Why AMLO Won’t Let the Pemex Investigation Clean Up Corruption in Mexico

The case was expected to be a “blockbuster.” In July 2020, Emilio Lozoya Austin, former director of Mexican state-owned oil giant Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), was extradited from Spain to Mexico on charges of bribery, money laundering, and racketeering. The most significant of the charges related to his receipt of $10.5 million in bribes from embattled Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. Upon his return to Mexico, Lozoya leveled bombshell accusations in a plea for prosecutorial leniency, claiming that former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, along with his former treasury minister, two other former presidents, five former senators, and two former presidential candidates, orchestrated an extensive corruption scheme throughout the government ranging from securing bribes to passing controversial energy reform legislation. Lozoya’s accusations appeared to confirm information that Mexican authorities uncovered years ago. Back in 2017, after Odebrecht admitted to paying millions of dollars in bribes in Mexico, a Mexican special prosecutor determined that in 2012 Lozoya, then the newly-minted Pemex director, awarded Odebrecht several lucrative contracts in exchange for bribes. Then-President Peña Nieto, however, fired the special prosecutor and stalled the investigation.

But Mexico’s current president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who made anticorruption a cornerstone of his 2018 presidential campaign, vowed to reignite the investigation and prosecution of Lozoya. And last year’s extradition of Lozoya to Mexico seemed to be a sign that Mexico was (finally) on the verge of a real reckoning with endemic corruption akin to the Lava Jato (Car Wash) investigation in Brazil. Lava Jato, which began as an investigation into alleged corruption and money laundering by Brazilian state-owned oil company Petrobras, eventually ensnared Odebrecht, exposed the company’s decade-and-a-half long bribery scheme in a dozen countries, and led to the recovery of more than $5 billion in government funds and the conviction of more than 170 people—including several senior politicians. Despite recent setbacks (including the premature disbanding of the Lava Jato Task Force and the judicial invalidation of the operation’s highest-profile conviction), the Lava Jato investigation nonetheless provides a template for how an investigation that starts with one corrupt official at a state-owned country can snowball into a national reckoning that disrupts a long-entrenched corrupt system. The parallels between Lava Jato and investigation into Pemex are obvious, and many anticorruption advocates, both inside and outside of Mexico, were hoping for something similar.

Instead, nearly a year after Lozoya’s arrest, there has been little progress on the case, and it seems increasingly unlikely that this investigation will prompt the same kind of anticorruption reckoning as in Brazil. Indeed, court-watchers now fear that Lozoya and those he named will escape any real consequences. While many factors have contributed to this disappointing result, an apparent lack of enthusiasm and commitment from AMLO and his government has played an important role. Instead of doing everything in his power to move the investigation forward, AMLO slashed the budget of the Mexican Attorney General’s Office (FGR), which is leading the Pemex investigation, condoned soft treatment for Lozoya, and has seemed generally ambivalent about the investigation’s apparent lack of progress.

AMLO’s behavior is this regard seems puzzling, since one would think that AMLO has every incentive to support the investigation. After all, AMLO’s 2018 anticorruption platform was wildly popular, and—especially given that his support is waning—revitalizing this anticorruption narrative might improve the standing of his newcomer political party, Morena, heading into this coming June’s midterm elections. So why has AMLO’s support for the Lozoya investigation been so tepid? There are, I think, two main explanations, both of which cast doubt on the sincerity of AMLO’s commitment to rooting out corruption in Mexico’s government.

continue reading