Prosecutors in Mexico may have gathered enough evidence to charge officials who allegedly accepted bribes from Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, but politicization of the investigations and the country’s weak judicial system are likely stalling prosecutions.
Criminal cases implicating Mexican officials in Latin America’s widest-reaching corruption scandal are “trapped in legal limbo,” with prosecutors “refusing to bring charges because they might hurt the governing party ahead of presidential elections,” the New York Times reported on June 11.
In late 2016, Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht reached a record-setting multibillion-dollar anti-corruption settlement with the United States, Brazil and Switzerland. As part of Odebrecht’s guilty plea, the company admitted to paying $10.5 million in bribes to Mexican officials in exchange for $39 million in contracts between 2010 and 2014.
In the subsequent years, two separate federal investigations into the bribes have been opened in Mexico, but both have stagnated, according to sources familiar with the cases and documents reviewed by the New York Times.
An investigation opened early last year by Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office “amassed enough evidence months ago to charge suspects” from Mexico’s state-owned oil firm Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), but “the political pressures are too great … for the case to move forward,” the New York Times reported.
Although former Mexico Attorney General Raúl Cervantes said the investigation was complete before he stepped down in October 2017, his successor Alberto Elías Beltrán has refused to reveal details of the case, claiming it is ongoing.
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A second federal investigation opened in August 2017 by Santiago Nieto, Mexico’s special prosecutor for electoral crimes, has also flatlined. The case sought to determine whether current Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto received illicit campaign funding from Odebrecht via payments allegedly made to Emilio Lozoya Austin, the former head of Pemex who served as Peña Nieto’s international engagement coordinator during his 2012 campaign.
According to the New York Times, Nieto’s investigation “was quickly gummed up by bureaucracy” and fights with Lozoya Austin’s lawyers. Then, days after filing requests with the Attorney General’s Office for bank account information tied to the case, the special prosecutor was fired in October 2017.
InSight Crime Analysis
Of the dozen Latin American countries wrapped up in the Odebrecht scandal, Mexico, where not one official has been charged, is perhaps the clearest case of how politicization and a weak judicial system can stall investigations, in spite of an abundance of evidence linking elites to graft.
With elections looming next month, the Odebrecht-related charges are likely being stalled by the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI). “Ultimately, the outrage over any cover-up may be less damaging to the party than exposing more corruption at a trial,” said the New York Times’ sources.
Maureen Meyer, the director for Mexico and Migrants Rights at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), told InSight Crime that the stalled Odebrecht investigations are representative of the lengths that Mexican politicians are willing to go to “avoid investigating any officials linked to corruption.”
Meyer said that although “there is a lot of evidence in Mexico that should lead to a more solid investigation,” practically every large-scale corruption case in the country has been blocked by a lack of will among the country’s major parties to investigate themselves and other elites, and their direct influence over the judiciary.
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According to Meyer, the firing of special prosecutor Nieto during his investigation of the president’s close advisor Lozoya Austin is exemplary of how within the current “politically-influenced” judicial system, “if you move too far forward, you get fired.”
Meyer suggests that the creation of a well-trained independent Attorney General’s Office and the implementation of already approved anti-graft reforms could go a long way to reduce political interference and allow investigations to move forward.
However, even if progress is made on these fronts, Meyer said that the next challenge will be securing international support to build up Mexican prosecutors’ capacity to tackle “very complex cases” involving high-level corruption.