He sought to cut an image as a fearless anti-crime crusader in his home state of Nayarit, in western Mexico.
Edgar Veytia — the state’s attorney general, a lawyer and a survivor of a 2011 assassination attempt linked to traffickers — once declared: “Nayarit is not fertile ground for law-breaking. Here, there is no room for organized crime.”
His purported crime-fighting acumen even led to a corrido, or popular ballad, championing Veytia as the “terror” of criminals and the “lawyer with a pistol on his belt.”
But media reports had hinted of a darker side, linking Veytia to the powerful Jalisco New Generation Cartel, a bitter rival of the Sinaloa Cartel of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Relatives of “disappeared” victims of the cartel wars complained publicly that the attorney general’s office in Nayarit did little to find their missing loved ones.
Now U.S. authorities say that Veytia’s law-and-order image was a public relations façade concealing his involvement in the nation’s massive illegal drug trade — an allegation that amplified the common belief in Mexico that being a politician is a license to amass clandestine riches.
Veytia, 46, was arrested at the U.S.-Mexico border Monday in San Diego on a federal indictment from New York alleging that he has conspired to smuggle heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine to the United States since 2013 — the year he became the top law enforcement official in Nayarit state.
Veytia’s arrest is the just latest sign that official corruption continues to debilitate Mexico’s government.
Three other former governors — two from the border state of Tamaulipas and one from the Gulf state of Veracruz — are also fugitives on various charges. The ex-governor of Veracruz, Javier Duarte, who is not related to the fugitive Chihuahua ex-governor, reportedly began his escape last year on a state helicopter.
In November, the former governor of Sonora state, which borders Arizona, turned himself to face allegations of illegal enrichment, which he denied.
Veytia was arrested while attempting to enter the United States through the official Otay Mesa border crossing to visit relatives, said his attorney in San Diego, Guadalupe Valencia. U.S. agents executed a sealed warrant for his arrest, authorities said.
The Mexican official remained in a federal lockup in San Diego awaiting transfer to U.S. custody in Brooklyn, the same Eastern District of New York jurisdiction where authorities are prosecuting Guzman. The two cases have been assigned to different judges and are not related, a court spokesman said.
The indictment provided few details but said that U.S. authorities may seek to seize up to $250 million in property allegedly linked to Veytia’s criminal activity. The defendant has yet to enter a plea.
The former state prosecutor was a close associate of Nayarit Gov. Roberto Sandoval Castañeda, a member of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party of President Enrique Pena Nieto. The arrest was another embarrassment for a ruling party establishment that has seen a steady stream of former officials face corruption charges.
That the case emanated from the United States only deepened the widespread impression in Mexico that authorities there have turned a blind eye to official graft.
“To be a politician in this country, be it governor or another post, gives a license of impunity, of never being punished,” said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst in Mexico City. “The cases of the governors who are in jail or are accused are exceptional.”
“We are trying to figure out what is behind this, because until now it is all just speculation,” he said. “There is nothing formal at this moment that would say he is guilty.”
Despite the presence of various drug mafias, Nayarit has generally been spared the mayhem of other Mexican states enmeshed in trafficking. But there have been some notable violent incidents.
In February, a Mexican military helicopter rained down machine gun fire on a suspected traffickers’ hideout in a densely populated neighborhood in the state capital, Tepic. The attack, which happened at night, was captured in a cellphone video that soon went viral on the Internet. Eight suspects were killed, according to the Mexican military, which had to fend off harsh criticism that its risky tactics endangered civilians.
But states across Mexico have been caught up in the country’s escalating wave of drug violence and corruption.
Inquiries involving various former officials are under way, sapping public confidence in the Mexican state. Exasperation with official corruption is evident across a wide spectrum of Mexican society.
“To transform this federation of kleptocrats into a functional democracy is the most important challenge of our times,” wrote columnist Juan E. Pardinas in Mexico’s Reforma newspaper. “The solution is not to give civics classes or an ingenious communications program. What is needed is that the institutions of the Mexican State work together to fight impunity.”
The drumbeat of graft cases has undermined the administration of President Pena Nieto, who returned the long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party to the presidency in 2012 on a good-government, anti-corruption platform. The president endures near-record low approval ratings and his party faces the very real prospect of losing the presidency next year.
Veytia, like the fugitive governors and many other officials enmeshed in corruption, was a ruling party stalwart.
In the press, commentators suggested that high-level Mexican officials must have been aware of the allegations against Veytia, because rumors of his involvement with traffickers had swirled for years.
In his official position, Veytia had access to high ranking Mexican officials and sensitive information. There was some speculation that his presence may have helped foster a “narco-peace” in his home state.
Writing in El Financiero newspaper, columnist Salvador Camarena likened the arrest to the notorious case of the late Army Gen. Jose de Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo — a Mexican anti-drug “czar” fired in 1997 and imprisoned for working for the then-dominant Juarez cartel, which he had been tasked to fight. The case remains a symbol of how corruption has permeated government institutions, including the military.
“Veytia spent time with the majority of the actors who should provide security to the country,” wrote Camarena in El Financiero. “If the United States proves that he is a criminal, if it is proved that he was the fox in the henhouse, how ridiculous that would be.”
Cecilia Sanchez of the Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this article.