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.

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Guest Post: After the Tsunami–Mexico’s Anticorruption Outlook Under Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

Today’s guest post is from Bonnie J. Palifka, Associate Professor of Economics at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM), and Luis A. Garcia, a partner at Villarreal-VGF specializing in corporate compliance and anticorruption matters:

The results of Mexico’s federal elections last July have been described as a “tsunami” for Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his National Regeneration Movement, known by its Spanish acronym “Morena.” AMLO won 53% of the popular vote and Morena swept the House and Senate, as well as a majority of the nine state governorships up for grabs and several local legislatures. This is all the more remarkable considering that Morena was founded as a civil society organization in 2011 (and registered as a political party in 2014), and was fighting for control of Mexico’s political left against AMLO’s former party, the PRD. Many are hopeful that AMLO will lead a transformation of Mexico into a modern, peaceful, fair, and prosperous society like Chile or Uruguay, while others fear that he will take the country down the route of Venezuela. That the same person can engender such different reactions is due in part to the vagueness and inconsistency of AMLO’s rhetoric throughout the campaign: sometimes he would take a highly confrontational and uncompromising attitude toward Mexico’s political and economic elite—what he termed the “mafia of power”—while at other times he would strike a more conciliatory tone. But one consistent theme in AMLO’s rhetoric—and in the analysis of the data on the reasons for Morena’s electoral triumph—was profound indignation at the blatant corruption and impunity of Mexico’s political and business elites.

Mexican voters’ frustration with corruption is understandable. Although in recent decades Mexico has undertaken a number of anticorruption measures—including, under former President Vicente Fox, a new freedom of information law, and, under current President Enrique Peña Nieto, a new National Anticorruption System (SNA), which, among other things, updates national and state laws to criminalize more acts, reduce immunities, and increase punishments—these measures have been insufficient, as reflected in Mexico’s increasingly poor showing on the Corruption Perceptions Index. AMLO identified corruption as Mexico’s most pressing problem and promised to bring about an honest and transparent regime that would be truly responsive to the country’s needs. And, in an encouraging sign, AMLO has brought in a diverse group of highly respected experts and activists, from all sides of the political spectrum, and has appeared flexible and open to dialogue. At the same time, though, he has displayed a puzzling blind spot for potential conflicts of interest, and his optimistic rhetoric has suffered from a lack of specificity, coherence, and concrete proposals. Continue reading