Under arrest for corruption, Mexico's former oil boss takes aim at three ex-presidents

Patrick J. McDonald
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Former CEO of Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) Emilio Lozoya delivers a news conference denying accusations of involvement in Brazilian corruption scandal related to construction giant Odebrecht, next to his lawyers Javier Coello, left, and Javier Coello Zuarth, in Mexico City on August 17, 2017.

MEXICO CITY - It was a startling fall from grace in a country where high-level corruption is rarely prosecuted.

In 2019, Emilio Lozoya, the former head of Mexico's state oil company, one of the most powerful positions in the government, was charged with bribery, money laundering and criminal association in a scheme that allegedly earned him millions.

A fugitive for seven months, he was arrested early this year in Spain under an international warrant, extradited to Mexico in July and placed in home detention as the case against him proceeds.

He is not going quietly.

In a 60-page declaration to prosecutors leaked to the Mexican media this week, the 45-year-old leveled bombshell corruption charges against more than a dozen former and current politicians, including three ex-presidents, five former senators and a pair of 2018 presidential runners-up.

The revelations have been alternately received here as a shocking inside story of how the system really works or as the invention of a corrupt ex-functionary desperate to stay out of prison.

Lozoya's most explosive allegations - payoffs, bribery, extortion and vote-buying - were directed at Enrique Pena Nieto, who upon assuming the presidency in 2012 named him head of Petroleos Mexicanos, and Luis Videgaray, who managed Pena Nieto's election campaign and became his finance chief and later the foreign minister.

Pena Nieto and Videgaray, according to the statement, directed the oil company boss to create a "criminal association, aimed at enriching themselves not only from the public treasury, but also through extortion ... fraud and deception ... and to take economic advantage of this damage to the nation."

Pena Nieto has not responded publicly.

Videgaray, currently a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, called Lozoya's assertions "lies invented to try and free himself from the consequences of his own actions."

Federal authorities are investigating the accusations from Lozoya, who is now a protected witness, said Alejandro Gertz Manero, the attorney general.

In his declaration, Lozoya includes numerous lists of what he calls bank transfers of alleged bribes for lawmakers. He asserts that witnesses and videos back his sensational allegations. But prosecutors have released no official evidence.

Still, the accusations have shaken the political hierarchy here and raised the prospect of ex-presidents facing interrogation under oath, something unprecedented in modern-day Mexico.

Neither current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador nor any of his party loyalists were accused of receiving payoffs. That has prompted many to denounce the affair as a political smear job meant to bolster the president's lagging poll numbers in advance of next year's midterm elections.

The president is deploying Lozoya "as an instrument of vengeance and political persecution," tweeted former President Felipe Calderon, who is among the accused and has denied any wrongdoing. Lopez Obrador, he said, "is not interested in justice, but rather in a lynching."

A pair of sitting opposition governors - Francisco Dominguez and Francisco Cabeza de Vaca, from the states of Queretaro and Tamaulipas, respectively - both denied Lozoya's allegations that they took bribes while serving in the Senate.

For Lopez Obrador, the media focus on the scandal has been a welcome shift from persistent criticism of his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a cratering economy and unchecked gang violence.

"It's incredible how well this is functioning" for Lopez Obrador, Mario Campos, a political analyst, wrote on Twitter. "Focus all the attention on Lozoya ... The economy is sinking, poverty is growing, the pandemic is unrelenting, and violence doesn't stop. And his approval ratings (are) going up."

The president has called on his two immediate predecessors, Pena Nieto and Calderon, to testify before Mexican prosecutors.

The president has denied seeking "revenge," despite bad blood with the pair. He has repeatedly accused Pena Nieto and Calderon of employing fraud to thwart him in two failed presidential bids.

"We are not persecuting anyone," Lopez Obrador told reporters Friday. "What we want is for the corruption to end, an end to this official banditry."

Lopez Obrador finally won the presidency in 2018 on an anti-corruption platform citing a shadowy "mafia of power" - a corrupt, inner-circle ruling clique.

At a news conference this week, he played YouTube footage depicting Mexican Senate aides placing plastic bundles of cash into a suitcase.

"This video ... displays the filth of the regime of corruption," declared Lopez Obrador, who lamented that many television stations didn't showcase the images. "All this money was used to buy ... consciences, to buy votes."

Prosecutors have not verified the undated clip.

Lozoya was often described by the Mexican media as a "golden boy" of politics, a debonair, Harvard-educated product of the country's entitled governing class, grandson of an ex-governor, son of a former Cabinet minister, and protege of Pena Nieto.

His stature took a hit in 2016, though, when he stepped down as head of the oil giant - known as Pemex - amid declining revenues and criticism of his management.

As Pemex director, he allegedly purchased luxury homes and stuffed international bank accounts with millions of dollars in payoffs from various sources, including the Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht.

The company stands at the center of one of the largest international corruption scandals in history. A U.S. prosecutor once said it ran an off-the-books "Department of Bribery," paying off officials on three continents.

In his declaration, Lozoya said that when he was serving as the international coordinator of Pena Nieto's election bid, he met with Odebrecht's Mexican representative and secured a $6 million payment to the campaign.

"I told (the Odebrecht executive) that this request came directly from then-candidate Pena Nieto and that Odebrecht would see benefits" once he was president, Lozoya said in his statement to prosecutors. "He told me that was fine."

Lozoya also told prosecutors that, as president-elect, Pena Nieto later met secretly in Sao Paulo, Brazil, with the company's chief executive, Marcelo Odebrecht, who was convicted of corruption in the country in 2016 and sent to prison.

Money from Odebrecht bribes was also used to buy votes in the Mexican legislature to help secure passage of Pena Nieto's signature energy privatization initiative, Lozoya said.

In the case of Calderon, who was president from 2006 to 2012, Lozoya alleged that Odebrecht paid bribes to secure approval of a petrochemical plant in the gulf state of Veracruz and also received a sweetheart deal in purchasing ethane, a compound used in plastics manufacturing.

In addition, Lozoya alleged that Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the president from 1988 to 1994, pressured Pemex officials to give contracts to one of his sons. Salinas de Gortari has not responded to the allegation.