By RICARDO CASTILLO
What was the political gossip this week in Mexico? Definitely, the “denunciations” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) made of nine past officials for stealing money from the near-bankrupt, still-government-run electricity monopoly, the Federal Electricity Commission (CFE).
As we covered in Pulse News Mexico, on Monday, Feb. 11, the president, during his daily press conference at the National Palace in downtown Mexico City, passed the mike to current Federal Electricity Commissioner Manuel Bartlett Díaz, who uttered the names of the thieves.
In case you are not familiar with recent Mexican politics, before I get into the nittygritty details of this story, please allow me to offer a brief backgrounder of CFE commissioner Bartlett Díaz, so that the president’s denouncement makes more sense.
During his career, Bartlett Díaz has pretty much covered almost the entire gamut of political experience in Mexico, from A to Z. The only alphabet letter he missed along his long trajectory in government service was the “P,” the presidency.
Being CFE commissioner is no doubt the least of the many highbrow positions he has held over the years. A distinguished Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) member, his career in the upper scales of government began in 1982, when he landed the post of head of the Interior Secretariat (Secretaría de Gobernación, or SeGob) under then-President Miguel de la Madrid. It was “natural” in those days for the Interior secretary to be the PRI’s most suitable candidate for president.
His six years as head of SeGob – De la Madrid’s full term – both enhanced Bartlett Diaz’s standing at the PRI and padded his his CV. But in public, Bartlett was perceived as being De la Madrid’s not-so-invisible “black hand,” who did the dirty work for the president. I have previously written about many of his more notorious acts – including the fact that he’s still wanted in the United States for a grand jury hearing on the death of DEA narcotics agent Enrique¨”Kiki” Camarena. However, his biggest faux pas in public opinion was definitely his announcement in 1988 that, after counting the votes in the presidential election, PRI candidate Carlos Salinas de Gortari was the victor over his contender, Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas.
Recently, Bartlett Diaz, at long last, unabashedly confessed that he had received orders from President De la Madrid to stop the count vote – in which Cárdenas was ahead – and declare Salinas the election winner. He did not mastermind the electoral fraud; he just followed orders, like any other good PRI foot soldier.
As a reward for his “good work” for the PRI, Bartlett was “elected” state governor of Puebla in 1993, and then served as deputy and senator on and off. When the PRI began to collapse in the year 2000, losing the presidency to the conservative National Action Party (PAN), Bartlett reneged of his party affiliation and became a member of the leftwing Labor Party (Partido del Trabajo, or PT). His last stint in the Senate was from 2012 to 2018, just in time to denounce the brutal corruption of then-President Enrique Peña Nieto’s regime.
If fact, during those six years, it seemed that Bartlett Diaz and National Regeneration Movement (Morena) candidate AMLO seemed to echo each other on one issue: Corruption stemmed from the president, and in order to carry out the difficult task of eliminating corruption from Mexico, a new president who was willing “to clean the stairs the way they should be cleaned, from the top down” was needed. Both AMLO in his stumping and Bartlett at the Senate repeated that phrase over and over again.
The point being is that why did Bartlett denounce the nine people he mentioned on Monday, causing a raucous of gossip and hearsay that’s still reverberating even at the end of the week, five days after he said that these fellow Mexicans purposely led the Federal Electricity Commission into near bankruptcy by awarding private-sector contracts that were highly disadvantageous to the CFE? He also accused several of the nine singled-out former officials of going to work for the very companies they benefitted after leaving office.
Some of the accused have defended themselves ardently; others have remained silent. Here’s a list of the Dirty Three-Quarters of a Dozen:
The first to come out in defense of his “honor” was former President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa, who did not go into details regarding the contracts he allowed to be signed, but stipulated that he went to work for the energy-related company more than one year after leaving office, as required by Mexican law. Otherwise, Calderón said, he did nothing wrong.
Next on the list was former Treasury Secretary Pedro Aspe Armella, who served under Salinas de Gortari and who also said that his subsequent going to work for a private enterprise was done in accordance with the law. Aspe, however, is still remembered in Mexico for having to respond for the collapse of the national financial system in Dec. 14, 1994, just two weeks after he left office. Later, Aspe Armella took a teaching position offering a class on government administration in Mexico City’s plush Iberoamericana University. According to one pundit, that course was colloquially referred to as “How to Lead a Nation into Bankruptcy.”
The noisiest protest so far has been from former Energy Secretary and Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) Director Jesús Reyes Heroles, who’s taken invitations from all those media broadcasters who want to hear him say that “Bartlett’s accusations are grave and false,” and, in his case, a defamation. He has threatened to sue Bartlett on “moral” grounds.
Bartlett also included in his “black list” (as these tar-and-feather charades are known in Mexican politics), a man who has been nearly forgotten: José Cordova Montoya, chief of staff for Salinas de Gortari. Cordova answered the charges by saying that in his days of duty with Salinas, he never had any contact with energy issues and has never even come close to the CFE.
Then there’s Luis Téllez, Energy secretary under President Ernesto Zedillo, who served from 1994 to 2000. Téllez ‘s response was that “it’s illegitimate to accuse without evidence,” adding that he is not worried about any possible investigation.
The one that went straight to Bartlett for an answer regarding his corruption charges was Zedillo’s Communications Secretary Carlos Ruiz Sacristán. Ruiz did sign a contract to build a natural gas duct for the CFE, which he got “through legal public bidding” and admitted that the duct construction had to be suspended due to sabotage. Still, his company, IEnova, continues to get paid by the CFE, even when construction is stalled. Bartlett and Ruiz met on Wednesday, Feb. 13, and claimed they were coming to an “amicable solution” to the accusations of fraud against Ruiz Sacristán regarding the CFE.
Other former officials who were implicated, such as Presidents Salinas de Gortari and Zedillo have not responded and possibly never will, taking the “denunciations” as sheer political baiting from President López Obrador.
In the end, AMLO came forward noting that his administration was not considering any legal action against the potential culprits of defrauding the CFE. His reasoning was that “these guys wield great defense lawyers who keep people from going to jail.”
In the middle of all this, the names of more recent potential culprits were not mentioned. One is former President Peña Nieto himself, who did on purpose everything he could to lead the CFE (as well as Pemex, for that matter) into financial disarray. The other is current PRI Senator Enrique Ochoa Reza, who, instead of drilling for natural gas, opted to buy it from U.S. concerns.
Another unmentioned fact is that most of the so-called “leonine” contracts with private investors were carried out between 2015 and 2017 – under Peña Nieto’s shift – and are legally unassailable. AMLO made a point of repeating the fact that his government is not suing anyone and the culprits should heave a sigh of relief because: “they can save money in legal fees for lawyers because there are going to be no suits. All these cases have to go to foreign courts as they are covered by free-trade agreements. These companies really insolated themselves with legal protections.”
So, in the end, what was the purpose of these tar-and-feather accusations? AMLO summed it up in five different points.
These contracts showed total lack of morality between government and private companies officials. In the future, he said, there will be a “health separation” between the public and private sectors. AMLO even said that he is sending to Congress a proposal to change in the law, stipulating that public officials can’t go work for public companies until 10 years after they have left office to prevent the misuse of insider trading practices. Again, current law stipulates that they must wait one year.
Another aspect AMLO was going after is “simulated organizations.” serving as autonomous and independent groups such as the Energy Management Commission, which opened the way for a myriad of what AMLO calls crooked contracts now affecting the CFE and Pemex.
As for the “outrage” some of the people on the list are expressing, AMLO says he has his reasons for morally going after them.
“It doesn’t matter if they get mad, that they are uneasy,” he said.
“We have to put an end to the cancer of corruption and simulation in contracting. We must do this by respecting the laws, which are respected in form but violated in essence. We’re talking about a state of rights in what is a crooked state.”
Again, this was an event that is making many a former government official uneasy.
As for Bartlett, AMLO used him as a ramming rod to shake up the old PRI and PAN political establishments. Perhaps Bartlett himself has a long tail to step on, but then, AMLO used him head on to attack the old guard, and, for now, them dudes are shaking.