Mexico has extradited a former state governor to the US to face charges of helping a cartel smuggling cocaine through the resort of Cancun en route to the US market.
Mario Villanueva, who was governor of the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo from 1993 to 1999, was turned over to US authorities on Saturday at the international airport in Toluca, a city near the Mexican capital, the federal Attorney General’s Office said in a statement.
Villanueva is the first former governor to be extradited to the US on drug charges.
He is charged in New York federal court with aiding the Juarez cartel smuggle hundreds of tonnes of Colombian cocaine to the US via Cancun. US prosecutors have said Villanueva received US$500,000 for each of several shipments he aided.
Villanueva is the 326th criminal suspect Mexico has extradited to the US under the government of Mexican President Felipe Calderon, which has stepped up the extradition process as the two countries intensify cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking.
Villanueva allegedly helped the Juarez cartel when it was headed by Amado Carillo Fuentes, one of Mexico’s top drug kingpins until he died in 1997 while undergoing plastic surgery.
Villanueva “gave orders to allow shipments of cocaine to be unloaded and stored in ranches in Quintana Roo, to be later sent to the neighboring country by land or air,” the Attorney General’s office said.
He had been fighting extradition to the US for years.
He disappeared two weeks before his term ended in 1999 after learning that Mexican authorities were seeking his arrest on drug trafficking charges. He spent two years in hiding before he was arrested in Cancun in 2001.
Villanueva, who belonged to the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000, was convicted of money laundering charges and sentenced to six years in prison. He was released in 2007 but was immediately re-arrested on the US extradition request.
In 2008, a Mexican court sentenced him to 36 years for fomenting drug trafficking, overturning the earlier ruling that had convicted him of money laundering but cleared him of drug smuggling and organized crime charges.
In the past, few top drug suspects were extradited to the US because they argued they should face justice first in Mexico but Calderon has shown greater willingness to extradite suspects since taking office in 2006.
Villanueva’s extradition “shows the close collaboration between Mexico and the government of the US in the fight against crime, ensuring that our national territory does not become a refuge for fugitives of justice,” the Attorney General’s office said.