Mexico City (AFP) - Mexican ex-governor Javier Duarte was extradited from Guatemala on Monday to face corruption and racketeering charges back home, one of a string of scandals involving ex-governors that are threatening President Enrique Pena Nieto's government.
Duarte left the once-wealthy state of Veracruz on the verge of bankruptcy during his governorship (2010-2016), allegedly stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds to buy luxury properties, Miami vacation homes and thoroughbred horses.
The portly ex-governor is also known for presiding over an explosion of violence and human rights abuses in the eastern state, until he abruptly resigned and went into hiding.
Arrested in April at a lakeside resort in Guatemala, where he and his wife were registered under fake names and paying their bill in cash, he denies the charges against him.
Duarte, 43, is one of six Mexican ex-governors under arrest for corruption, fraud, money laundering or racketeering.
Five of the six were members of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), including Duarte, who was expelled from the party after going on the lam.
The Mexican government said his extradition showed its "commitment to obtaining concrete results to fight impunity... (and) strengthen the rule of law."
Duarte's lawyer says his client is a victim of "political persecution."
- Face of 'renewal' -
Pena Nieto once hailed Duarte as a fresh face for the scandal-stained PRI, the party that has ruled Mexico for 76 of the past 88 years.
In 2011, the president mentioned Duarte as one of several youthful governors who "are part of a new generation that has been part of the party's renewal."
But the former governor is now one of the most hated politicians in Mexico.
Mexicans tuned in with a mix of outrage and amusement to watch his Guatemalan extradition hearings live on TV -- and "Javidu," as he is known, did not disappoint.
Sporting a bushy beard at the hearings, he put on a show for journalists outside the court, grinning at the cameras and saying: "My Uber is here... Don't trip over yourselves, I'll go slowly so you can take my picture."
He had shaved his beard and was straight-faced as police escorted him in a bullet-proof vest and handcuffs to the small jet that flew him back to Mexico.
On arrival, he was transferred to a Mexico City prison where he was due to have a preliminary hearing.
Guatemalan authorities had called Duarte a "highly vulnerable" prisoner, fearing someone would try to assassinate him because he knew too much about dirty dealings in Mexico.
He was held in solitary confinement at a military base, and Guatemala had urged Mexico to complete the extradition as soon as possible.
- Thousands of bodies -
Duarte left Veracruz more than $2.5 billion in debt, and violent crime skyrocketed during his tenure as warring drug cartels battled for control of the key port state.
The state became one of the most violent in Mexico, registering more than 4,500 murders -- including those of at least 17 journalists -- and more than 200 disappearances.
Opposition lawmakers are calling for Duarte to be investigated over a string of mass graves discovered during his governorship that contained more than 300 bodies.
Prosecutors accuse him of involvement in organized crime and a "complex scheme" of illegal financial transactions.
At his extradition hearings in Guatemala, they presented evidence that he set up shell companies and made dodgy real estate deals.
The scandals involving Mexican ex-governors led to the PRI losing five governorships last year.
They have badly damaged the party heading into presidential elections next year.