Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Mexico Casino Kingpin Linked to Obama Campaign Donations

The relatives of a Mexican casino kingpin, who is accused of a range of crimes from drug trafficking, murder, to running a luxury car theft ring, donated more than $200,000 to President Obama’s political campaign, reports the New York Times.

Juan Jose Rojas Cardona is one of the largest casino operators in Monterrey, Mexico. He is wanted on fraud charges inside the US; he also pleaded guilty to smuggling marijuana in 1994, but fled to Mexico before serving his prison sentence. According to the Times, his two brothers, Alberto and Carlos, both based in Chicago, donated $30,800 each to the Democratic National Committee; another two relatives donated an additional $25,600. The brothers also reportedly raised at least another $100,000 from other donors outside the family.

An Obama campaign official told the Times that all the contributions will be returned. There are no records of any donations from the brother with a criminal record, Juan Jose Rojas, known as “Pepe.”

Evidence indicates that Pepe has a far more troubled history of shady political donations and links to organized crime inside of Mexico. Proceso magazine labeled Juan Jose the “czar of gambling” in a cover story by veteran crime reporter Ricardo Ravelo last year. Pepe’s involvement in the gambling industry is inherently suspicious, as it is widely believed to have been permeated by organized crime, as casinos are a useful outlet for laundering dirty cash. A US State Department cable, released in 2009, stated that Cardona and his brother Arturo have “close ties to the Beltran-Leyva Cartel.” The brothers’ support from National Action Party (PAN) politicians created a “self-protective triangle” which allowed them to run their casinos in Monterrey, traditionally Gulf Cartel territory, the cable adds.

In order to obtain licenses to operate casinos, or to otherwise convince authorities to look the other way, casino magnates like Juan Jose Rojas frequently bribe local politicians, promising them a monthly percentage of the revenue from the casinos. As the Proceso report details, despite the fact that “Pepe” Cardona was wanted by the FBI in the US, this did not prevent the PAN’s Secretary of Government from granting him some 30 licenses to operate gambling houses. In 2005, the DEA and the FBI filed an expedient for Cardona’s arrest, but Mexican authorities took no action.

Juan Jose Cardona may have been able to operate with impunity inside Mexico for so long, thanks to his fundraising for Mexican politicians. According to a 2009 US State Department cable, Pepe and another brother, Arturo, each donated $2.5 million to Adalberto Madero, Monterrey’s PAN party mayor until 2009. Madero was arrested in 2011 for accepting bribes from Casino Royale, where 52 people died in an arson attack last year. Juan Jose and Arturo Cardona also donated money to the political campaign of PAN politician Zeferino Salgado, who also accepted free campaign advertising and a helicopter as a gift from the two brothers, according to the cable.

The Cardonas’ political allies reportedly extended outside of the PAN party. The Proceso report details the Cardona brothers’ support from Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) politicians, in particular state representative Felipe Enriquez Hernandez, a current candidate for mayor of Monterrey.

Given this long history of shady dealings inside of Mexico -- “Pepe” Cardona was also accused of killing off a rival casino and strip club operator, in order to create a monopoly over Monterrey’s gambling industry -- the Obama campaign made a wise move when they chose to return the donations. Even though there is no indication that any of the contributions were dirty cash, according to the Times report, the associations with Pepe cast too dark of a shadow over what may have been well-intentioned political donations from his US-based family members. But while there is no evidence that Pepe Cardona had a direct influence over campaign politics in the US, Mexico is quite a different story.

News Briefs
  • Caracas Chronicles visits a small town in Venezuela, population 3,500, to report on what kind of support Venezuela opposition parties are cultivating far outside of the capital.
  • The Brookings Institute with some insightful analysis on what the recent kidnapping of Mexico’s Ambassador to Venezuela says about crime rates inside the country. The overall rise of kidnappings and homicides in Venezuela casts doubt on the assumption that falling income inequality, such as experienced by Venezuela over the past decade, leads to reduced crime.
  • In Paraguay, President Fernando Lugo threatened to deploy the security forces in the Alto Parana province, where farmers have occupied land used by Brazilian soy agribusinesses.
  • DEA agents in Puerto Rico filed a discrimination suit against the agency, claiming they were paid less and received riskier assignments than the agents hired in the US.
  • The Nuevo Herald reports on the new restrictions that dictate how journalists should cover elections in Ecuador, a law which became effective Monday.
  • Surinam and the Caribbean island Santa Lucia are applying to become members of the ALBA economic group, an organization associated with the region’s social democratic governments, especially Venezuela. From Mercopress.
  • The LA Times with a feature story on Mexico’s bicentennial tower, widely criticized for its cost of construction ($79 million) and its so-called “horrible” design, according to one Mexican art critic.