MEXICO CITY — The credibility of the Mexican president’s crusade against corruption is in question amid allegations that his own brother accepted bundles of under-the-table cash from a political operative.
Secretly recorded videos of the brother of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (also known by his initials AMLO) accepting an envelope and brown paper bag stuffed with cash have ricocheted around the country. AMLO has called for an investigation but defended the cash exchange as legitimate, saying it was used to pay for legal political activities.
He accused political opponents of leaking the videos in an effort to undermine him. The videos were recorded in 2015 but only recently came to light. The latest revelations add an unexpected twist to López Obrador’s self-proclaimed crusade of cleaning up government and frequent attacks on political rivals as being on the take.
“López Obrador can use the discourse of holiness, clean hands, saintliness, but the facts on the ground and this video disprove him,” said Denise Dresser, a widely read Mexican political analyst and columnist.
A major branch of AMLO’s anti-graft efforts is his push for a non-binding national referendum for Mexicans to vote on whether they want former President Enrique Peña Nieto and other predecessors of his to be prosecuted for alleged corruption. Critics say that in addition to being legally questionable, the proposed referendum is an empty gesture because former presidents can be prosecuted without a public consultation. They say if allowed to proceed, it could undermine future legal cases against the very officials the voters are weighing in on.
“Calling a referendum as if it were a Roman circus, in which the summoned ‘people’ decide the fate of the gladiator, flashing their thumbs up or down, has already been exploited by Hollywood, but no republic worthy of its name can permit this without reaching extreme levels of degradation,” wrote political analyst José Woldenberg in a column for the Mexican newspaper El Universal.
But politically speaking, a referendum is a powerful tool — allowing AMLO to show he is seeking and exercising the will of the people. He has used it in the past, successfully. This latest referendum, if it takes place, could also help his Morena party in the 2021 midterm elections. AMLO has proposed that the referendum vote be held at the same time as the elections, a move that could bring voters to the polls and help Morena maintain its lock on power.
“It sends a strong message showing how he is completely engaged in the fight against corruption,” said Irene Tello, director of the civil society organization Zero Impunity. “But if you actually want to go against the networks of corruption, you don’t go bragging about it. You investigate and when you have enough evidence you make it public. Because it’s counterproductive. People are going to destroy evidence, or flee the country.”
AMLO’s promise to clean up government and hold former officials accountable helped usher him to a resounding victory in the 2018 presidential election. His approval ratings remain high at around 58%, although below the 77% approval he entered office with.
An explosive corruption probe that has dominated the headlines in Mexico in recent weeks has given AMLO a prime opportunity to follow through on his campaign promises.
The investigation has spotlighted the alleged wrong-doing of former president Peña Nieto, and ensnared two other past presidents and more than a dozen former lawmakers and government ministers. Peña Nieto is accused of taking millions of dollars in bribes to support his presidential campaign in 2012.
The sweeping probe probe hinges on allegations made by Emilio Lozoya, the former head of Mexican oil company Pemex. He was extradited to Mexico in July from Spain, where he was hiding out in a seaside villa. Among other things, Lozoya has accused Peña Nieto and lawmakers of taking bribes in exchange for pushing through a major energy reform bill that benefited the disgraced Brazilian construction firm Obredecht.
That seemed to start a tit-for-tat, with the videos incriminating AMLO’s brother emerging days later. Recorded in 2015, they show Pío López Obrador taking bundles of cash from a senior official in AMLO’s administration. The men refer to the equivalent of around $92,000 being handed over. Defending his brother last month, AMLO said the money was contributions from people supporting his political movement.
Political analysts said that kind of activity is common in Mexican politics, but usually illegal. By law, any contribution to a political party has to be reported to the country’s national election commission.
Cover: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador gives his thumb up after casting his vote during general elections, in Mexico City, on July 1, 2018. Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT/AFP via Getty Images.