Concern Grows as Mexico President Talks of Investigation

Former President Enrique Peña Nieto is accused of extortion, fraud and embezzlement

In this March 3, 2015, file photo, Mexico's President Enrique Pena Nieto delivers an address to members of the British All-Party Parliamentary Group at the Houses of Parliament in London, England.
Toby Melville/WPA Pool/Getty Images

Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s insistence on a public airing of a rapidly widening corruption scandal could complicate the investigation and open the case to criticism that it’s more about political payback than justice.

Since the former head of Mexico’s state-run oil company was extradited from Spain last month, the president has been saying he wants the public to see the details of the alleged corruption that has now implicated at least three former presidents and more than a dozen other politicians.

The allegations of former Petroleos Mexicanos director Emilio Lozoya neatly target López Obrador’s two predecessors in the presidency — Enrique Peña Nieto and Felipe Calderón — and his two opponents in the last election — Ricardo Anaya and Jose Antonio Meade — as well as pull back the curtain on one of the president’s favorite targets: an energy reform that allowed more private investment in Mexico’s state-run oil sector.

Peña Nieto has not commented publicly on the allegations, but the others have issued strong denials.

In essence, Lozoya accused Peña Nieto and his closest associates of using bribes from Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht to help win the presidency and then to pass an energy reform that could greatly benefit that company and others. To that end, some opposition lawmakers were bribed for their votes, he said. Other allegations carried over from the prior administration of Calderón.

Lozoya handled international relations for Peña Nieto's presidential campaign and then was tapped to run Pemex once Peña Nieto won.

Lozoya alleges that Luis Videgaray, Peña Nieto’s presidential campaign director and later his treasury secretary, directed him to solicit, collect and distribute bribes from Odebrecht to pay foreign campaign consultants and later opposition lawmakers.

In a statement Thursday from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he is teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Videgaray denied the accusations, calling them “absurd, inconsistent and reckless.” He said Lozoya was trying to save himself by implicating others and included Videgaray because he was critical of Lozoya’s financial mismanagement at Pemex.

López Obrador wanted the public to see a video Lozoya had given prosecutors and this week somebody — it's not clear who — leaked a video showing opposition political operatives stuffing stacks of cash into a duffel bag.

The president wanted Mexicans to read Lozoya’s full statement about the alleged corruption during previous administrations. On Wednesday the document leaked to the news media, generating a public furor and promises from the Attorney General’s Office to investigate the leaks.

Former President Calderón placed the allegations squarely in the political realm. He said via Twitter that the document’s leak confirms that López Obrador is using Lozoya “as an instrument of revenge and political persecution. Justice doesn’t interest him, but rather lynching, making in my case ridiculous accusations.”

On Thursday, López Obrador repeated his ranking of priorities when it comes to the scandal: first, that everything be known publicly; second, that the stolen public funds be recovered; and third, that there be justice for those who were responsible.

“We aren’t persecuting anyone,” López Obrador said. “What we want is to end corruption.”

Pressed on whether he would be satisfied if the corruption allegations were made public but those involved were not successfully prosecuted, López Obrador said it would be up to the attorney general.

“It’s an advance to have information,” he said. “Before, this wasn’t known.”

In addition to putting many of López Obrador’s rivals on the defensive, for the past month the scandal has distracted attention from the coronavirus pandemic, in which more than 58,000 people have died in Mexico, and an economy forecast to shrink 10% this year.

The emerging scandal and speculation surrounding it accelerated in July, when Lozoya reached an agreement with Mexican authorities to drop his extradition fight and cooperate with the investigation.

Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero has expressed discomfort with the amount of public commentary the president makes about the case. He is the first attorney general to preside over the office since reforms made it more autonomous.

“That actually puts a lot of importance on how Gertz asserts his autonomy from the executive branch,” said Maureen Meyer, vice president for programs and director for Mexico and migrant rights at the Washington Office on Latin America.

In a report published this week, the Washington-based think tank and advocacy group said that probably the biggest reason to give the attorney general more autonomy from the executive branch "was precisely to remove political influence over criminal investigations.”

Prosecutors need to collect the evidence to support Lozoya’s allegations or it will bolster critics who say the investigation is really just a way to taint political rivals, Meyer said. The constant publicizing of details of the investigation poses a risk. But if Mexico were able to successfully prosecute a former president it would be difficult to overestimate its impact.

“It would be a clear sign that Mexico is working to turn the page on tolerance for corruption in the country,” she said. “But again, it has to be based on evidence that can be proven in court.”

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