The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A high-profile corruption case could be a major victory for Mexico. Politics must not derail it.

Emilio Lozoya, the former head of Mexico's state-owned oil company Pemex, in Mexico City in 2017. (Gustavo Martinez Contreras/AP)

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected in Mexico in 2018 on a wave of outrage over the scandalous corruption of his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto.

In 2014, a landmark journalistic investigation discovered that the then-president and his wife owned a $7 million mansion built by Grupo Higa, an infrastructure firm that had received contracts during Peña Nieto’s tenure as governor of Mexico state. Faced with unprecedented scrutiny, Peña Nieto failed to convincingly defend the infamous “white house” where he had lived before his presidency. It would be just the tip of the iceberg in Peña Nieto’s history of dishonesty. Now Mexicans might be about to see just how much lies beneath the surface.

In February, Emilio Lozoya, one of Peña Nieto’s closest associates and a former head of the state-owned oil company, was arrested in a wealthy area of southern Spain. On July 16, after nine months on the lam, Lozoya was extradited to Mexico City, where he will face charges over his role in a multimillion-dollar graft operation built around the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

Lozoya, a former senior director of the World Economic Forum for Latin America, had a stellar career before joining Peña Nieto’s presidential campaign in 2012, where he oversaw international cooperation. He would become a familiar face within the president’s inner circle. He was a frequent advocate for the Peña Nieto administration’s plans for the energy sector and Pemex, Mexico’s state-owned oil company, which Lozoya managed from 2012 to 2016. It was there that he seems to have spearheaded an appalling system of bribery.

According to Lozoya’s own version of events and the ongoing investigation that led to his capture and extradition, Odebrecht is suspected of illegally financing Peña Nieto’s presidential campaign with Lozoya’s help, ostensibly in exchange for future favors. Lozoya also claims that the Pemex scheme allowed the Peña Nieto administration to buy the votes of several legislators from the opposition as part of its push to reform Mexico’s energy sector. As head of Pemex, Lozoya also oversaw the controversial purchase of two troubled fertilizer companies for over half a billion dollars in what would turn out to be another notch in a complex corruption scheme. The various Odebrecht triangulations seem to have netted Lozoya himself at least $10 million in payoff money and other illicit assets.

The investigation into Lozoya’s dealings with Odebrecht threatens to expose a network of corruption that could reach congressmen and governors, several members of the former president’s cabinet — including Luis Videgaray, the powerful former finance minister — and perhaps even Peña Nieto himself. According to Mexican authorities, Lozoya has offered to hand over around 15 hours of video and audio recordings as evidence. If carried out properly, Lozoya’s reckoning with the law could indeed become a landmark case in Mexico’s long battle with endemic corruption.

Unfortunately, that is easier said than done. Mexico has a long history of confusing due process with political gain. Corrupt union leaders, for example, have been blatantly protected by one government only to be jailed by the next and freed when convenient. High-profile cases are prosecuted in the court of public opinion first and the bench later. Lozoya’s case has been no different. As soon as his capture was announced, officials in the López Obrador administration began releasing material on the case. Convenient leaks with names soon followed. López Obrador himself has not resisted jumping into the fray. “He is willing to reveal what happened. Just imagine,” López Obrador said recently in a morning news conference. “Even Congress was involved!”

The reference to the legislative branch is not a coincidence. Lozoya’s revelations come at a time of political need for López Obrador. Next year, Mexico’s midterm elections will determine the fate of the president’s so-called fourth transformation, his lofty plan for the country that has so far offered poor results. With an economy in free fall, a dismal response to the coronavirus pandemic and lagging approval numbers, López Obrador could use a distraction. Lozoya’s shocking history of graft fits the bill, even more so because it could bring into question the process behind Mexico’s historic energy reform, which López Obrador has always scorned.

Still, Lozoya’s blockbuster statements are far from enough evidence. The case has only just begun. Lozoya just recently made his first appearance in court. No one has yet seen or heard any of the videos that, according to Lozoya, so clearly incriminate former top officials. In this context, Mexico’s president should show restraint. López Obrador has the unique opportunity to let Mexican justice run its course unimpeded by political expediency.

If corruption at such a massive scale did indeed happen, let Mexico’s judicial system expose it. Let the law sentence those responsible, without exceptions. Politics, and the president’s voice, should have no place in the matter.

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Para leer en español:

Peña Nieto y Videgaray están en riesgo por la extradición de Lozoya

El dilema de Lozoya: quebrar el silencio o ser un mártir del viejo régimen

Ya cayó Emilio Lozoya, ¿caerá el expresidente Peña Nieto?