MEXICO CITY — The Mexican attorney general’s office said this week that it was investigating former president Enrique Peña Nieto for money laundering and illicit enrichment, the first official confirmation of such a probe by federal prosecutors.
But to many Mexicans, it was not immediately clear whether the announcement was really a step toward accountability — or just a political tactic.
Mr. Peña Nieto has long been accused of participating in several illegal schemes and directing millions in bribes while in office, but the Mexican authorities have yet to bring charges against him.
If the inquiries do force the former leader to face a trial, it would be an unprecedented step in Mexico, where many presidents have been accused of corruption but none has been tried.
Still, simply the news of the investigations will likely benefit Mr. Peña Nieto’s successor, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who was swept into office in 2018 by an electorate drawn by his promise to eradicate corruption within the political establishment.
Some political observers believe that’s the whole point.
“As a Mexican, I wish this were about justice, and not about electoral politics,” said Eduardo Bohórquez, the director of the Mexican chapter of Transparency International, an anti-corruption group.
Mr. Bohórquez questioned the timing of the announcement, which comes as the battle lines are being drawn in what look to be increasingly competitive elections next year in two states that are strongholds of Mr. Peña Nieto’s party — the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or the PRI.
“The idea is to remind people who Peña Nieto was, and who the PRI is,” Mr. Bohórquez said. “A society’s desire for justice has become an electoral tool.”
Mr. Peña Nieto left office in 2018 with historically low approval ratings after being dogged by corruption scandals for much of his presidency, leaving his once dominant party weak and vulnerable.
His successor, Mr. López Obrador, won over millions of voters by casting his political movement as a break with the abuses of the past. The party Mr. López Obrador founded, Morena, has steadily eroded its rival PRI’s hold on power across the country.
But for all the rhetoric, few charges have been filed and even fewer convictions obtained against former officials during Mr. López Obrador’s tenure.
“It’s part of a public discourse of which we have seen no outcome,” said Javier Cruz Angulo, a law professor at Mexico’s CIDE university. “We haven’t seen any concrete results against anyone.”
In the case of Mr. Peña Nieto, the authorities seem to have many of the elements necessary to pursue a criminal case.
The government has detained a key witness — Emilio Lozoya, the former director of Pemex, the state-owned oil company — who told the authorities that the former leader spent millions on political bribes.
Last year, federal prosecutors accused Mr. Peña Nieto of participating in a criminal network that handed out millions of dollars in bribes to legislators, the local media reported. And last month, Mexico’s financial crimes unit, which is part of the Treasury Ministry, announced that it too had been investigating Mr. Peña Nieto for suspicious transfers of millions of dollars.
Mr. Peña Nieto has maintained his innocence in a series of Twitter posts. “I am certain that before the competent authorities I will be allowed to clarify any question about my assets and demonstrate their legality,” he said last month.
The probes by the attorney general’s office had been open for two years before they were announced Tuesday, said a government official who was not authorized to speak publicly. The decision to publicize the investigations was apparently made after the president was asked about progress in the case against Mr. Peña Nieto at a news conference earlier that same day.
“The attorney general’s office released this information because in the morning we were asked about it,” Mr. López Obrador told reporters on Wednesday. “We said that the attorney general’s office would offer information.”
A news release from the attorney general’s office provided little clarity on whether or when charges would be filed, saying prosecutors were waiting, in one case, on “indispensable evidence.”
Part of the skepticism around the announcement may be related to growing concerns about Mexico’s top prosecutor. The attorney general, Alejandro Gertz Manero, was elected by an overwhelming majority of the Senate in 2019, after Mr. López Obrador put his name forward along with several other candidates.
But over the last year, Mr. Gertz Manero has faced increasing scrutiny over his pursuit of cases viewed as politically motivated or driven by his own personal vendettas.
In 2020, the attorney general had his niece jailed as part of an investigation into his brother’s death. In March, the Mexican Supreme Court said her detention was unconstitutional and ordered the woman freed. His attempt to imprison top academics for misusing government funds was also rejected by a judge last year.
Mr. Gertz Manero has also failed to obtain the conviction of any major figure in one of the most notorious corruption cases in recent years: the long-running inquiry into bribes paid by a Brazilian construction company, Odebrecht, to obtain public contracts across Latin America.
The regionwide scandal brought down high-ranking officials in Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Colombia, but no one in Mexico has been convicted — even though the company admitted to paying $10 million in bribes to Mexican officials.
“The attorney general’s office has lost a lot of credibility,” said Mr. Cruz Angulo, the law professor.
Since coming to office, Mr. López Obrador has appeared hesitant on the question of whether to prosecute past presidents.
A year ago, the president held a national referendum on whether former presidents should be put on trial. While 90 percent of those who cast a ballot voted in favor, the turnout of less than 7 percent made the results of the referendum nonbinding.
When asked about the accusations against Mr. Peña Nieto on Wednesday, the Mexican leader said “revenge is not my strong suit.” He insisted that such investigations would be carried out only “if the people asked” for it.