A scandal is unfolding in Mexico’s powerful Secretariat of Interior, the ministry that oversees the country’s gambling industry, in the wake of allegations of corruption leveled by the ex-wife of a former Interior official.
Corporate lawyer Talia Vazquez Alatorre, who claims she was the victim of a gang rape at gunpoint led by her ex-husband, Juan Ivan Pena Neder, a Chihuahua attorney and former high-ranking Interior official, has filed criminal charges and prepared sworn statements demanding investigations into “likely illicit activity” in the ministry’s gaming and lotteries bureau.
Among her allegations is that she witnessed Roberto Gil Zuarth, the personal secretary of then-President Felipe Calderon, accept a backpack with $800,000 to help smooth over opposition to opening a casino in the city of Queretaro north of Mexico City.
Gil Zuarth, who is now a senator and head of Calderon’s National Action Party (PAN) in the upper chamber, denies the allegations and says he will file a defamation suit against Vazquez.
Calderon, who this month began a yearlong fellowship at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, was not available for comment, according to news reports.
Pena Neder, who is in federal prison in Matamoros on the rape charges, denies the allegations, labeling them “ridiculous.” He said in a recent television interview that he’d been working for “a sheikh from Dubai” before his arrest.
Casinos operate in a murky legal environment in Mexico. A 1947 law bans them. PAN’s Vicente Fox, who was elected president in 2000, tried but failed to overturn the ban. Instead, he issued rules that allowed sports betting and bingo parlors, which function as casinos for all intents and purposes with casino-style games.
When Calderon came to office in 2006, he pledged not to issue casino permits until order was restored. But officials within the Interior Secretariat and gaming bureau devised ways around it, and dozens more illegal or gray-area casinos sprung into existence. One scheme has bureau officials appearing to deny permits, which applicants then appeal to friendly judges who issue writs known as “amparos” that allow them to open anyway. Under another scheme, off-the-books casinos build a legal framework around their operations by beginning to pay federal taxes.