In Mexico, the line between gangster and politician has always been razor thin. Generations of the nation’s political elite, including Hank Gonzalez, Mario Villanueva, Felipe Duarte, Raúl Salinas and many others – governors, legislators, mayors, ministers, even first ladies – have crossed the line in divergent ways.
This unholy alliance, explored in all its grotesque glory in the Mexican film “La Ley de Herodes” by Luis Estrada (1999), has a long and dishonorable tradition.
Gangsters as politicians (and visa versa)
Nobody typifies this more colorfully (if that’s the word) then Hilario Ramirez, a swaggering macho politician–gangster northerner (norteño) who dances wildly on stage with young scantily-clad girls, brags openly about stealing from the till and models himself on a caricature of Robin Hood.
His full name is Hilario Ramirez Villanueva, but everyone refers to him as “Layín,” the “friendly mayor”. The 44-year-old politician and businessman served two terms as municipal head of San Blas, a small port city of about 45,000 inhabitants on the Pacific Coast of Nayarit. In June 2014 he became famous after brashly telling a campaign crowd that he stole from the state just “a little” (poquito).
His comments were posted on YouTube and picked up by national newspapers and television.
While in office, Ramirez became famous for giving away lavish gifts at parties and office gatherings, including automobiles, iPhones and alcohol. He lifted the skirts of young girls onstage in front of thousands of spectators, all the while cursing effusively. At one of his inaugurations, he showed up on a black stallion worth about $250,000 and trotted about the lawn tossing money to the crowd.
Birthday party or campaign event?
Layín’s most recent scandal was in Jan 2017, when he held an immense gala worthy of his maxim, “un taquito, un traguito y un ruidito” (“a bit to eat, a bit to drink and a bit of noise”).
Some 10,000 people turned up to celebrate at the mayor’s mango packing plant in San Blas, many bused in from adjoining municipalities. Although the event was supposedly held for the ex-mayor’s birthday, officials from the National Electoral Institute paid a surprise visit at the behest of rival politicians who considered it to be campaign-related.
According to one report, organizers shipped in 100 head of cattle on railroad cars for the birria, a traditional Jalisco beef stew. Over a ton of tortillas was brought in. By the end of the night, revelers had consumed over 12,000 beers and danced to the music of two famous singers and seven bands.
Some estimated that the affair cost over 5 million pesos, or about US $260,000, but Ramirez refused to confirm this. He said a friend was in charge of the expenses. The money, he added, was “thanks to God, many friends, many donations… who could throw us a nice little party.”
Nor was it his most lavish celebration. According to the newspaper Reforma, an event organized by Ramirez in 2015 while he was still mayor of San Blas cost over 15 million pesos, or nearly the entire annual security budget of the municipality.
Unknown source of wealth
Nobody knows exactly how Layín earns his money. According to the portal Transparencia de San Blas, he earned as mayor 40 thousand pesos (about USD $2200) a month.
Prior to the July 2014 mayoral election, his opponents accused him of stealing 150 million pesos in municipal funds, a sum roughly equivalent to USD $11.5 million. But there was no investigation or any charges filed against him. Legally speaking, it was all speculation.
In the YouTube video, Ramirez called the allegations “hogwash”.
“The state doesn’t have that kind of money,” he said. “Everyone knows that (San Blas) is dirt poor”.
Besides, he said, “with this hand (raising his right hand) I stole… and with this one (raising his left), I gave to the poor”.
“I wish there’d have been 150 million,” he added. “Who doesn’t like money?”
Finally, an investigation
Colima is one of the smallest states in the country and has one of its weakest institutional structures. Had it not been for all the publicity, an investigation may have never started.
But political pressure finally forced the state’s Superior Audit Office hand. As reported by El Universal, a recently-issued report lists multiple irregularities in the state budget while Layín was in office. Over 225.5 million pesos (about 15 million dollars) was unaccounted for during the ex-mayor’s two terms in office. For a tiny town, that’s a lot of money.
These irregularities include falsified grants, invoices and vouchers; non-existent “social subsidies”; falsified expense accounts for non-existent activities such as “scientific development and research;” and payments for non-existent projects, among others.
The mayor who stole “just a little” apparently did so with both hands full. Or perhaps the expression “a little” means something different to Mr Ramirez.
Harbinger of presidential elections
In many ways, Ramirez symbolizes the historic corruption of the nation’s political class.
With the exception of a former treasurer, neither Ramirez nor any of his closest advisers have been prosecuted. Although the press and political establishment consider him a liability – even a danger – Ramirez still has many supporters.
Last month, he qualified as a pre-candidate before the State Electoral Institute of Nayarit, in effect, launching his candidacy for governor.
“Thank God, I have no enemies, only friends,” he remarked at the time. “I feel happy, at ease.”
“Let them investigate my past… in the end, the people will decide.”
In Mexico, a candidate accused of stealing usually doesn’t raise many eyebrows but the timing couldn’t be worse: the 2018 elections are just around the corner, and the political establishment is worried that the left’s anti-corruption message is gaining traction among many Mexicans.
Why Layín so popular?
The newspaper El Universal claims that Layín’s success is a sad reminder of an “outdated” political system; and that Mexicans suffer from “poor political memory” and “civic disregard”. It predicted that “characters like Layín would continue to achieve power without any accountability for their acts”.
“Despite his leaving the state bankrupt in his first term and openly admitting to being corrupt,” says journalist and academic Ricardo Raphael, the man may win the governorship.
“Layín has constructed a highly effective persona to win votes on the stage of contemporary Mexican politics: defiant, populist, misogynist, braggart and contrarian. Wherever he goes, he finds followers”.
Which, he says, “reflects Mexicans’ high tolerance of corruption and low standards for choosing politicians”.
The funny thing is that most locals seem delighted with the colorful mayor’s “peculiar style of political campaigning”, which will be on full display during the next four months.
El Universal described it as throwing parties for people in every voting district, dancing wildly “in the heat of the moment”, and “throwing 20 and 50-peso bills to everyone in attendance.”
On June 4, state voters will decide.