Mexico: Citigroup, Pemex mired in fraud scandal

Some 1,200 employees of the Mexican oil company Oceanografía SA de CV began blocking the four entrances to the Laguna Azul industrial dock in Ciudad del Carmen in the eastern state of Campeche early on the morning of March 7, disrupting the operations of at least 40 companies that provide services to Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the government's giant oil monopoly. The workers were demanding payment of wages that have been held up since the government's Finance Secretariat took over the bankrupt company at the end of February after it became mired in allegations of fraud.

Oceanografía is a private company that has contracted with Pemex and its main exploration and production subsidiary, Exploración y Producción (PEP), for some 40 years. The company was Pemex's main contractor under the administrations of presidents Vicente Fox Quesada (2000-2006) and Felipe Calderón Hinojosa (2006-2012), who are both members of the center-right National Action Party (PAN). From 2003 to 2013 Oceanografía won some 100 contracts worth a total of nearly $3 billion for services to Pemex such as the maintenance of equipment and the installation of oil extraction structures in the Gulf of Mexico. But on Jan. 15 of this year Oceanografía CEO Amado Yáñez told investors that the company wouldn't be able to meet its debt obligations, and on Feb. 11 the government issued a fine of about $1.9 million and blocked the company from bidding on government contracts for 21 months.

Oceanografía had borrowed some $585 million from Banco Nacional de Mexico (Banamex), Mexico's second largest bank, which was bought in 2001 by Citigroup Inc., the third largest banking group in the US. As Oceanografía's money problems mounted, Citigroup began reviewing the loans, for which the oil company had offered invoices to Pemex as collateral. On Feb. 28 Citigroup announced that it had worked with Pemex and found that only $185 million of the collateral could be verified. Apparently Oceanografía had falsified invoices to Pemex, possibly with collaboration from Banamex and Pemex employees. The Mexican government quickly took control of Oceanografía so that services to Pemex would be maintained, while Mexico's Attorney General's Office (PGR), the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Attorney's office in Massachusetts all began inquiries. On March 4 Mexican attorney general Jesús Murillo Karam suggested that money laundering might also be involved. "Money laundering can start with the initial crime of fraud, but it does not stop there," he said.

The Oceanografía collapse has resulted in a number of embarrassments in both Mexico and the US. Citigroup had to write down its profits for 2013 by $235 million, while Pemex and the Mexican government will need to explain their over-reliance on Oceanografía. There have also been suggestions that two of the children of former president Fox's wife, Marta Sahagún de Fox, were involved. In 2005 a Chamber of Deputies commission found indications that Sahagún's sons Manuel and Jorge Alberto Bribiesca and their uncle, Guillermo Sahagún, arranged Pemex contracts worth 5.929 billion pesos (nearly US$448 million) for Oceanografía from 2002 and 2006. As of March 5 Mexican investigators said they had no indications that the Bribiesca brothers were involved in the fraud. (Reuters, Feb. 28; Bloomberg News, Feb. 28; ADNPolí, Mexico, March 5; La Jornada, Mexico, March 8, March 8)

The scandal broke just three months after Mexico approved constitutional amendments laying the groundwork for President Enrique Peña Nieto's "energy reform" program, which would open up Pemex to extensive contracting with Mexican and foreign oil companies.

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 9.