State police went up against their federal counterparts Friday in Chihuahua in an ongoing legal battle over where three associates of former governor César Duarte should face corruption charges.
The battle between Chihuahua and federal authorities intensified when state police officers intervened to prevent Federal Police from transferring the men to a Mexico City prison.
Alejandro Gutiérrez, a former secretary general of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and ex-high-ranking officials Antonio Tarín and Gerardo Villegas are accused of embezzling 250 million pesos (US $12.8 million) during the administration of Duarte, currently a fugitive from justice in the United States.
The Chihuahua government claims that the embezzled funds were used to finance the political campaigns of PRI candidates at state elections in June 2016 and that the three men must be tried in the state where they allegedly committed their crimes.
Duarte’s successor, National Action Party (PAN) Governor Javier Corral, has charged that the purpose of attempting to relocate the allegedly corrupt officials to the capital is to protect them from prosecution and avoid the possible implication of other PRI officials, including the president, in the crimes of which they are accused.
A Chihuahua judge granted a provisional suspension to the state government on May 3 which halted the transfer but two days later a federal court overturned that decision and ordered their immediate relocation.
However, a Chihuahua judge ruled again on Friday that the three men must face justice within the state. But once again the decision was overruled by federal Judge Gerardo Moreno García, who concluded Friday night that they must be transferred to the Reclusorio Norte prison in Mexico City.
At the conclusion of the hearing — attended by the three detainees and conducted via video conference at a federal court located in the Chihuahua capital — Federal Police retained custody of Gutiérrez, Tarín and Villegas with the intention of transporting them to the airport to board a flight to Mexico City.
However, just minutes after the decision was handed down, approximately 200 state police officers — supported by municipal police — arrived at the court building and surrounded it to prevent the men’s departure.
After almost an hour of tension, the state police overpowered their federal counterparts and retook custody of the alleged criminals, after which they returned them to the Aquiles Serdán state prison where they had previously been held.
Jorge Espinoza, legal counsel for the state government, argued that the ruling to transfer the men to Mexico City was arbitrary and therefore state authorities wouldn’t comply with it.
“We’re not going to allow them to take them because we have a court order [stating] that they must remain in the state prison . . . the federal judge, in an arbitrary, improper and illegal way, didn’t respect his counterpart, the state judge,” he said.
The day after the unusual incident, Governor Javier Corral charged on Twitter that the federal judge’s ruling was the result of a federal government directive and was clearly politically motivated.
“The desperation of Enrique Peña Nieto to have Alejandro Gutiérrez under his control . . . is reaching unknown levels of abuse of the law. In that protection, the president is seeking his own protection. And he’s prepared to do anything!” he wrote.
In a video posted to social media yesterday, Corral reiterated his claim, accusing the federal judge of colluding with the federal government and the accused’s lawyers as well as acting with the intent of “shelving the case” to protect both those who allegedly committed the crimes and any other complicit parties.
“They want to achieve [the transfer] before the elections because Gutiérrez is a key figure in various acts of political corruption in the Peña Nieto administration, and if justice reaches its final consequences, it could incriminate the president himself and some of his secretaries,” he said.
Corral also said that he personally instructed the state Attorney General’s office to carry out the operation to prevent the accused trio from leaving the state.
The Chihuahua governor engaged in a bitter fight with the Peña Nieto-led administration earlier this year after he accused federal authorities of withholding funds promised to the state in retaliation for its investigation into the corruption allegedly committed by the PRI officials.
Corral has also accused the federal government of dragging its feet on efforts to extradite Duarte to Mexico.
Both issues were central to a week-long protest march, which reached Mexico City from Chihuahua in early February.
After the federal and Chihuahua governments reached an agreement at the conclusion of the march, federal Attorney General Alfonso Navarrete Prida said the transfer of Gutiérrez was a fundamental condition in order to be able to start dialogue with Corral.
The Chihuahua governor, however, denied that any such negotiation had taken place.