HOUSTON (AP) - A former governor of a Mexican border state who prosecutors have said was connected to drug cartels pleaded guilty in a Texas court Thursday to taking more than $3.5 million in bribes for government contracts then laundering that money in the U.S.
Tomas Yarrington Ruvalcaba, 64, was governor of Tamaulipas - which borders Texas and is one of Mexico’s most violent states - from 1999 to 2005
In 2013, Yarrington was indicted in the U.S. on eight counts, including racketeering, drug smuggling and conspiracy to commit money laundering. He was a fugitive until his arrest in Italy in 2017, and was later extradited to the U.S.
He initially pleaded not guilty, but on Thursday Yarrington pleaded guilty to the money laundering count in a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, who dropped the other seven charges.
During the hearing, Yarrington, who was dressed in a green jumpsuit, spoke only to answer procedural questions from U.S. District Judge Hilda Tagle.
Yarrington had been accused of taking bribes from the Gulf Cartel and letting it smuggle large amounts of cocaine into the U.S. The indictment also alleged that from 2007 to 2009, Yarrington became involved in drug trafficking.
But the plea agreement focused on bribes that Yarrington accepted from individuals and private companies in Mexico to do business with Tamaulipas while he was governor.
Federal prosecutor Karen Betancourt said the money from those bribes was laundered in the U.S. through the purchase of real estate and other personal property, including vehicles.
Yarrington has agreed to forfeit any interest he has in a condominium in the South Texas city of Port Isabel, Betancourt said. Other property forfeitures that prosecutors had been pursuing were dismissed with the plea agreement, Chris Flood, one of Yarrington’s attorneys, said.
Prosecutors also alleged that Yarrington collected bribes from commercial operations in Mexico and acquired stolen public funds that were later used to buy a private jet.
Flood said after the hearing that his client denies ever being involved with drug cartels and that the details of the plea agreement “clearly showed that now almost 20 years later, the government realizes that he had no involvement with the cartels.”
Angela Dodge, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Houston, declined to comment on whether prosecutors still believe Yarrington worked with the cartels or why no drug-related charges were included in the plea agreement.
No sentencing date has been set. Yarrington faces from nine to more than 11 years in prison. Prosecutors agreed to recommend a term on the lower end of the sentencing guidelines.
Organized crime groups have long had deep roots in Tamaulipas, and Yarrington is one of a string of governors from Mexico’s former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party who have been charged in corruption cases in recent years.
U.S. officials also have tried to extradite the governor who succeeded Yarrington in 2005, Eugenio Hernández, to face money laundering charges.
Tamaulipas’ current governor, Francisco Garcia Cabeza de Vaca, from the opposition National Action Party, is being investigated on charges of organized crime, money laundering and tax evasion.
Another man who was indicted with Yarrington - Fernando Cano Martinez, who remains a fugitive - is accused of paying bribes to Yarrington in exchange for public works contracts for his construction firm.
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