peddling, false declarations, fraud.
  • Francisco Arnoldo Mange Araiza, coordinator, State Board on Performance of Public Works, (Consejo Estatal de Concertación para la Obra Pública) abuse of authority and resources, embezzlement, more pending.
  • Eduardo Romero Campa, director, Sonoran adult education institute (Instituto Sonorense de Educación para Adultos de Sonora), abuse of authority, embezzlement, influence peddling, more pending.
  • Jorge Morales Borbón, secretary, press office (Secretario de Comunicación Social), imprisoned 10 months, released on bail pending trial for extortion against private parties and companies
  • Agustín Rodríguez, personal secretary of the governor, (Secretario Particular del Ejecutivo) currently a federal deputy with immunity, torture, abuse of authority, abuse of authority, failure to discharge duties of public official, assault, kidnapping.
  • Valentín Castillo Garzón, former director of the state's auditing bureau, (Auditoría Fiscal en el Estado), deported through Nogales, in early May, after being sought by Interpol on federal warrants.