By Anthony Esposito and Ana Isabel Martinez
MEXICO CITY, May 28 (Reuters) - Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador made his boldest move yet to root out entrenched corruption by going after one of his predecessor’s closest aides, a former chief of state oil firm Pemex, for alleged bribery, tax fraud and other crimes.
The target, Emilio Lozoya, headed Pemex from 2012 to 2016 and ran former president Enrique Pena Nieto’s election campaign.
The case is the first high-profile corruption investigation launched by Lopez Obrador against the government he replaced on Dec. 1 after a landslide victory.
The Finance Ministry’s money-laundering czar Santiago Nieto said in an interview on Tuesday that the Financial Intelligence Unit he leads presented the attorney general’s office with three charges against Lozoya related to “acts of corruption” committed when he was at the helm of Pemex.
Citing sources at the attorney general’s office, government-owned news agency Notimex said a judge had ordered the arrest of Emilio Lozoya, who headed Pemex from 2012 to 2016.
Nieto, the attorney general’s office and even Lozoya’s lawyer, Javier Coello, could not confirm if an arrest warrant had been issued.
However, authorities raided Lozoya’s home in a high-end Mexico City neighborhood on Tuesday night, Coello told TV network Milenio. Lozoya was not home, or at his father’s house, which was also raided, Coello said.
The attorney general’s office said that Alonso Ancira, the chairman of steelmaker Altos Hornos de Mexico, which sold an out-of-service fertilizer plant to Pemex for about $475 million while Lozoya was chief executive, was detained in Spain by Interpol for his alleged involvement in “a series of crimes that gravely hurt” Pemex.
It added that more arrests were likely.
On Monday, the finance ministry said it had blocked accounts belonging to Lozoya and to AHMSA for allegedly carrying out illegal financial operations.
Nieto said the case also had links to Brazilian builder Odebrecht, whose executives have testified about bribes to politicians across Latin America.
“One of the charges is related to payments that Mr. Lozoya received from resources that come first from Altos Hornos de Mexico to an Odebrecht subsidiary and then from Odebrecht to his relatives,” said Nieto.
“This leads to various operations, including in real estate,” he added.
Non-government organization Mexicans Against Corruption said Lozoya bought a 1,165-square-meter (12,540-square-ft) home in the upscale Mexico City neighborhood of Las Lomas for $2.9 million, the same amount he and his sister were allegedly wired in Dec. 2012 from Switzerland by Odebrecht.
Odebrecht executives detailed millions of dollars in payments to Lozoya in sworn testimony leaked in videos to investigative news site Quinto Elemento Lab and now available on the internet.
Lozoya’s lawyer Coello previously told Reuters that his client did not receive bribes from AHMSA or Odebrecht and that none of Lozoya’s work at Pemex has been proved to have involved corruption. Coello said in a radio interview that Lozoya was in Mexico, denying some reports that he had left the country.
Last year, Quinto Elemento reported AHMSA paid $3.7 million to a shell company allegedly set up by Odebrecht to pay bribes.
Citing documents from Brazil’s Supreme Court, Quinto Elemento said AHMSA made three wire transfers to Grangemouth Trading Co’s account weeks after the steel company announced the controversial sale of the fertilizer plant to Pemex.
AHMSA’s Grangemouth payments were made to an account with Meinl Bank Antigua, Quinto Elemento said. The account was the same one Odebrecht executives said in testimony that they had used to pay Lozoya bribes.
Reuters reviewed the documents obtained by Quinto Elemento.
Pemex Fertilizers, a Pemex subsidiary created during Pena Nieto’s term, purchased two fertilizer plants in 2014 and 2016. One of the plants, ProAgro, was bought from AHMSA for $475 million, a sum that critics say was inflated.
“The plant was valued at $50 million and they wound up selling it for almost $500 million,” said Nieto.
ProAgro had not been operational for more than a decade when Pemex bought it.
Despite hundreds of millions of dollars spent to revive ProAgro, the plant was still not operating this year, according to a scathing government audit of the 2017 operations of Pemex, Mexico’s biggest state-owned firm.
The second plant, Fertinal, operated well below capacity, and Pemex Fertilizers suffered net losses of $665 million that year, the report said, adding that its assets were worth $1.1 billion less over the course of the year.
Lozoya has defended the purchases as part of the government’s efforts to provide support to agriculture in Mexico.
Reporting by Ana Isabel Martinez, Anthony Esposito, Diego Ore, Lizbeth Diaz; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Clarence Fernandez