Mexican authorities have frozen the bank accounts of Emilio Lozoya, the former head of Mexico's state-owned oil company, and those of steel maker Altos Hornos de Mexico, in what looks to be a major new push to punish alleged corruption.
The Financial Intelligence Unit said Monday that "there were various transactions with funds that presumably did not come from legal activities" and the funds "are presumed to have originated in acts of corruption."
Santiago Nieto, head of the unit, called the account freezes a hallmark of the "new" Finance Ministry. "The policy of the Mexico government is zero tolerance for corruption and impunity," he wrote on Twitter.
Nieto was a top corruption investigator in the administration of former President Enrique Peña Nieto. But he was abruptly fired in 2017 in the middle of an investigation he led into Lozoya's dealings while head of state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, also under Peña Nieto.
Nieto has reopened the case in his new position in the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1 and vowed to stamp out endemic public corruption.
Lozoya and AHMSA have been mentioned, but not charged, in corruption scandals involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. The so-called Car Wash investigation into illicit payments by Odebrecht to government officials has led to multiple arrests and prosecutions in Latin American countries over the past five years, but none in Mexico.
Mexico scored 28 out of 100 points in Transparency International's 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, where a lower score indicates higher levels of corruption. That puts Mexico on par with Russia and behind countries such as Honduras and Bolivia on perceptions of clean business.
Ricardo Alvarado, a researcher with non-profit Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, told The Associated Press that Mexico needs an "emblematic" case to send a strong signal to society that the government is serious about stemming corruption.
Former Odebrecht officials have given evidence to Brazilian prosecutors that implicates Lozoya in the company's bribery scandal. Lozoya has denied receiving bribes, though last week, the government banned Lozoya from holding public positions for 10 years.
AHMSA, meanwhile, paid $3.7 billion in 2014 to a company called Grangemouth, which it said was hired to advise on selection and pricing of equipment and to facilitate purchases of metallurgical coal to produce steel. Grangemouth has been identified as a possible shell company for Odebrecht.
In a statement, Altos Hornos de Mexico SA called the freezing of its accounts "without precedent, arbitrary and in violation of every right." The company said it employs more than 20,000 people and has thousands of suppliers. In a separate statement, AHMSA assured creditors that it would make its debt payments.
The account freezes may stem from Pemex's decision to purchase 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. Now the government must decide whether to put more money into the plant or bring in a private partner.
"I would very much like to re-establish fertilizer production, and for us to be self-sufficient," López Obrador said Tuesday during his morning press conference.