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World Mexico’s new president moves to end his own immunity – but seems to shield his predecessor

Mexico's new President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds a news conference at National Palace in Mexico City, Mexico December 3, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido

EDGARD GARRIDO/Reuters

Mexico’s new government introduced a law on Tuesday to change the constitution and end the traditional protection of presidents from criminal prosecution.

“The initiative that I am sending to the Senate is to end the presidential immunity," President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told reporters before the session began in Congress. “This is the end of the impunity established in the Constitution. The president will be able to be tried like any other citizen for any crime; he will be able to be tried for the crime of corruption, even while in office.”

The proposed constitutional change is popular with many Mexicans. Outrage over corruption in the last government drew many voters to Mr. Lopez Obrador, who has vowed to end graft, and helped propel him to a major election victory last July. The current immunity – similar to laws on the books in other countries in the region – is deeply unpopular.

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Yet at the same time, Mr. Lopez Obrador has pledged a “pardon” for his predecessor, Enrique Pena Nieto, and members of the Pena government, even though that administration is widely viewed in Mexico as one of the most corrupt in the country’s history. The mixed messages are sowing confusion about a promised end to immunity.

“I propose to the people of Mexico that we draw a final line under this horrible history and make a new start: In other words, that there be no persecution of former officials and that the current authorities breathe easily about any pending issues," Mr. Lopez Obrador said in his address to Congress as he was sworn in on Dec. 1. When that statement was greeted with jeers from the opposition, he added that he would put the issue to a national consultation.

Last week, Congress – where his National Regeneration Movement, or MORENA, controls both houses – voted on a bill about a new structure for government, and legislators including MORENA’s opted to shelve the content that would have ended their own immunity from prosecution. A law to make the national prosecutor an independent appointment – a campaign promise – rather than a presidential one, is similarly in limbo.

In particular, the promise of a pardon for Mr. Pena and his close colleagues has raised concern about whether the new President may backtrack on his anti-corruption agenda. Mr. Pena was personally implicated in a scandal over purchases of multi-million-dollar mansions from a developer with close government ties.

Mr. Lopez Obrador has vowed to pay for his ambitious agenda of social investment in large part through funds recuperated by ending graft.

After Mr. Lopez Obrador made several statements about how “vengeance” was not useful for the country – that he was going to turn the page on past misdeeds. Mexicans began to speculate that there must be a deal: that the new President and his predecessor reached some sort of agreement that Mr. Pena and the members of his government would not be investigated. The leading theory is that in exchange, Mr. Lopez Obrador won a promise that he would be able to take office without interference. In 2006, he narrowly lost – by the official count – the presidential race. He staged a months-long, ultimately fruitless sit-in in the centre of Mexico City with supporters, demanding a recount. He and many others believe the “mafia of power” (the political elite, business owners, the Catholic Church) combined to steal the election from him.

This time, so the theory goes, he had a solid lead in the polls, and so the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which has governed Mexico for most of the past century and had a well-established machine for ensuring election outcomes, agreed not to interfere – if its people got immunity.

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“Everybody is talking about a secret agreement between Lopez Obrador and Pena Nieto,” said historian and political scientist Soledad Loaeza. “Probably Peña Nieto offered him a peaceful election, a peaceful transition of power. It seems very clear there was a negotiation between the two of them."

Prof. Loaeza noted, as do most others who speculate about this theory, that she has no evidence to support it.

None of a half-dozen senior MORENA figures whom The Globe and Mail asked about an alleged pact – and about prosecution of previous officials – responded to questions by e-mail or phone.

Mr. Lopez Obrador has already turned the presidential mansion, which he won’t occupy, into a cultural centre open to the public, and put the presidential jet up for sale. He is seen as personally frugal and honest, but there is also speculation here that a pact might have been struck so that some around him who are not so clean will be protected. “Maybe he has something to hide – people around him certainly have things to hide,” Prof. Loaeza said.

Mauricio Merino, an expert on Mexican democracy, said he does not believe there was a deal. Rather, he said, Mr. Lopez Obrador’s approach to corruption is complex, and a population eager to see retribution for those who have blatantly siphoned public funds is not grasping the subtleties.

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The Mexican President has no power to grant pardons, he said, and Mr. Lopez Obrador does not mean that he will literally ensure that those guilty of graft go free. Instead the new President is disavowing prosecution as a form of political revenge, as has often occurred when there were dramatic shifts in power in other Latin American countries. He believes Mr. Lopez Obrador will not impede the work of investigators or institutions, and will ensure that the existing anti-corruption legislation is actually enforced.

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