MEXICO CITY (AP) — The former head of Mexico’s state oil company was arrested Wednesday in Spain on a international warrant issued by Mexico, authorities said, marking one of the most high-profile detentions for alleged corruption under a president who made fighting graft a core promise to Mexicans.
Mexican Attorney General Alejandro Gertz Manero told Radio Formula that Emilio Lozoya was arrested in the southern port city of Malaga and that the goal was his extradition to Mexico. His office confirmed in a brief statement the detention in Spain of an “Emilio ‘L,’” without giving a full last name.
Lozoya was director of Pemex between 2012 and 2016, during the administration of former President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Mexico issued international arrest warrants for Lozoya last year as a result of corruption investigations, including into his alleged ties to Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction company that secured contracts across Latin America through a network of bribes.
Officials are also investigating Pemex’s purchase of a fertilizer plant in 2015 at an allegedly inflated price.
Lozoya has repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
Spain’s Interior Ministry released video of Lozoya arriving at a police station in a vehicle and being escorted inside in handcuffs by two officers in neon yellow police vests. His face was blurred out in the images.
Gerardo Rodríguez, a political scientist at the University of the Americas in Puebla, called the arrest the “most important blow in the fight against corruption in Mexico.”
“Lozoya is the archetype of the corrupt Mexican international technocrat,” Rodríguez said, saying he was close to a former president and involved family members in his business. Lozoya’s mother is currently under house arrest with an investigation open against her.
Observers said it was a win for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government and his promises to root out corruption.
“It is a positive sign,” said Eduardo Bohórquez, director of the non-governmental group Mexican Transparency. He added that “this would have to be the first of many arrests. it remains to be seen whether there is truly a dismantled network and whether the stolen money will be recovered.”
Gertz said prosecutors had been pursuing multiple investigations against Lozoya for months. He called it an “iconic case” that was nearly a year in the making with authorities across Europe.
After Gertz confirmed the arrest, Lozoya’s lawyer in Mexico, Javier Coello Trejo, said the news “hit me like a bucket of cold water.” He told Radio Formula that Lozoya was convinced the investigation was baseless and was open to turning himself in. He said he hadn’t yet spoken to his client since the arrest.
Gertz did not specify on what charges Lozoya was detained. But the Spanish government said he was wanted in relation to events from 2012 to 2013 and, citing Mexican prosecutors, that the government may have been defrauded to the tune an estimated $280 million.
The international manhunt for Lozoya began in May 2019 via Interpol. Spanish authorities had information about him being present in various parts of the country, but his wealth and “international ties made locating him difficult,” Spain’s Interior Ministry said in a statement.
He was expected to appear before a judge Thursday in Madrid.
In late 2016, Odebrecht, reached an agreement with American, Brazilian and Swiss justice officials to pay millions of dollars in penalties. As part of that accord, Odebrecht divulged details of bribes across several countries. It said it paid $10.5 million to officials at Pemex between 2010 and 2014. Lozoya has denied taking bribes.
The scandal grew in late 2017 when a series of videos of statements of former Odebrecht executives were released, including its former Mexico director, Luis de Meneses. They directly implicated Lozoya, who in 2012 had been a key member of Peña Nieto’s presidential campaign.
While the Odebrecht revelations led to a wave of corruption investigations and arrests across Latin America, there have been no arrests in Mexico. If it is confirmed that Lozoya’s detention is related to Odebrecht, he would be the first Mexican former official to have been arrested in the case.
Mexican authorities declared in May 2019 that Lozoya could not hold public positions for 10 years and later the government froze Lozoya’s bank accounts.
Meanwhile, Spanish police arrested Alonso Ancira Elizondo, then-president of Altos Hornos de México also in May 2019. His extradition case is still before Spain’s National Court. At the time, Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office said Ancira’s arrest was based on allegations that he had defrauded Pemex.
Pemex purchased fertilizer business Fertinal from AHMSA for $635 million in 2015, when Lozoya headed Pemex.
López Obrador has called the fertilizer plant “junk” and said that Pemex overpaid.
Associated Press writer Aritz Parra in Madrid contributed to this report.