MEXICO CITY (AP) – A Mexican court held the first hearing on Tuesday of the trial against a former director of the state oil company, in which President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said he would be a « watershed » in the fight against corruption.

Emilio Lozoya, the former director of Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), said through his lawyers that he had been “used” by an “organized power apparatus” during the alleged acts of corruption during his period as head of the company, which ran from 2012 to 2016.

Lozoya did not identify the group, but his words seemed to hint that he is ready to tell everything about the main government officials of former President Enrique Peña Nieto. The hearing was not open to the public.

According to an informal summary of the session provided by the judicial system, Lozoya’s attorneys said they would not argue against the prosecution’s request to the judge that Lozoya be detained for trial on money laundering charges. Lozoya has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and will act as a protected witness in exchange for possible sentence reductions or removal of the charges.

Lozoya reiterated his « commitment to collaborate with the authorities of the Mexican State, » according to the summary. His attorneys alleged that « it was used as a non-willful instrument » by others, even though he allegedly used a lot of the bribe money to buy houses for himself and his family.

The former Pemex director told the court that he was innocent of the charges and would prove it. He fled Mexico, but in February, the Spanish police arrested him in the city of Malaga and he was extradited to Mexico a few weeks ago.

López Obrador said that the trial against Lozoya represents « before and after » in what the president describes as the main priority of his government: the fight against corruption.

The court began proceedings on Tuesday via video link due to restrictions put in place by the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that Lozoya has been hospitalized for pre-existing conditions.

Lozoya said he was « systematically intimidated, pressured, instrumentalized, » but did not say by whom. It is conjectured that he may have felt pressure to raise funds for the presidential campaign.

Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, which has been investigated across the region in recent years for securing large government contracts through generous bribes, allegedly gave Lozoya $ 4 million for the 2012 presidential campaign of Peña Nieto, López Obrador’s predecessor.

The hearing focused on charges in a 2013 case in which a Mexican company, Altos Hornos de México, sold an inflated old fertilizer plant to Pemex at an inflated price, after allegedly paying Lozoya around 3.4 million of dollars in 2012. According to prosecutors, the money ended up in bank accounts controlled by Lozoya and his sister, who used most of the money to buy a house in an exclusive neighborhood in Mexico City.

Lozoya said he had declared the property as required on the audit forms that public officials must submit, but prosecutors said he tried to hide the payments and the transaction.

Prosecutors said Lozoya pushed for the purchase of the fertilizer plant, even when it was cheaper to build a new one.

López Obrador said that the new owner of that Mexican company has offered to refund up to $ 200 million related to the purchase. The president said Mexico hopes to recoup some of the money from bribes and obscure contracts. The president criticized the fact that corruption cases in Mexico often take place in US courts, and that the money recovered in those cases frequently stays in the United States. He said he has instructed Mexican diplomats to try to get a portion of it destined for Mexico.

Odebrecht allegedly contributed another $ 6 million once Peña Nieto took office. Apparently some of that money was used to bribe federal lawmakers to pass an energy reform package, known as the Pact for Mexico, which opened up the country’s energy sector to more private investment.

Last week, López Obrador said that it was important that « Mr. Lozoya is announcing that there were these bribes and that money was used to buy the energy reform. And that money was distributed to party legislators. ” He had opposed the energy reform.

The president said Tuesday that the trial « will help a lot, I repeat, to banish corruption in Mexico. » He noted that bribery is a bigger problem for Mexico than the coronavirus pandemic.

“I am convinced that it is the main problem in Mexico. It is not a pandemic … it is a plague, ”said López Obrador.