Mexican president denies 'political persecution' in graft case

Mexico City (AFP) –


Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Wednesday denied that he was persecuting figures linked to the previous government, as authorities began making arrests in his administration's first major corruption case.

Lopez Obrador, an anti-establishment leftist, was elected last year on a promise to wage war on Mexico's deep-rooted political corruption.

This week, his government made its first high-profile moves to do just that, zeroing in on the alleged plundering of state oil company Pemex.

Speaking after prosecutors confirmed an arrest warrant had been issued for Emilio Lozoya, the former chief executive of Pemex and a top advisor to ex-president Enrique Pena Nieto, Lopez Obrador insisted the case was not politically motivated.

"There is no political persecution here. These are alleged crimes that have to be investigated," he told a press conference.

"Vengeance isn't my strong suit," he added, saying he did not know either Lozoya or an alleged co-conspirator arrested Tuesday, Alonso Ancira -- the head of Altos Hornos de Mexico, one of the country's largest steel companies.

Lozoya and Ancira are accused of orchestrating a dodgy 2014 deal in which Altos Hornos sold Pemex a defunct fertilizer plant for $475 million.

Altos Hornos denies wrongdoing and says the plant was valued properly.

Ancira was arrested on the Spanish island of Mallorca as he tried to board a flight to Canada, after Mexico asked Interpol to issue a notice for his arrest on charges of corruption, fraud and organized crime, according to Spanish police.

A Mexican judge has also issued an arrest warrant for Lozoya -- though it was later suspended for up to 15 days, after his lawyer filed an injunction request, demanding more details on the accusations.

Lozoya's whereabouts are unknown, though his attorney says he is in Mexico.

Officers raided his father's house in Mexico City late Tuesday but "found nothing," the attorney, Javier Coello, told Mexican TV network Milenio.

Lozoya headed Pemex, Mexico's largest company, from 2012 to 2016, during the Pena Nieto administration.

Prior to that, he was chief international strategist on Pena Nieto's 2012 presidential campaign, and led the politician's transition team after he won.

He is accused in a separate case of taking millions of dollars in bribes from Brazilian company Odebrecht, the construction giant accused of paying billions to politicians across Latin America to win lucrative contracts.

Lozoya is accused of funneling Odebrecht bribes to Pena Nieto's campaign. He denies the allegation.