At 33, Manuel Velasco is the youngest governor in Mexico but is rapidly becoming one of the country’s most controversial ones.
His portrait can be seen on many street corners and squares throughout Chiapas, with publicly paid ads that laud his accomplishments in his first year in office. He has reportedly spent some 129 million pesos (or $9.7 million) on publicity. No one knows the exact amount for sure but many believe that it represents an unnecessary burden on the state’s poor finances.
But besides self-generating publicity, Velasco, who came to office in December 2012, has become a national figure. His romance with Mexican pop singer Anahí – his face also gets plastered all over gossip magazines – is a routinely followed affair among showbiz fans.
Last April, at a political event in Oxchuc, Velasco raised eyebrows after he was photographed wearing traditional garments and being carried on a wooden frame by native tzeltales Indians. Criticism poured in after the image went viral.
Velasco, a member of Mexico’s Green Party (PVEM), has made it his custom to dress in ceremonious native clothing when he visits the various indigenous communities across the state to inaugurate road projects and deliver food vouchers, coffee, tools and traditional nixttamal mortars and pestles.
There are five indigenous communities in Chiapas, which is located in southeastern Mexico on the border with Guatemala. They all live in different climate zones – from the hot coastal areas to the cold mountain region.
“Basically, he has done the same thing that all governors in the past have done,” says anthropologist Gaspar Morquecho.
One thing that the long line of past governors hasn’t accomplished is being able to pull the state’s residents from under the poverty line; more than 74 percent live in poverty.
When Velasco began his term, Chiapas was – in his own words – undergoing “the worst financial crisis” in the state’s history. In 2006, the state’s debt was listed at $66 million. Six years later it stood at $1.8 billion. During his first days in office, Velasco was unable to pay the public servants’ salaries, but one year later he was able to reduce spending by 18 percent and restructure the debt.
“The economy is much healthier,” said Velasco in an interview from the same spot at governor’s palace where his grandfather, Manuel Velasco Suárez, also served from 1970 to 1976. But the governor still has a huge political chore on his hands as he is works to rebuild confidence and democratic principles in the state’s institutions.
“Never before had we seen a government that wanted to control the lives of all the residents,” said former Governor Pablo Salazar (2000-2006) about Velasco’s predecessor, Juan Sabines. “He decided to interfere with the unions, the legislature and control all the political parties.”
Sabines had Salazar put in jail on a host of charges – from fraud to murder – but he was released after a political pact was hammered out. Salazar now believes there should be a complete overhaul of all the parties.
Velasco’s cabinet is a mixture of different political forces, with members from the conservative National Action Party (PAN) to the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). While he has tried to portray his administration as a united front, many criticize the hold-overs from the previous Sabines administration who are still in government.
One powerful figure is state prosecutor Raciel López. “He was the henchman who was responsible for the repression in Sabines’ term, which was very severe,” said Alejandra Soriano, local PRD deputy.
Prosecutors under López’s guidance investigated 56 officials that served in Salazar’s term. Seven of those were sent to prison.
“He is the key to our safety,” Velasco said about López. “We are one of three of safest states in the country. He is not there to go after anyone. We didn’t prosecute anyone during our first year in office.”
This is not the first time that Manuel has bombarded us with his image”
The governor said he has even released 17 political prisoners who were involved “directly or indirectly” with the Zapatista revolutionary leftist movement that began in the 1990s.
Two other past Sabines officials also held key positions before they resigned – one was the comptroller and the other was a secretary to the governor who was put in charge of going after corrupt officials.
“They resigned when the public accounts were approved, exonerating Juan Sabines. This gives you an idea of how much control that man has in the current government,” said Alfredo Palacios, the state’s former education chief who was also put in jail by Sabines.
While serving his time, Palacios wrote a novel inspired on the political events in Chiapas. El heredero and el miedo (or, The heir and fear) is based on the life of a fictional governor, Pedro Cedrales, who is addicted to alcohol and cocaine and governs the state with an iron fist. “Velasco is the product of an agreement between President Enrique Peña Nieto to support a Green candidate for a governorship,” Salazar explained.
Image has been an important part of Velasco’s political career. At 18, he was elected to the state legislature and in 2006 he became a member of the nation’s senate.
“This is not the first time that Manuel has bombarded us with his image,” says Soriano, the PRD deputy. “Even in 2006, you could find streamers with his photograph in some far off corners of the state.”
His engagement to Mexican singer Anahí has frequently been compared to Peña Nieto’s own relationship with popular actress, Angélica Rivera, whom he married in 2010 right before the presidential campaign. Peña Nieto revealed he was romancing Rivera while he served as governor of Mexico State.
“I was in a relationship with my girlfriend before I became governor. I have been with her for two years,” Velasco said.
Velasco won the Chiapas governorship with the highest vote count in the state’s history. But he now has a tough uphill battle to distance himself from the vices that have kept Chiapas awash in poverty through wasteful spending and frivolity.