A presidential donation row in the US has exposed the shady past of a Mexican fugitive who fled US drug charges in 1994, but who has since built a gaming empire south of the border.
US President Barack Obama’s re-election committee announced on Tuesday it would return the donations, revealed by the New York Times, of about US$200,000 by two brothers of Juan Jose Rojas Cardona, or “Pepe.”
Across the border in Monterrey, northern Mexico, Rojas Cardona is nicknamed the “Casino Czar” for his network of gambling houses and he walks free, despite various allegations against him.
“At the moment the authorities don’t have proceedings open against this person [Cardona],” said Jorge Domene, security spokesman for Nuevo Leon State, where Monterrey lies.
The 45-year-old keeps a low profile and rarely appears in public or in his casinos, which stretch across the country, but his name shot into the spotlight last year after an arson attack on a Monterrey casino — blamed on the Zetas drug gang — which left 52 dead, provoking a wave of probes and closures of Mexican casinos.
An investigation by the Nuevo Leon Congress showed that Rojas Cardona owned at least a dozen permits for gaming centers in the state and that they met with controversial federal regulations approved in 2003. Not all kinds of gambling are legal in Mexico, but authorities have loosened the rules in recent years.
Monterrey authorities also carried out inspections of casinos amid complaints of lax security regulations, such as a lack of adequate emergency exits, but the Casino Czar passed all the probes and even opened a new gaming center in an exclusive area of Monterrey.
In September, a US Department of State cable revealed by WikiLeaks — dated July 2009 — showed allegations from the US consul in Monterrey that Rojas Cardona had close ties to the Beltran Leyva drug gang.
The cable also alleged that he illegally made contributions of up to US$5 million to political campaigns of two local politicians from the ruling National Action Party, elected in 2006. The suspected beneficiaries, former mayor Adalberto Madero and former lawmaker Zeferino Salgado, have denied the accusations.
The investigative magazine Proceso, meanwhile, alleged that Rojas Cardona made major donations to three main candidates in the 2006 presidential campaign, including Mexican President Felipe Calderon, citing an anonymous former employee of the casino owner.
Authorities are not investigating the allegations.
Rojas Cardona jumped bail in Iowa in 1994 and fled to Mexico.
He had been sentenced to five years in prison for fraud and he later also pleaded guilty to drug trafficking, the Times reported.
His brothers, who live in Chicago, Obama’s home base, had previously made an unsuccessful attempt to arrange for a pardon from the governor of Iowa.