Mexican government seeks arrest of top scientists in funding dispute3 min read . Updated: 26 Sep 2021, 07:07 PM IST
- Prosecutors have asked a federal judge to jail 31 scientists on charges of organized crime and money laundering
Mexican prosecutors have asked a federal judge to jail 31 renowned Mexican scientists on charges of organized crime and money laundering, part of a growing dispute between the leftist government and the country’s leading academics and universities.
The judge has twice rejected the petition to jail the scientists, saying the attorney general’s office hasn’t presented enough evidence of wrongdoing. On Wednesday the government said it would resubmit its request for arrests.
Prosecutors said the scientists, who made up an independent advisory panel to the government’s science council, illegally used some $12 million of government money.
Members of the advisory committee said that they did nothing wrong and that the spending had been audited and approved.
The government is seeking to hold the scientists, who include astrophysicists and microbiologists, at a maximum-security prison where some of the country’s most notorious drug lords have been held, including Joaquín “El Chapo" Guzmán. If convicted, some of the academics would face more than 80 years in jail.
The charges stem from a fight between the government’s National Council of Science and Technology, or Conacyt, and the council’s advisory panel made up of the scientists, a body created in 2002 to act as a link between politicians and the scientific community and provide an impartial sounding board on scientific matters for the government.
Since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration took power in late 2018, the advisory committee increasingly clashed with the president’s appointed head of Conacyt, biologist María Elena Álvarez-Buylla, on whether government funding for science should be nonpolitical, or carried out with political and social goals.
She has sharply limited scholarships for young scientists to study at top universities overseas, arguing that students should study locally, and has said that scientific papers should be presented in Spanish or indigenous languages instead of English, moves that didn’t sit well with the advisory body.
Some legal experts said the current administration appeared to be using the legal system to pursue its political enemies.
“The accusation is so irrational that it scares everyone in Mexico, because they could jail anyone," said Ana Laura Magaloni, a law professor at Mexico’s CIDE university.
Many Mexicans were shocked that prosecutors gave priority to a case against the scientists when drug-cartel violence remains out of control.
The attorney general’s office said the committee used the $12 million of government money for paying its operating expenses, such as offices, salaries and events. “The spending was in areas unrelated to the committee’s purpose…like paying for cellular phone service, parking, gasoline and even the buying of an office," the attorney general’s petition said.
José Franco, the chief researcher of the Astronomy Institute at UNAM, Mexico’s leading public university, said the committee’s annual spending was audited and approved by Conacyt every year, including under the current government.
“I have always been in favor of transparency and accountability," said Dr. Franco. “The financial reports of the committee are public and available on its website. Conacyt nevertheless has chosen to pursue unfounded criminal charges, which speaks volumes of their intent."
Accusations of organized crime and money laundering are considered serious crimes in Mexico, and suspects aren’t allowed bail while their cases are being heard, meaning the scientists would spend time in jail awaiting trial, which in Mexico can often take years.
“This entire episode has been a great shock," said Dr. Julia Tagüeña, who has a doctorate in physics from Oxford University, has taught at UNAM for decades and headed the advisory committee from 2019 to 2020. “Those behind the accusations are doing a great disservice to the government, and to the country."
Enrique Graue, the UNAM rector, called the charges absurd. Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum, an ally of Mr. López Obrador, called them excessive, while the head of the president’s party in the Senate, Ricardo Monreal, said he expressed “my total solidarity with the scientific community."
Mr. López Obrador has defended his attorney general and has criticized the advisory panel. On Friday, he said its members held too much influence over previous governments and obtained money for luxuries and foreign travel.
“It was a kind of blackmail, and they had to be given these funds," he said. “And when that disappeared, that extravagance, those luxuries, that waste, they complained that we’re not investing in science, that we don’t care about technological innovation."
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text
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