Corruption and the national oil company Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) have long been entwined in the popular imagination of Mexico, and both are viewed with near-obsessive zeal by the new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

López Obrador has frequently remarked: "Outside of the law, nothing; above the law, nobody." Yet, despite the 2013-14 Energy Reform, Pemex remains a near-monopoly with an entrenched bureaucracy that has proved susceptible to corruption.

That susceptibility was unearthed under the previous administration, when President Enrique Peña Nieto was president.

For about half of Peña Nieto’s term, Emilio Lozoya was the chief executive of Pemex, and Lozoya is currently under investigation by Mexican authorities over charges that include commissions on contracts. Lozoya also has been implicated in the Odebrecht scandal, where he is accused of receiving $10 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction company in exchange for the granting of infrastructure contracts.  

Meanwhile, the recent announcement that Pemex, in conjunction with the Energy Ministry and the petroleum institute, the IMP, will build the new refinery in Tabasco has launched a scramble for the contracts that will be on offer, David Shields, editor and publisher of the Energia a Debate magazine, told NGI’s Mexico GPI.

Pemex chief Octavio Romero Oropeza recently issued a statement that he had nothing to do with people using his name in an effort to make business accords for these contracts. "That in itself was an indication that people were illicitly claiming to have friends in high places," said Shields.

Tabasco is far from the only place in Mexico where shortcuts are being used in an effort to boost production and infrastructure for the oil and natural gas industry. But the pressure is seen as unusually intense to meet a three-year deadline for the refinery after a construction tender with private companies was declared void in April.

"The law does allow direct assignation of contracts without tenders in the event of cases such as those of particular urgency," Mexico City energy analyst Arturo Carranza told NGI’s Mexico GPI. And urgency is clearly the watchword for the current administration in Pemex.

Along with some public tenders, the system of testigos sociales has also been scrapped. The testigos were citizens capable of understanding at least most of the details and terms of tenders and providing reports on them for publication. They were also watchdogs in cases of suspected irregularities.

Shields was a testigo on several occasions. He and others persuaded officials in 2010 to reject the deepwater Lakach natural gas project in deep waters in the Gulf of Mexico on the grounds that the cost made no sense given the price of gas imported from the United States.

The government has not lost sight of the traditional system of tenders, Energy Minister Rocío Nahle said in an extensive interview last week with the Mexican daily La Jornada. As project manager, Pemex would be tendering six packages for the Dos Bocas refinery, including the coker and the hydro desulphurizer units.

"There will be public tenders," she said. "Restricted invitations, assignations, and everything that the law permits, though both time and money are the priorities."

Nahle also said that in the fight against fuel theft, a key part of the anti-corruption message of the new government, at least 1,000 arrests have been made, and those accused are being prosecuted.

Mexico’s Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad estimates that corruption costs Mexico anywhere from 2% to 10% of GDP annually.