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MEXICO CITY — For Mexicans, the news is disturbing — and disturbingly familiar. A key witness in a major corruption case has accused former President Enrique Peña Nieto of directing bribes to fund his presidential campaign.
Many Mexican leaders have been accused of corruption, but no president or former president has ever been criminally prosecuted. If the allegations made public on Tuesday lead to formal charges against Mr. Peña Nieto, it would be a historic victory for the current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has vowed to root out graft and has called his predecessors “the mafia of power.”
But if the accusations never grow beyond unsubstantiated claims, serving only to lift the electoral fortunes of one party over another, then they would become just part of the same machinations that have defined bare-knuckle Mexican politics for generations.
“This is a great opportunity to fulfill the mandate to control corruption,” said Eduardo Bohorquez, the director of Transparency International Mexico, an anti-corruption nonprofit. “But we have seen this political game many times, and what we want to see this time is justice — not that they use the case but that they really prosecute those responsible.”
The latest allegations were made by Emilio Lozoya Austin, a one-time fugitive and former head of the state-run oil company, in a sprawling investigation into graft under Mr. Peña Nieto, who was president from 2012 to 2018. Mexico’s attorney general, Alejandro Gertz Manero, made the claims public in a video posted on Tuesday.
Mr. Lozoya accused Mr. Peña Nieto and Luis Videgaray, the former finance minister, of using millions of dollars in bribes to compensate foreign consultants in the 2012 presidential campaign, and of directing millions more to six members of Congress in exchange for votes on important legislation in 2013 and 2014.
Mr. Peña Nieto left office with historically low approval ratings after presiding over a string of corruption scandals, including his wife’s purchase of a mansion from a contractor with close ties to the president. Last year, a witness in the trial of the drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, testified that Mr. Guzmán had paid a $100 million bribe to Mr. Peña Nieto, though the claim has never been proven.
The case involving Mr. Lozoya stems from a long-running probe into bribes paid by the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht in exchange for government contracts across Latin America. Odebrecht has admitted to paying $10.5 million to Mexican officials.
Under Mr. Peña Nieto, who has denied allegations of corruption, the government declined to bring charges against anyone in the Odebrecht scandal, which has brought down high-ranking officials in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru.
Mr. López Obrador pursued the case in earnest after winning a landslide victory in 2018, as prosecutors zeroed in on a transfer of $3.6 million into a shell company tied to Mr. Lozoya, which they said was facilitated by Odebrecht. After fleeing the country, Mr. Lozoya was arrested in Spain in February and extradited to Mexico, where he is cooperating with authorities.
He has said that the millions distributed to campaign advisers at the direction of Mr. Peña Nieto and Mr. Videgaray came from bribes paid by Odebrecht, according to the attorney general.
The investigation could bolster an administration in dire need of a political victory. Mr. López Obrador remains popular here, but his poll numbers have been declining in the midst of a pandemic that has left more than 53,000 dead and millions out of work. Congressional elections will take place next year and the president’s party will have to fight to maintain its control of the legislature.
But making such explosive accusations public before any formal charges are filed comes with its own risks. Mexican prosecutors have a history of bungling high-profile investigations and using them for political ends, and if the new revelations are mishandled or lead nowhere, it could hurt the president in the long run, analysts said.
“It worries at least some of us that the president only wants to win the elections and not actually investigate corruption,” said Esteban Illades, a newspaper columnist. “He definitely needs a win, because we are on the road to 60,000 deaths here in Mexico.”
Mr. López Obrador has repeatedly expressed skepticism about prosecuting former presidents, and suggested at a news conference on Wednesday that he would seek a referendum before going after Mr. Peña Nieto. He also seemed to play down the consequences of the allegations.
“If it was just a statement, without evidence, it has no legal, and I would say, social and moral value,” Mr. López Obrador said. “There has to be proof to back it up, evidence, witnesses. There is apparently a video, I would want to see it, like all Mexicans.”
Paulina Villegas contributed reporting.
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