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Mexican authorities issue arrest warrant for ex-Pemex CEO

Mexican authorities have issued an arrest warrant for the former director of state oil firm Petroleos Mexicanos in what looks to be the most ambitious anti-corruption push yet by the new administration.

President Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1 on vows to stamp out endemic public corruption but not to target former government officials, defended the case Wednesday as the continuation of an investigation that began under his predecessor, Enrique Pea Nieto.

“There is no political persecution,” Lpez Obrador said during his early morning press conference. “These are facts, alleged crimes, that have to be pursued.”

Attorney General Alejandro Gertz told Mexican broadcaster Televisa on Wednesday that efforts to locate former Pemex chief Emilio Lozoya have not been successful, but that the case against him is solid. Also on air with Televisa, Lozoya’s personal lawyer, Javier Coello, suggested that Pea Nieto be called in for questioning.

Lozoya managed Pea Nieto’s campaign for president before being placed at the helm of Pemex, from 2012 to 2016.

The case against Lozoya centers on the 2015 sale of a fertilizer plant by steel maker Altos Hornos Mexicanos SA to Pemex for what auditors said was an inflated price.

Investigators say Lozoya appears to have received a substantial personal payment for facilitating the purchase, at the expense of taxpayers. His accounts have been frozen.

AHMSA Chairman Alonso Ancira was detained in Spain on Tuesday, though AHMSA accounts were unfrozen early Wednesday so that the steelmaker, which employs more than 20,000 workers, can continue operations.

Coello said in a Tuesday statement that he had filed judicial actions contesting the account freeze and any potential arrest warrant for Lozoya. A judge in Mexico City issued a provisional suspension against his detention on Wednesday. Legal injunctions are frequently deployed in Mexico to prevent arrests.

Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit said Monday that “there were various transactions with funds that presumably did not come from legal activities” in the frozen accounts and the funds “are presumed to have originated in acts of corruption.”

Santiago Nieto, head of the unit, called the account freezes a hallmark of the “new” Finance Ministry. “The policy of the Mexico government is zero tolerance for corruption and impunity,” he wrote on Twitter.

Nieto was a top corruption investigator in the administration of Pea Nieto until he was abruptly fired in 2017 in the middle of a probe into Lozoya’s dealings while head of Pemex.

Nieto reopened the case in his new position with Lpez Obrador.

Lpez Obrador expressed support for Nieto’s investigation and those of any other public servant who spots apparent misdeeds.

Public servants like Nieto have been told “not to cover anything up” or “protect anyone,” and to immediately present findings of potential misuse of public funds to the attorney general’s office, Lpez Obrador said.

He added that the attorney general’s office will decide whether to broaden the case to include other government officials who approved Pemex’s acquisition of the Fertinal fertilizer business. Including capital improvements, Lpez Obrador said Pemex has invested nearly $1 billion into a factory that was practically “junk” and not operational when purchased.

Lozoya and Altos Hornos have also been mentioned, but not charged, in corruption scandals involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht.

Lozoya has previously denied taking bribes from Odebrecht, while AHMSA acknowledged a $3.7 million payment for services to a company that has been identified as a possible vehicle that Odebrecht used to disguise illicit payments.

The so-called Car Wash investigation into illicit payments by Odebrecht to government officials has led to multiple arrests and prosecutions in Latin American countries over the past five years, but none in Mexico.

(Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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