Mexico's PRI, poised to retake the presidency this year after more than a decade in opposition, sought on Wednesday to distance itself from a prominent party member accused by U.S. authorities of taking bribes from drug cartels.

Tomas Yarrington, who governed the border state of Tamaulipas from 1999-2004, "should face his individual responsibility before the courts," the Institutional Revolutionary Party said in a statement.

Steps are being taken to suspend Yarrington from the party, the statement added.

The party spoke out a day after U.S. federal prosecutors filed forfeiture cases involving two properties in Texas they say were purchased by Yarrington using funds he received from drug traffickers.

"The PRI exhorts Mr. Yarrington to fully cooperate with the competent authorities to clarify the deeds imputed to him," the party said.

The statement was issued hours after the coordinator of the campaign of PRI presidential candidate Enrique Peña Nieto urged Yarrington to "explain what he has to explain."

"As PRIistas we make the most energetic condemnation and a clear and complete separation in regard to those activities," Luis Videgaray told MVS radio. "We won't defend someone who is in this inexplicable situation."

Peña Nieto, a photogenic former governor of the central state of Mexico, enjoys a wide lead in the polls ahead of the July 1 presidential election.

Running a distant second is the standard-bearer of the governing conservative National Action Party, Josefina Vazquez Mota, who said Wednesday that the Yarrington case "shows the face of that corrupt Institutional Revolutionary Party which has not gone away."

Investigations by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, she said, indicate that Yarrington "made his fortune betraying the families of Tamaulipas, making deals with criminals, allowing them to injure with kidnappings, extortion, in exchange for money for him and, certainly, for others."

"That is what we cannot permit to happen again in the country and, well, these are the allies they have in the candidacy of the present PRI," Vazquez Mota said in an interview with Radio Formula.

The PRI governed Mexico without interruption from 1929-2000, a regime described by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa as "the perfect dictatorship."

That era ended with the election in 2000 of National Action's Vicente Fox, who was succeeded six years later by party colleague Felipe Calderon after the closest contest in Mexican history.

Last October, Calderon suggested in an interview with The New York Times that some PRI members would be susceptible to making deals with organized crime if the party regained power.

It is generally accepted that PRI administrations brokered agreements among rival drug cartels to prevent bloody turf battles of the kind that have become routine in Mexico over the last five years.

"There are many in the PRI who think the deals of the past would work now. I don't see what deal could be done, but that is the mentality many of them have. If that opinion prevails, it would worry me," Calderon told the Times last year.

Peña Nieto's frontrunner status in the presidential race is due in part to Mexicans' frustration over persistently high levels of drug-related violence throughout Calderon's term.

Calderon militarized the struggle against Mexico's heavily armed, well-funded drug mobs shortly after taking office in December 2006, deploying tens of thousands of troops across the country.

The strategy has led to headline-grabbing captures of cartel kingpins, but drug violence has skyrocketed and claimed more than 50,000 lives.

Peña Nieto complained earlier this year that National Action was carrying out an international smear campaign against the PRI.

Speaking to journalists in February, Peña Nieto said "people who are abroad, particularly in the United States," have told him that Calderon administration officials "repeatedly say that if the PRI (recaptures the presidency), that would lead to supposed arrangements (with drug traffickers)." EFE