Latin America

How the Mexican Embassy in Spain pulled out all stops to free ex-official

Spanish High Court has dropped case against former PRI party chief Humberto Moreira

The Mexican government used all its diplomatic and legal resources in Spain to help win the release of a former Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) leader who was arrested on January 15 in Madrid for alleged money laundering and having ties to the Zetas drug cartel, EL PAÍS has learned.

Humberto Moreira, a former governor of Coahuila state, was arrested by authorities at Adolfo Suárez Madrid-Barajas Airport as he tried to make a connecting flight to Barcelona.

As soon as it learned of the arrest, the PRI-run government of President Enrique Peña Nieto began investigating the case down to the tiniest detail. At the same time, the Mexican Embassy helped Moreira’s family and tried to get him released from Madrid’s Soto de Real prison where he was held for nearly three weeks after he was ruled to be a flight risk.

The embassy has not responded to EL PAÍS’s requests for an interview.

As soon as it learned of the arrest, the PRI-run government of President Enrique Peña Nieto began investigating the facts of the case

The day before Moreira was due to appear at the National High Court for the hearing at which he won his release, Mexican Attorney General (PRG) Arely Gómez González spoke with her Spanish counterpart Consuelo Madrigal to find out more about the case and what arguments the Spanish prosecutors were planning on presenting.

“She told her that the case was under seal by order of the court; that we could not give her any details; and that the prosecutors’ position was for him to remain in jail because the crimes he committed were very serious,” explained a spokesman for the Spanish Attorney General’s Office.

At the time of his arrest, Moreira was traveling with his wife and two daughters to Barcelona, where he had been living since 2013, two years after he stepped down as governor of Coahuila state when the amount of public debt he had accumulated during his tenure was revealed.

He was studying for a master’s degree and living in a €3,000-a-month luxury home. Moreira had left politics and moved to Spain a year after drug hit men killed his son.

US federal prosecutors in San Antonio, Texas – the US state that borders Coahuila – had reportedly issued an international arrest warrant against him for stealing public funds and money laundering while he served as governor from 2005 to 2011.

The same day he was arrested, the Mexican Embassy swung into action: hiring a prestigious lawyer in Spain to represent him and providing accommodation for Moreira’s wife and two daughters at the Vincci Soho Hotel, situated about 100 meters from the embassy.

At the time of his arrest, Moreira was traveling with his wife and two daughters to Barcelona, where he has lived since 2013

The hotel has a special relationship with the embassy. Mexican diplomats visiting Spain are usually put up there and its parking areas are used by embassy officials.

When Moreira was brought for his initial appearance before High Court Judge Enrique de la Mata, who was on duty at the time, PGR officials began calling the National Police’s Economic and Tax Crimes Unit (UDEF) to find out why Moreira was being held.

“They were very interested but nobody gave them one bit of information,” said a police source.

Mexican authorities thought that the tight relationship they had enjoyed with Spanish investigators in the past, especially in cases involving members of Basque terrorist organization ETA who sought refuge in Mexico, would help them. But they were wrong.

The unwillingness by judicial authorities to provide them with information on the case caused a diplomatic spat between the Mexican Embassy and the Spanish Foreign Ministry.

Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that Spain had not immediately informed the embassy that it had arrested Moreira as it normally would in the case of other Mexican citizens, sources said. Embassy officials found out about the arrest on Spanish news websites.

“Mexican authorities were very interested but nobody gave them one bit of information”

Police source

De la Mata ordered Moreira held after considering that he was a flight risk and had sufficient funds in other countries to seek refuge.

But the Mexican Embassy continued to push on to try to find a solution.

On January 18, the Mexican consul visited Moreira at Soto del Real. While visits by the consul to Mexican inmates are frequent, penitentiary officials said that they did not usually happen “so quickly.”

A few days later, an official embassy vehicle with diplomatic license plates went to pick up Moreira’s lawyer in Mexico, Ulricht Richter, from Madrid airport.

The attorney has failed to return repeated phone calls by EL PAÍS.

“The entire embassy was involved in the Moreira case in a way that has never occurred with other prisoners,” said a source close to the case.

Moreira had been instrumental to Peña Nieto’s election win in 2012 and was reportedly one of his biggest fundraisers.

Mexican Embassy staff sent a petition to the Foreign Ministry asking Judge Santiago Pedraz, who was now overseeing the case, to explain the specifics of the investigation, basing their position on Article 36 of the Vienna Convention.

“The entire embassy was involved in the Moreira case in a way that has never occurred with other prisoners”

A source close to the case

Pedraz’s answer was a strictly protocol response in which he revealed no details of the case, which was still under seal, according to judicial sources.

On January 22, Pedraz granted Moreira conditional freedom.

On February 3, Moreira left Spain with his wife and daughters, not even bothering to pick up the iPad and phone he had left behind at Soto del Real, according to a source. He has since proclaimed his innocence in Mexico.

On February 9, the case against him was provisionally dismissed. A week earlier, the judge had heard three hours of surveillance conversations recorded by a federal protected witness in San Antonio in which he allegedly linked the former governor with the Zetas. Pedraz concluded that it provided insufficient evidence.

But anti-corruption attorneys José Grinda and Juan José Rosa, who were both invited by US prosecutors to hear the same tapes, did not agree with the judge and have filed an appeal to reopen the case.

The investigation remains under seal but is still open in Spain against other persons, including some Mexicans, who may be involved in the conspiracy.

investigacion@elpais.es

English version by Martin Delfín.

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