Former President Enrique Peña Nieto is under investigation for unexplained enrichment, according to the head of Mexico’s Financial Intelligence Unit (UIF).
Speaking at President López Obrador’s morning press conference on Thursday, UIF director Pablo Gómez Álvarez said that his department had detected “a scheme by which the former president obtained economic benefits” to the tune of around $1.3 million.
The money was reportedly sent to Peña Nieto, who resides in Spain, from a blood relative in Mexico in the form of three separate wire transfers in August and October 2021.
“In addition, the former president has corporate links to two companies … in which we observed fiscal and financial irregularities,” Gómez added without naming the companies.
The UIF reported the findings to the Mexico Attorney General’s Office, which opened an investigation into Peña Nieto’s finances.
“The attorney general will carry out the investigation, [and] the Financial Intelligence Unit will contribute whatever the attorney general may require,” said Gómez.
The Attorney General’s Office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.
Peña Nieto responded later in the day on Twitter: “I am certain that the competent authorities will allow me to clear up any questions about my assets and demonstrate the legality of them, by means of legal procedures. I express my confidence in the institutions of procurement and administration of Justice.”
Experts, however, said it is clear that Peña Nieto’s wealth was not earned legally.
“Peña Nieto definitely won’t be able to clear his name,” said public policy and security consultant David Saucedo.
“It’s very obvious that he lives like a millionaire, and the signs of his wealth show that he has personal assets far beyond what he earned from his salary as governor of the state of México and later as president,” said Saucedo. “By simply putting his wealth side-by-side with his salaries, you’re going to see differences, it’s not very hard to demonstrate it.”
Any charges stemming from the investigation would be unprecedented in Mexican history. Only one former president, Luis Echeverría, who served from 1970 to 1976, has charged with a crime after leaving office — for his presumed responsibility for massacres carried out during his presidency and preceding time as secretary of the Interior. No former president has been arrested on corruption charges.
The allegations come as no surprise to Mexican citizens, as Peña Nieto’s presidency was plagued by numerous scandals. The most serious of these was the discovery in 2014 of a $7 million home owned by Peña Nieto in one of Mexico City’s most opulent neighborhoods.
“The news didn’t shock me at all,” said Mexico City resident Jorge Valdivieso, 56, while out for a stroll with his wife in the picturesque neighborhood of Coyoacán. “He was very corrupt. I hope they charge him with a crime.”
According to Saucedo, the timing of the investigation is more interesting than the details of any suspected illicit enrichment. López Obrador is believed to have entered into a “gentlemen’s agreement” with his predecessor to not go after him for acts of corruption, so as to smooth out his road to the National Palace.
Peña Nieto is reported to possess videos of López Obrador’s son and collaborators engaging in activity that could damage his reputation as an incorruptible rebuilder of a nation ravaged by the “neoliberals” of past administrations.
“But we all knew that this agreement had an expiration date, and it looks like that date has arrived, the pact is ending, most of all because of issues like economic contraction, inflation and insecurity, which could affect the elections for governor in Coahuila and the state of México next year, and of course the presidential election in 2024,” said Saucedo.
By investigating Peña Nieto, whose approval rate fell to an abysmal 24% at the end of his term, López Obrador has found what Saucedo called a “surefire” way to boost his own approval rate and that of his party Morena ahead of the upcoming elections.
“In the first opinion polls that should come out next week, the first question they ask will surely be if people believe Peña Nieto stole money, and a large majority of Mexicans are going to respond favorably [for Morena],” said Saucedo.
“I think this case is being carried out for political reasons, but that’s normal in Mexico,” he said. “Unfortunately, justice is used for political ends.”