Thursday, June 20, 2024

A year after arrest of ex-Pemex boss, little progress seen in Odebrecht corruption case

A year after former Pemex CEO Emilio Lozoya was arrested in Spain, scant progress has been made in the Odebrecht corruption case, in which he has implicated a who’s who of Mexico’s political elite including three past presidents.

Lozoya, head of Pemex during the first half of the 2012-2018 government led by former president Enrique Peña Nieto, was taken into custody in Spain on February 12, 2020 and extradited to Mexico last July.

He is accused of receiving more than US $10 million in bribes from Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction company, in exchange for awarding it a lucrative contract for work on the Pemex refinery in Tula, Hidalgo, and taking a kickback in excess of $3 million from the president of Altos Hornos de México, a company from which Pemex purchased a rundown fertilizer plant in 2015 at an allegedly vastly inflated price.

The former state oil company chief, formerly a close ally of Peña Nieto, denied those charges in court appearances via video link shortly after he was extradited to Mexico. He hasn’t been required to appear in court, either in person or virtually, since.

A day after Lozoya’s arrest in Spain, President López Obrador pledged there would be “no protection for anyone” involved in the Odebrecht corruption case but after returning to Mexico the former Pemex boss was given protected witness status and has not been held in custody, apparently because he is in less than optimal health.

Lozoya has implicated ex-presidents and other officials but no one has appeared in court.

(Upon arrival in Mexico, Lozoya was immediately transferred to a private Mexico City hospital, where he was treated for anemia and an esophagus problem.)

In cooperating with authorities in the hope that he will be acquitted or given a lighter sentence, Lozoya has implicated former presidents Peña Nieto, Felipe Calderón and Carlos Salinas in corruption linked to Odebrecht as well as numerous other former and current officials. Based on Lozoya’s claims, the federal Attorney General’s Office (FGR) accused Peña Nieto of being the author of a bribery scheme that allegedly used Odebrecht money to buy lawmakers’ support for the former government’s structural reforms, in particular the energy reform which opened up the sector to foreign and private companies after an almost 80-year state monopoly.

While the government has been trying to obtain a warrant for the arrest of former finance and foreign affairs minister Luis Videgaray, whom Lozoya also implicated, none of the officials cited by the former Pemex chief has yet been brought before a court.

Estefanía Medina, a lawyer and co-founder of the anti-impunity organization Tojil, told the news agency EFE that it was “extremely worrying” that Lozoya was afforded the opportunity to cooperate with authorities as a protected witness given the gravity of the crimes of which he is accused. She predicted that he will eventually be exonerated of all charges against him in exchange for providing the information that implicates other former officials.

Medina said that authorities in other Latin American countries that have conducted probes into Odebrecht have given  implicated government officials the opportunity to cooperate in exchange for exoneration or more lenient sentences. But such arrangements have typically been limited to lower ranking functionaries who were not at the center of the corrupt activities, she said.

Given that Lozoya was at the center of the Odebrecht scandal in Mexico, he should face a “full trial at which the facts are clarified,” Medina said.

As there has been little information in recent months about the progress of the FGR’s investigation into the corruption case, there is fear in some quarters that impunity, which has long plagued Mexico, will once again prevail.

“The Lozoya case, once he was brought to Mexico, began to exhibit strange signs,” constitutional lawyer Luis Pérez de Acha told the newspaper El País.

He claimed that it was never made clear why Lozoya was given the opportunity to cooperate with authorities on the case in exchange for potential acquittal, adding that it was strange he was given that chance given the serious nature of the accusations he faces.

Pérez also said that more than enough time has passed for Lozoya to provide information to the authorities and for them to build their case against those allegedly involved in the Odebrecht case.

The FGR said in late January that former Senator Jorge Luis Lavalle, one of the lawmakers who allegedly received cash in exchange for supporting the former government’s reforms, would be summoned to appear in court but no date for that to occur has yet been set.

Accusations against Lozoya are serious but he may never face trial.

El País said that if the case against Lavalle, whose former close collaborator Rafael Caraveo was seen receiving wads of cash in a video that surfaced last August, is not successful, other allegations made by Lozoya might not stand up to scrutiny in court either.

If authorities are unsuccessful in using Lozoya’s evidence to obtain guilty verdicts against the officials he has implicated, or even bring them before a court, they would presumably be more likely to seek a hefty sentence against the ex-Pemex CEO in order to avoid complete impunity and at least provide some evidence to back up the claim that the federal government is serious about prosecuting corruption.

However, it is possible that the authorities and Lozoya have already reached an acquittal deal, regardless of the final outcome of the case, that hasn’t been revealed: the entire case has been characterized by a lack of transparency, with information only arriving in dribs and drabs via leaks and infrequent, sometimes nebulous statements from the FGR.

Indeed, more information has been released by the president than justice officials, raising criticism that the case has been used for political gain. Earlier this week López Obrador went after opposition critics of new energy policies, suggesting they ought to be embarrassed in light of “millions of pesos” having been handed out to politicians to approve the 2013-2014 energy reform.

He claimed there is proof of the payments being made, yet no evidence has been presented in a court of law.

Whether Lozoya and those he has implicated in corrupt activity will be put on trial is as yet unclear but the probability of that occurring any time soon appears very low due to the slow pace at which the Odebrecht case is proceeding.

While the former Pemex CEO and others might be in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, the chance that they will be locked up behind bars in the near future appears negligible. If impunity in the case – former Odebrecht officials have admitted bribes were paid in Mexico – does eventually prevail, as many ordinary Mexicans believe will occur, it will not only be yet another setback for the rule of law but a major blight on the record of the federal government.

Mexico News Daily

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