After a lackluster start to confronting endemic corruption in Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador appears now to be showing a renewed commitment to the cause through the launch of new investigations into alleged misconduct that took place under his predecessor.
Former President Enrique Peña Nieto is at the heart of one of several high-profile anti-graft probes that López Obrador’s government has opened into allegations of bribery, corruption and fraud during previous administrations.
The investigation into Peña Nieto comes at a time when López Obrador desperately needs a security win. But accusations of corruption against presidents and former presidents are commonplace, and López Obrador has managed little progress on everyday corruption since taking office at the end of 2018.
The number of reported victims of acts of corruption, for example, increased during his first year, climbing from 14,635 per 100,000 in 2017 to 15,732 in 2019, according to data from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía — INEGI).
That said, López Obrador, better known as AMLO, may now be changing course to address high-level corruption. Below, InSight Crime looks at three major corruption investigations his administration is pursuing.
The former chief of Mexico’s state-owned oil firm Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Emilio Lozoya Austin, is accused in a far-reaching corruption and money laundering case linked to the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.
Former Odebrecht officials accused Lozoya, who headed Pemex from 2012 to 2016, of taking at least $10 million in bribes from the company. The sweeping “Operation Car Wash” (“Operação Lava Jato”) investigation revealed that Odebrecht had relied on such transactions across Latin America to pay off politicians in exchange for public works contracts.
The former officials allege that $6 million was paid to secure Pemex contracts, while the other $4 million was paid to Lozoya between April and November 2012. Those funds were reportedly used to support the campaign of then-presidential hopeful Peña Nieto, according to El Pais. Authorities estimate that Loyoza may have also defrauded the Mexican government of up to $280 million through Pemex’s 2015 purchase of a fertilizer plant at an inflated price.
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Lozoya denied ever receiving bribes from Odebrecht at the time, but he is now cooperating with authorities. In 2016, the company admitted to paying out $10.5 million in bribes to secure contracts valued at $39 million in Mexico between 2010 and 2014.
The former Pemex boss fled Mexico after being indicted in 2019. He was later arrested by Spanish police in February 2020 and then extradited to Mexico in July to face the charges against him. He is also being investigated in a number of other criminal cases.
Mexico is one of the last countries to reckon with the fallout from the Odebrecht graft scandal, which promises to send shockwaves across the country’s political establishment.
Peña Nieto and Odebrecht
For years, accusations have swirled that former President Peña Nieto, who was in office from 2012 to 2018, relied on bribes from Odebrecht to help fund his successful presidential campaign. Now, prosecutors have officially opened an investigation into those claims.
Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero made the announcement after Lozoya filed a complaint — reportedly accompanied by video, invoices and names of witnesses. Lozoya alleged that Peña Nieto and his former finance minister, Luis Videgaray, instructed him to funnel more than 100 million pesos (more than $4 million) in bribes from Odebrecht to Peña Nieto’s campaign.
Money from Odebrecht was also allegedly used to buy votes from various lawmakers in order to secure the approval of sweeping legislation Peña Nieto was pushing in 2013 and 2014, such as a controversial energy reform law, according to Animal Político.
The formal investigation is a long time coming. Three years ago, a 2017 investigation from the watchdog group Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (Mexicanos Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad — MCCI) revealed that a subsidiary of Odebrecht had provided funds to Peña Nieto’s campaign.
The petrochemicals company Braskem allegedly transferred millions of dollars into the accounts of a company linked to Lozoya while Peña Nieto was campaigning. A separate MCCI report earlier that same year alleged Odebrecht also transferred money to yet another company linked to Lozoya during the campaign.
Peña Nieto and Lozoya, who served as international engagement coordinator for the campaign, both denied the accusations at the time. While Peña Nieto admitted to meeting with Odebrecht executives, he claimed they never provided money to his campaign.
Crooked Federal Security Forces
Mexico’s federal security forces have also come under fire recently for allegedly misappropriating public funds during previous governments.
In early August, a judge ordered arrest warrants for 19 former members of Mexico’s now-defunct Federal Police on suspicions they embezzled 2.5 billion pesos (more than $110 million) in government funds under Peña Nieto, Animal Político reported.
Those accused include the force’s former secretary general, Frida Martínez Zamora, as well as Mexico City’s former citizen security secretary, Jesús Orta. The accused and others allegedly ran a “complex scheme of systematic corruption” through the purchase of airplanes, helicopters and patrol cars at inflated prices, among other things.
While the López Obrador’s administration’s push to investigate corruption under his predecessors — something he promised during his campaign — may appear to be a political ploy, charges against a former president would be an unprecedented move in a country that has rarely seen such officials face justice.
My administration has “the responsibility of not tolerating corruption, of not covering it up,” López Obrador said August 11 during his morning press conference. However, the president still has much to prove.