Mexico’s president has made punishing corruption the centerpiece of his political agenda, so when one of the country’s most corrupt and self-confessed ex-officials was photographed dining out carefree at a luxury restaurant over the weekend, it wasn’t good optics.
The photographs of Emilio Lozoya, the former head of the state-run oil company who is now a government witness in a corruption case involving allegations of hundreds of millions in bribes, couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Currently, Mexico’s attorney general is trying to lock up 31 academics in a maximum security prison because he claims they improperly received about $2.5 million in government science funding years ago. The laws at the time allowed such funding, and the researchers say it wasn’t misspent.
Meanwhile, the same attorney general hasn’t managed to jail any of the top figures implicated in a big corruption case at the state-run Pemex oil company that almost bankrupted the firm.
Mexico City security analyst Alejandro Hope was blunt about the uproar Monday: “The optics suck. They’re horrible.”
Even López Obrador was angered by the photos of Lozoya in a Mexico City restaurant, even though as a protected witness he is not confined to his home or under any form of arrest.
“I believe it is legal, but is immoral that these things happen. It is imprudent, at the very least,” López Obrador said. “That is why there is so much indignation at him eating at a luxury restaurant. Even though he can legally do so, he is a witness to acts of corruption that damaged Mexico a lot.”
It is all the more embarrassing because López Obrador announced Monday he will make only his second trip outside the country to visit the United Nations on Nov. 9 — to give a speech about the dangers of corruption.
Lozoya fled to Spain, was arrested there and extradited back to Mexico in 2020. He quickly decided to turn state’s evidence and testify against other former officials, in return for not going to jail himself.
Lozoya alleged that former President Enrique Peña Nieto and his right-hand man, then treasury secretary Luis Videgaray directed him to bribe lawmakers, including five senators, to support controversial energy and other structural reforms in 2013 and 2014.
Lozoya also faces corruption charges related to Pemex’s overvalued purchase of a fertilizer plant and to millions in dollars of bribes paid by Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. He has said Peña Nieto and Videgaray told him to use $4 million from Odebrecht to pay foreign campaign consultants for work on Peña Nieto’s 2012 election campaign.
Videgaray has denied the accusations. Peña Nieto, who left office in 2018 and is reported to live abroad, hasn’t spoken publicly since the allegations surfaced. Neither man faces any charges.
And the businessman accused of bilking the government on the fertilizer plant deal quickly repaid some of the money and was released.
So the only people prosecutors have really gone after in the case are the opposition politicians who allegedly received the bribes, and that has raised suspicions in a country where the law has long been used only to punish political enemies.
The office of Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero said in a statement that the case against Lozoya and the other allegedly corrupt officials continues. He said Lozoya’s case will come up again at a Nov. 3 hearing.
But Lozoya has already won numerous extensions in his case. “Lozoya has been able to play for time, and he may be betting on this administration ending,” said Hope, the security analyst.
The photographs of Lozoya dining out with friends pretty much put to rest the idea that López Obrador was going to energetically prosecute crimes of the past, the analyst said.
“This is the last nail in the coffin of the fantasy that this case was going to blow the lid off the sewer of corruption,” Hope noted.
Gertz Manero’s office, meanwhile, is still trying to lock up 31 academics and researchers in a maximum security prison usually reserved for drug lords even though one judge has already refused to issue arrest warrants for them.
Protests were heard from researchers in Mexico and abroad last month after prosecutors accused the academics and members of a scientific advisory board of money laundering, organized crime and embezzlement, for allegedly spending too much money on superfluous items not directly related to research.
Members of the advisory board, created to promote scientific discussion, said that the $2.5 million was not misspent and that it operated under the council’s own rules for more than 15 years.