Foreign Policy

Far-Reaching Corruption Probe May Increase López Obrador’s Faltering Fortunes

Welcome to While You Weren’t Looking, Foreign Policy’s weekly newsletter focused on non-coronavirus news.

Here’s what we’re watching this week: Three former presidents have been named in an explosive corruption scandal in Mexico, record-setting floods could threaten the world’s largest dam, and U.S. intelligence agencies believe Iran paid bounties to Taliban fighters to target coalition forces.

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Corruption Probe Escalates in Mexico

An explosive corruption scandal that has rocked Mexico’s political elite intensified this week as three former presidents and over a dozen former government ministers and lawmakers were accused of bribery in a leaked copy of a deposition given by Emilio Lozoya, the disgraced former head of Mexico’s state oil company, Pemex, who is cooperating with the authorities in a wide-reaching corruption probe.

Former Presidents Enrique Peña Nieto, Felipe Calderón, and Carlos Salinas de Gortari were all named in the testimony—part of the country’s most extensive corruption probe in recent history.

Lozoya was extradited from Spain in July to face charges in Mexico, where he is accused of accepting $10 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. The company has been accused of paying bribes to secure government contracts across Latin America, and the fallout has brought down senior officials in Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Peru.

The investigation could bolster support for current President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, an anti-corruption crusader, ahead of elections next year. López Obrador’s once dizzying approval ratings have slumped since the start of the pandemic, as he has been accused of downplaying the severity of the virus and bungling the economic response.

The escalation has raised concerns that López Obrador is using the probe to attack his political rivals. “It’s an enormously effective political soap opera to distract attention from the health, economic, security and educational crises tied to the coronavirus,” Carlos Bravo Regidor, an analyst at the CIDE research center in Mexico City, told the Wall Street Journal.

In claims made to federal prosecutors, which were leaked on Wednesday, Lozoya said Peña Nieto, who served from 2012 to 2018, had received millions of dollars in illegal bribes and campaign finance from Odebrecht. Most of the people named by Lozoya have denied any wrongdoing. Peña Nieto did not respond to the claims but has previously denied allegations of corruption made by Lozoya.

Salinas did not immediately respond to the claims, according to the Guardian, while Calderón described the claims as “ridiculous” and accused the president of using Lozoya as “an instrument of revenge and political persecution.”

Flooding threatens the world’s largest dam. Heavy rainfall in China’s Yangtze basin has led to the river’s worst flooding in over half a century, displacing more than 4 million people and threatening the Three Gorges Dam. On Thursday, the dam saw its largest flood since construction was finalized in 2003, and the water level is expected to come within 20 meters of the dam’s height on Saturday. Chinese officials said the dam is prepared for what is to come.

The floods, which began in June, have already affected more than 63 million people, disrupted China’s food supply, and contributed to about $25.9 billion in economic loss. Cities throughout central and southern China have responded with evacuations. Two UNESCO World Heritage sites—including the Leshan Giant Buddha, a 233-foot-tall statue carved out of a cliff face more than 1,200 years ago and situated at the confluence of three rivers—have closed due to the flooding.

On Monday, the waters crept over the Buddha’s toes for the first time since the 1940s, despite locals’ efforts to protect the statue with a makeshift dam made of sandbags.

Anti-government protests in Thailand. Nine opposition activists were arrested in Thailand this week and charged with sedition before being released on bail, as the government looks to quash mounting protests calling for its dissolution. Some 10,000 people took part in a protest in Bangkok on Sunday, the largest demonstrations since the 2014 coup led by then-Army Chief Prayuth Chan-ocha—who returned to power as prime minister in last year’s elections, which were marred by irregularities.

Among those arrested this week were Dechathorn Bamrungmuang, a founding member of a prominent Thai rap group, and the lawyer Anon Nampa. Anon rattled the Thai political establishment this month by calling for monarchical reform, a highly taboo subject in Thailand, which has some of the strictest lèse-majesté laws in the world.

Some protesters on Sunday carried signs calling for steps such as the king stepping back from politics and restrictions on the palace budget. Anon has not been charged under the laws, which carry a maximum 15-year sentence.

More Taliban bounties. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that Iran paid bounties to Taliban fighters to target U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan, CNN reports. The payments were tied to at least six attacks by the militant group last year, including the December attack on Bagram Air Base—the most prominent U.S. military installation in the country—that killed two civilians and injured 70 others, including two U.S. personnel.

Sources told CNN that discussions within the Trump administration about how to respond to the intelligence are complicated by concerns that any action could disrupt the upcoming peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The revelations follow similar reports that came to light in June that a Russian military intelligence unit offered Taliban-linked militants bounties to kill coalition troops in Afghanistan.

Shipwreck in the Mediterranean. At least 45 migrants died in an Aug. 17 shipwreck off the coast of Libya, the deadliest such incident this year. The boat’s engine exploded off the coast of the city of Zuwarah. More than 300 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Libya this year, according to the United Nations, but the real figure could be much higher. Local fishermen rescued 37 people from the wreckage, who were detained by Libyan authorities.

On Wednesday, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees and the International Organization for Migration called for international search and rescue efforts to be stepped up. The European Union has shied away from launching its own rescue operation.

Norway expels Russian diplomat. Norway said on Wednesday that it had expelled a Russian diplomat on suspicion of espionage. The announcement came days after a Norwegian employee working on Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline project was charged with handing over sensitive information to a Russian intelligence officer.

The Norwegian national Harsharn Singh Tathgar met the unnamed Russian diplomat at a pizza restaurant in Oslo on Aug. 15, the day of his arrest. Tathgar worked for DNV GL, which has done verification and certification work for Nord Stream 2, which will double Russian gas flows to Germany once complete. The project has been hit with U.S. sanctions over fears that it will increase Russia’s energy stranglehold on Europe.

Citizenship for sale. Despite the global slump in travel brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, Vanuatu’s tourism-dependent economy registered a record surplus of $33.3 million in the first half of this year, due to a surge in demand for the country’s controversial “citizenship for sale” program. A Vanuatu passport costs $130,000 and allows the bearer to travel to the European Union, the United Kingdom, and other countries visa-free, making it a relative bargain.

Over 600 people have bought citizenship under the scheme this year, although few take up residency in the Pacific island country. The program has drawn sharp opposition in the past over fears that it could be exploited by criminals. Four Chinese nationals were stripped of their Vanuatuan citizenship last year after it was discovered that they were the subject of an Interpol red notice for their alleged involvement in a Ponzi scheme.

Apple’s “top secret” device. In 2005, Apple helped build a special iPod for the U.S. government that only four people at the company knew about, according to former Apple software engineer David Shayer. Shayer said he worked with two U.S. government contractors for the Energy Department, which is responsible for nuclear power, on a device that looked like a normal iPod but secretly recorded data.

The contractors never told Shayer what exactly they were building, but Shayer believed it to be something like a “stealth Geiger counter.”

That’s it for this week.

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Chloe Hadavas and Allison Meakem contributed to this report.

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