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Mexican ex-governor gets 11 years in U.S. for money laundering

The former governor of Quintana Roo state Mario Villanueva (C) is arrested by members of Mexico's Federal Investigative Agency (AFI) moments
The former governor of Quintana Roo state Mario Villanueva (C) is arrested by members of Mexico's Federal Investigative Agency (AFI) moments

By Bernard Vaughan

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former Mexican state governor was sentenced to 11 years in prison in the United States on Friday after pleading guilty to conspiring to launder millions of dollars in bribes from a notorious drug cartel.

With credit for time served and good behavior, Mario Villanueva, 64, could be released from U.S. custody in two to three years, his lawyer, Richard Lind, said after the hearing. He faces another 23 years in prison in Mexico stemming from similar charges, Lind said.

From 1993 to 1999, Villanueva was governor of Quintana Roo, a state on the Yucatan Peninsula that is home to the popular tourist destination Cancun.

While in office he conspired to launder millions of dollars in bribery payments from the Juarez drug cartel through accounts and shell corporations in the United States and elsewhere, prosecutors said.

He was extradited to the United States in 2010 after serving a six-year sentence in Mexico for money laundering.

"This defendant violated the public trust to enrich himself," Assistant U.S. Attorney Glen Kopp told U.S. District Judge Victor Marrero in New York on Friday.

In a plea agreement last year, Villanueva pleaded guilty to one charge of money laundering conspiracy; he faced a maximum of 20 years in prison.

"I ask for your compassion and your clemency," Villanueva told Marrero, as several of his family members, including his wife and son, looked on.

The Juarez cartel transported more than 200 tons of cocaine into the United States in the 1990s, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Manhattan.

Prosecutors said Villanueva reached an agreement with the cartel soon after it established operations in Quintana Roo in 1994. He received payments of between $400,000 and $500,000 for each cocaine shipment that went through the state in exchange for ensuring law enforcement would not interfere.

By late 1995, he began transferring the money to bank and brokerage accounts in the United States, Switzerland and elsewhere in an effort to hide the funds, prosecutors said.

Consuelo Marquez, a Lehman Brothers investment broker, helped set up several offshore corporations for Villanueva to shelter the bribe proceeds, according to the indictment against Villanueva. She also established brokerage accounts for him and conducted a series of wire transfers at his direction, according to the indictment.

Marquez was sentenced to three years of probation and fined $10,000 in 2006 after pleading guilty to money laundering charges.

Villanueva, while under investigation in Mexico, disappeared in March 1999, just before his term as governor expired. He was discovered by Mexican authorities in 2001.

While a fugitive, Villanueva tried to transfer funds in the Lehman accounts to third-party accounts with Marquez's help, according to the indictment.

With his sentence, Villanueva "completes his descent from elected government official to corrupted official to incarcerated felon," Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement.

The case is USA v. Mario Ernesto Villanueva Madrid, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, No. 01-cr-021.

(Editing by Eric Walsh)

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