Political rivals slammed each other on Tuesday over US$1.9 million in wads of cash found stuffed into a state official’s luggage at a central Mexico airport. The find inflamed already rampant speculation about whether organized crime or illegal campaign money will influence the July 1 presidential election.
Stacks of cash, many of them bank-fresh 1,000 peso (US$74) bills, were found when police searched passengers arriving on a private flight to Toluca, the capital of the home state of leading presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto.
The money came from Veracruz, a Gulf coast state governed by Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). The state official said he was making a hurried payment to a legitimate company for consulting services.
Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s National Action Party called that explanation “an insult to the intelligence of Mexicans,” whose tax laws, crime problem, strict campaign finance laws and economic problems make carrying such large amounts of cash very unusual.
“It is no coincidence that this amount of money was taken to Toluca ... and that is precisely where the campaign of the PRI’s favored son, Enrique Pena Nieto, operates,” National Action said in a statement.
The PRI thundered back that the search, which authorities say had been random, was politically motivated.
“The PRI rejects any attempt to carry out a political persecution or the partisan use of law enforcement against political rivals,” the PRI said in a statement. “This is the kind of thing being done with the ill-intentioned and unfounded accusations that Veracruz state money was being used to support PRI campaigns. That is absolutely false.”
Analysts said both sides could be right.
“We have not only become accustomed to corruption, but that even when it appears they [police] are fighting corruption, the only thing they are really doing is trying to strike political blows,” columnist and political analyst Jorge Zepeda Patterson said.
The federal government, which is controlled by National Action, has refused to return the cash until the PRI government of Veracruz clears up all the doubts about it.
Mexico has strict limits on the amounts of money that can be spent on political campaigns. The PRI’s presidential candidate will be limited to spending 495 million pesos for the entire campaign.
“I categorically deny that these seized funds have anything to do with the campaign,” Pena Nieto told reporters on Tuesday. “And these allegations don’t seem very reliable to me.”
Veracruz state Finance Secretary Tomas Ruiz said the cash was part of an approved state budget expense aimed at boosting tourism to festivals. He said it was being rushed in one lump sum to pay the firm before the state’s Feb. 2 Candelaria or Candlemas celebration, an annual weeklong festival famous throughout Mexico.
The company, Industria 3, appears on Mexican government purchasing Web sites as having received other governmental contracts for similar work.