Cocaine, cartels and corruption

The former governor of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo was recently extradited from Mexico to the U.S. on charges that he accepted millions of dollars from the notorious Juarez Cartel in exchange for assisting in the importation of over 200 tons of cocaine onto American streets. Mario Ernesto Villanueva Madrid was also indicted on a second charge, — that of laundering almost $19 million in drug proceeds through accounts at Lehman Brothers in New York.

According to information from the FBI, the Juarez Cartel established operations in 1994 in Quintana Roo, which is where the re-sort city of Cancun is located. Speedboats with armed crews would rendezvous off the Atlantic coast of Central America with Co-lombian speedboats laden with shipments of cocaine weighing one to three tons. The coke would be loaded onto the cartel boats, then transported to Quintana Roo port cities, including Cancun and Calderitas.

Villanueva Madrid, who had served as the mayor of Cancun, was the sitting governor of the state in 1994. To ensure the cocaine shipments would travel safely through the state without interference from law enforcement, the cartel leaders allegedly reached an agreement with Villanueva Madrid.

He was paid between $400,000 and $500,000 for each shipment transported through his state. In return, he put the police and state government infrastructure of Quintana Roo at the disposal of the cartel. The officer provided armed escort for the boat crews and as the cocaine was being moved inside tanker trucks. Government airplane hangers were used to store and offload cocaine shipments.

In 1998, Mexican authorities began investigating Villanueva Madrid. When his term as governor ended in 1999, so did his immunity from prosecution under the Mexican constitution.

He fled and became a fugitive for about two years. In May 2001, he was located by Mexican authorities and arrested. He had grown a long beard and shoulder-length hair and had been hiding in remote areas in the Yucatan peninsula, assisted by a network of criminal associates and former aides. He was convicted in a Mexican court on organized crime and corruption offenses. Villanueva Madrid was serving his Mexican sentence when he was extradited.
The registered representative for Lehman Brothers, Consuelo Marquez, was previously convicted in connection with this matter. All of Villanueva Madrid’s illicit funds – over $19 million – were seized from Lehman and other accounts and later forfeited by the U.S. authorities.

In U.S. District Court in Manhattan yesterday, Villanueva pleaded not guilty to all charges. His lawyer, David Segal, told Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald that his client suffered from numerous health problems, and the court granted a request that Villanueva, who remains held without bail, be treated with oxygen for up to 12 hours a day, The Associated Press reported.

Known in Mexico as "El Chueco," or "The Crooked One," Villanueva is the highest-ranking Mexican official to be extradited to the U.S. on drug charges.