By RICARDO CASTILLO
Once upon a time, back on Dec. 2, 2012, when former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto appointed Rosario Robles Berlanga as the Social Development (Sedesol) Secretary, this columnist published an article in The News – then the only English-language daily in Mexico – claiming that Rosario was “a woman for all seasons” and “a survivor.”
That may have been somewhat true at the time, but is it now, on Aug. 5, 2019. Maybe so, maybe not. It all depends on what happens next Thursday, Aug. 8, when she meets with an unknown judge to answer questions regarding the “Master Fraud,” a scam in which, according to the nation’s Federal Finance Auditor, billions of pesos were deviated both through Sedesol first and then through the Secretariat of Agrarian and Urban Territorial Development (Sedatu), a post in which she lasted until the end of Peña Nieto’s term on Nov. 30, 2018.
Will Rosario survive and continue to be “a woman for all seasons” with the upcoming apparently perfect political storm heading her way? Will she be thrown in jail and become the “scapegoat” of Peña Nieto’s corrupt administration, as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has claimed? We’ll find out soon.
In the meantime, let’s find out who this not-so-mysterious woman is, and what she has done for the past 30 years, which is how long her political career has lasted, thus far.
An economist graduated in 1976 at the National Unanimous University of Mexico (UNAM), back in 1989 she was a well-known Maoist within the Mexican left wing and participated in the founding of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). which back then amalgamated all leftwing trends – from mild pink to crimson red – which rapidly became a major force in the nation’s political rainbow. She got a master’s in social development at Mexico City’s Metropolitan Autonomous University (UAM).
Her career at the PRD soon landed her a federal deputy post in 1994, where she presided over the Social Development Committee at the Chamber of Deputies.
She kept moving up the ranks at the PRD and when party leader Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas won the Mexico City mayor post, he named Rosario secretary general of the city government, a post that’s is second in command. It was the first time in history that Mexico City residents elected their favorite official.
When Cárdenas sought and got the PRD candidacy for president for the 2000 election, he stepped down and the newly formed Legislative Assembly of the Federal District (Mexico City) designated Rosario interim mayor, the first woman to hold the post – and she served until the next elected mayor, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was sworn in on Dec. 5, 2000.
Rosario was well received during her mandate, making popular the macho man phase “I’ve got the pants on tight” (“pantalones bien puestos”), except she changed the word pants to “skirt.” “Tengo la falda bien puesta.” Women loved that.
In 2002, Rosario ran for the PRD presidency and won it. She served as the party leader for the 2003 midterm elections. She led the party to third place in the Chamber of Deputies, below the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the National Action Party (PAN), which had 224 and 151 seats. Still, the PRD rose in the political ranks.
On Feb. 7, 2004, there was a revolt during the PRD’s National Council meeting in which another leader, journalist Carlos Payán, read a report claiming that during Rosario’s mandate at the PRD, the party’s debt had risen by 289 million pesos and the PRD was now in total administrative disarray. Then, an outside auditor, Deloitte & Little, after finishing the audit, said that what was needed was an investigation for possible corruption. Proven or not, it was never known, Rosario Robles Berlanga was forced to resign in August 2004 and was replaced by the candidate she’d beaten for the party leadership, Leonel Godoy.
Also a few months earlier, Rosario got involved in a very murky affair starting her stance of deny, deny, deny any involvement.
A sneak video was shown in a newscast showing the president of the Federal District General Assembly, René Bejarano, then key political operator for Mayor AMLO, had received several packs of dollars – wrapped in rubber bands – from Carlos Ahumada, an Argentine-Mexican entrepreneur.
During Rosario’s mandate at City Hall, Ahumada had worked closely with Rosario and she fell in love with him, leading to an intimate affair – later made public in books by Ahumada and Robles — which made the dollar-denominated delivery even murkier.
Assembly President Bejarano was toppled from his post, but during questioning from police, he confessed that he had received the monies from Ahumada and delivered it directly to Rosario, then still PRD president. In the press, Bejarano got the nickname of the “Lord of the Rubber Bands.”
Later, other videos showed Ahumada bribing two men very close to Rosario, Ramon Sosamontes and Carlos Imaz, also receiving dollars from him.
It was a major scandal at the time. At all times, Rosario denied any involvement. She later wrote, due to her relationship with Ahumada, a construction contractor: “I only admit that I made the mistake of mixing up personal relations with politics.”
Rosario since then stayed out of the public eye, making a living as an independent political electoral advisor.
Her reappearance in politics was in September 2012, when then-President-elect Enrique Peña Nieto introduced her as part of his transition team. Rosario was the obvious surprise since she was third in the list of important executives, after Finance Secretary-to-be Luis Videgaray and Economy Secretary Ildefonso Guajardo. Rosario was introduced as vice coordinator of international affairs. Later, she would be moved to the Secretariat of Social Development, her specialty at the university.
A couple of years later, a group of muckraking journalists, backed by a civilian movement called Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, carried out research to reveal that during 2013 and 2014, there had been a process to divert over 3 billion pesos from budget monies at Sedesol to 11 “ghost companies” that became a common trait of the Peña Nieto administration.
The manner of diverting the money was signing up agreements with state universities, particularly Morelos and State of Mexico state-run universities, which acted as middlemen between Sedesol and the ghost companies and delivered the money to a company named ESGER without any binding contract to lend services.
With the scandal still called in the press the “Master Fraud,” Peña Nieto in 2015 decided to move Rosario to the Secretariat of Agrarian, Territorial and Urban Development (Sedatu) and right along with her went the 16 officials who apparently carried out the Master Fraud. Among them there were names closely linked to Rosario, particularly the aforementioned Sosamontes.
The Superior Auditor of the Federation – the government’s money watchdog arm – filed some six complaints about the Master Fraud during 2015 and 2017, but as with many other legal issues, the investigation was frozen by the Attorney General’s Office.
Once again, the private group Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity filed charges on Sept. 18, 2018, and by now the former Attorney General’s Office, now renamed Fiscal General of the Republic (FGR), received the complaint for the theft of over 7 billion pesos from public funds both at Sedesol and Sedatu, apparently carried out by a network of over 50 government officials.
The FGR has now requested a judge to carry out a hearing with Rosario Robles on charges of committing a possible crime while in office, which is the hearing that will take place on Aug. 8.
It must be said that, as usual in the past, Rosario Robles Berlanga has denied all charges, but, just in case, last week she requested a habeas corpus document of protection against possible arrest, known in Mexican legal lingo as amparo. In theory, she cannot be arrested.
Now, was I wrong once upon time in calling Rosario “a woman for all seasons?” So far, she’s been charged with every crime in the book, but she always manages to clear her name.
Yet, now, this is a different story, and the woman who was once AMLO’s political manager may face, should things go wrong this time, the perfect legal storm coming her way.