A crowd of journalists and onlookers awaited him at the prison entrance. Some had even spent the night out in the open to secure a front row seat as if it were the last Rolling Stones concert. In reality, all that expectation was for Emilio Lozoya. The powerful former director of Pemex was going to sit for the first time in front of the judge of a prison in Mexico City for the millionaire bribes of the Odebrecht case, the corruption plot that in recent years has put the political class in check in several Latin American countries . Accompanied by his lawyers, Lozoya got out of a black van this Wednesday morning and advanced among the cloud of heads, microphones and screams. After a few steps, he tripped over a cable and went through the prison door, stumbling but still holding a black leather briefcase. An omen of the bad news that awaited him inside the room.
In principle, Lozoya went before the judge to request a new extension of the term of the interminable investigation phase. But amid a growing shadow of impunity, controversial photos quietly dining with friends at a fancy restaurant unleashed an unexpected twist that has landed Lozoya in prison while the case is solved. The hitherto untouchable former head of the state oil company, a centerpiece of the Mexican derivative of the Odebrecht plot, had managed to avoid any direct contact with Justice thanks to an agreement with the Prosecutor’s Office. Arrested at the beginning of last year in a luxury urbanization in Spain, after his extradition to Mexico he was charged with the crimes of laundering, criminal association and bribery for at least 10 million dollars.
Despite the seriousness of the crimes, thanks to a particular Mexican legal figure, he became a kind of protected collaborating witness. In exchange for pulling the blanket and accusing the highest government of Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018), with whom he worked hand in hand, the former director of the oil company managed to spend more than a year and a half with the only punishment of not being able to leave the country. Up to now. A judge from the North Prison in the capital has ruled that Lozoya must wait behind bars for the final sentence.
What has changed so that the same judge who ruled out pretrial detention last year has now decided to change his mind? That is what the defense lawyers asked themselves during more than five hours of hearing, who stressed that their client had not crossed any red line on the agreement. The judge agreed with them and specified that the reasons for locking up Lozoya were already very present during the first hearings: the weight of the crimes charged – with penalties ranging from 12 to 35 years – and the consequent risk of flight due to the high economic power of the accused. Behind the unexpected twist of the script appears the new position of the Prosecutor’s Office. Often questioned for its politicization, the Mexican public ministry abandoned this Wednesday the path of the pact with the accused and went on the attack requesting preventive detention due to the progressive sense of impunity that surrounded the case.
Son of a minister of the PRI governments of the eighties, Lozoya symbolizes not only the lineage of Mexican technocratic power – he himself is an economist and with financial studies at Harvard – but the excesses and corruption of the last PRI government. Two of the declared enemies of the Government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in his crusade for political regeneration that, to a large extent, led him to sweep at the polls three years ago.
The Supper of Discord
The outrage at the worst black holes in Mexican politics and justice flared up again last month with photos of Lozoya dining with some friends in a fancy restaurant. In a country where only 1 in 10 cases are solved, but in which hundreds of thousands of people are imprisoned awaiting sentence for crimes as serious as stealing a watermelon, few understood the scene of a political figure accused of receiving millionaire bribes relaxing enjoying a lacquered duck and a good wine.
“Are we going to take away a person’s freedom because they saw him eating in a restaurant?” The rhetorical question of the defense tried to respond to the insistence with which the Prosecutor’s Office exposed Lozoya’s feast as the main new argument to toughen the precautionary measures. “A provocation to Justice”, some images of “little procedural modesty” that reflect “the level of impunity with which the accused is moving.” Those were the motives of the Prosecutor’s Office in addition to revealing a new triangulation of bribes between companies based in tax havens that would have ended with two million dollars in favor of Lozoya.
In the framework of the agreement with the prosecution, Lozoya launched in August of last year a cataract of accusations distributed among the highest of Mexican power. Specifically, he pointed out to former President Peña Nieto and his right-hand man, Luis Videgaray, of orchestrating and planning a network of bribes of at least 10 million dollars distributed between the PRI electoral campaign in 2012 and the payments to opposition legislators to approve the energy reform of the following year.
Since the beginning of the award-winning denunciations, the defense has embarked on the challenge of crediting all those accusations, which include three former presidents, two presidential candidates and 11 legislators, while drawing Lozoya as a minor piece that was barely limited to carry out orders within a network of corruption designed directly from the presidential residence of Los Pinos. A strategy that, after almost a year and a half of investigations, has so far only claimed the head of a senator from the PAN -right-, Jorge Lavalle, prosecuted in April for receiving bribes in exchange for his support for the energy reform.
The Odebrecht case in Mexico has also targeted the prosecution, a theoretically independent body but over which the shadow of politicization hangs. Accustomed to setting the agenda during the daily morning conferences from the National Palace, López Obrador has been sending messages in the course of a case that from the beginning has emerged as emblematic in the fight against impunity. Specifically, his response to the controversial photos of Lozoya’s dinner was very similar to the speech presented this Wednesday by the prosecution: “it is immoral and a provocation.”
Lozoya received the judge’s decision taken by the hand of his mother, sitting next to him on the bench for the charge of money laundering. During the day, the body language of both was very different. While Margarita Austin maintained an image of serenity, with her arms on her legs almost during the five hours of hearing; her son kept putting on the mask, craning his neck, bending down to pull up his socks, or crossing his arms. All this while taking notes on some blank pages that he had taken from the black leather briefcase. The last intervention of the audience before the ruling was his. A plea where it was presented again as a simple piece within a machinery that surpassed it: “I was an instrument within a State apparatus. I have already accused many people, but they are free. This is a very complex case with many interests. But the truth is that many times people don’t like it ”.
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