Cancun mayor Gregorio Sanchez's arrest: A case of biased law enforcement?

This week's arrest of Cancun mayor Gregorio Sanchez, who was running for governor, is prompting accusations that Mexico's President Felipe Calderon is targeting opposition party officials in his war against corruption and drug cartels. What does the record show?

By , Correspondent

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    A supporter of Gregory Sanchez, the mayor of Cancun, holds up a picture of him during a protest in Cancun demanding his release Wednesday. Sanchez has been arrested and charged with money laundering and drug-related crimes.
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The arrest of a gubernatorial candidate in Cancun for alleged links to drug cartels is raising questions about political bias in the Mexican government's effort to weed out corruption.

Federal prosecutors detained Cancun Mayor Gregorio Sanchez late Tuesday on charges he offered information and protection to both the ruthless Zetas and Beltran Leyva drug syndicates in Mexico.

The arrest – in the midst of Sanchez’s campaign bid for governor of the state of Quintana Roo – shocked the nation and sparked accusations of electoral sabotage from his Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).

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On Thursday, President Felipe Calderon denied the arrest was a political ploy, saying it is backed by both evidence and testimony. Mr. Calderon acknowledged, however, that the move could cause a confrontation between political parties. “I seriously lament that,” he said.

Mexicans losing faith in rule of law

This is not the first time in recent history that law enforcement from a ruling party has targeted candidates of the opposition. In fact, it happens so frequently and crosses party lines that many Mexicans have lost faith in criminal cases brought against elected officials, say analysts. And few of the charges end in convictions, confirming a sense that an already weak judicial system cannot successfully battle strong political interests, even when egregious crimes have been committed.

“The best thing the government can do right now is to start addressing corruption not just in opposition parties, but within its own parties,” says Edgardo Buscaglia, a law and economics professor at Mexico’s Autonomous Technological Institute in Mexico City who has advised federal and local law enforcement in Mexico.

“This has to be perceived by society as a balanced campaign against corruption. And for now it’s not perceived as balanced,” he says. Calderon has cracked down on corrupt security officials in his own administration with Operation Clean-House in 2008 and most recently arrested the captain of the Pacific coast port of Manzanillo on drug ties Thursday. But he has not targeted his own party’s elected officials.

A catch-and-release program?

Sanchez’s arrest has been compared to Calderon’s sweep of 10 mayors in PRD-held Michoacan during election season last year on alleged links to drug traffickers. Almost all of the mayors, who included two members of Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN), were later released from prison.

Since 2004, local and federal prosecutors from different parties have brought and subsequently dropped criminal charges against political opponents. The accused include former presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, former Oaxaca gubernatorial candidate Gabino Cue and former Jalisco gubernatorial candidate Arturo Zamora.

Michoacan Gov. Leonel Godoy’s brother, Julio Cesar, who successfully ran for federal lawmaker under the opposition PRD, stands accused of ties to the drug gang La Familia and is currently a fugitive from justice.

Ahead of elections in 14 states on July 4, candidates in at least five races have been singled out by newspapers or opponents for possible links to drug traffickers, said Aldo Muñoz, a political scientist at Mexico State’s Autonomous University. In Sinaloa, a known drug capital, gubernatorial candidate Jesus Vizcarra has come under scrutiny for an old photo in which he appears with alleged drug lord Ismael Zambada.

“In the past, parties accused one another of embezzling funds, now they accuse each other of trafficking,” Mr. Muñoz says.

Signs of drug gang infiltration and escalating violence are part of the 2010 political campaigns. A mayoral candidate in Tamaulipas was shot dead earlier this month and candidates are afraid to run for office in parts of the northern state.

The case against Sanchez

Sanchez, who is also accused of money laundering, allegedly made withdrawals of $2 million, well beyond the income he had declared to the government, says Ricardo Najera, spokesman for the federal Attorney General’s Office. An anonymous tip in January set the investigation into motion and other witnesses have since come forward, Najera said. A judge will decide by Saturday whether Sanchez should stand trial, the Associated Press reported Thursday.

The Cancun mayor, who had stepped down temporarily to run for governor, appears in a video circulated on YouTube, apparently taken before his arrest, in which he pledges his innocence. Sanchez was behind in the polls and Calderon’s party never had a chance of winning Quintana Roo, which proves the arrest was not orchestrated for political gain, says Jeffrey Weldon, a political analyst at Mexico’s Autonomous Technological Institute.

“The PAN is working with the PRD [in coalitions] in many other states. This [arrest] is not a good thing for the coalition,” Weldon says.

But even those Mexican voters, who believe Sanchez may be guilty, criticize the federal government for arresting him during his campaign. “If they were seeking justice, they should have done it beforehand,” says Brenda Saavedra, a systems engineer from Mexico City.

[Editor's note: The original article misspelled Mr. Sanchez's first name.]

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