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Powerful Mexican oil union boss who became symbol of corruption dies at 79

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© FILE PHOTO: Carlos Romero Deschamps, leader of the oil workers union of Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), waves during the 80th anniversary of the expropriation of Mexico’s oil industry in Mexico City, Mexico March 16, 2018. REUTERS/Edgard Garrido/File Photo

By Dave Graham

MEXICO CITY, October 20 () – Carlos Romero Deschamps, the former longtime and controversial leader of Mexico’s oil workers’ union and politician, has died at the age of 79, officials confirmed on Friday.

Local media reported that Romero Deschamps died of a heart attack on Thursday.

A stalwart of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which dominated Mexico in the 20th century, Romero Deschamps used his connections to become an influential powerbroker and accrue substantial wealth that many said was ill-gotten.

The union boss’ tenure as head of the main union for employees of national oil company Pemex came to an end in late 2019 when he abruptly resigned his post.

Days earlier, President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador announced that Romero Deschamps was under criminal investigation for corruption, allegations which he denied and was never prosecuted for.

Romero Deschamps, who served four terms as leader of the more than 100,000-member union, one of the largest in Latin America, defended his record, pointing to positive changes for workers that include improvements in pensions and healthcare, as well as salary increases.

Romero Deschamps was elected to Mexico’s Senate for a six-year term in 2012, just as the PRI’s Enrique Pena Nieto recaptured the presidency, returning the centrist party back to power after a dozen years on the sidelines.

It was the sixth time Romero Deschamps had been a federal lawmaker, having previously served three times in Mexico’s lower house of Congress, and twice in the Senate.

‘PEMEXGATE’

A licensed accountant, Romero Deschamps was born on January 17, 1943, in the port city of Tampico, Tamaulipas state, and he began his career in the union in the central state of Hidalgo.

After assuming leadership of the trade union for Pemex in 1993, he wielded considerable power, keenly aware that taxes levied on the state monopoly accounted for about a third of the federal government’s annual budget.

Romero Deschamps was included in a list of the “10 Most Corrupt Mexicans” published by Forbes in 2013.

He, however, rode out scandals even as other top Mexican union leaders fell foul of the law, including the former boss of the powerful teachers’ union, Elba Esther Gordillo, who was arrested on fraud charges early in 2013.

In 2000, Romero Deschamps was accused of helping divert 1.5 billion pesos from Pemex accounts to the presidential campaign of the then PRI contender Francisco Labastida.

While a government audit later revealed anomalies covering 2.3 billion pesos ($188.97 million) in the so-called Pemexgate scandal, Romero Deschamps himself escaped unscathed. Others were not so lucky, and were punished and fined.

Since then, Romero Deschamps’ wealth and his children’s lavish lifestyles garnered more unwanted headlines, despite a reported annual salary from the union of only about $23,000.

According to a report in Mexican newspaper Reforma in May 2012, Romero Deschamps owned a $1.5 million British-made yacht that he kept docked in the beach resort of Cancun near his waterfront condo that itself was worth about $1.3 million.

That same year, his daughter Paulina posted pictures of a trip to Europe on her Facebook (NASDAQ:) page, including images taken in private jets and five-star hotels along with her British bulldog travelling companion. The photos created a media firestorm in Mexico, and the Facebook page was taken down shortly afterwards.

Early in 2013, Mexican media revealed that the union boss gave his son Jose Carlos a Ferrari (NYSE:) Enzo worth more than $1 million, just one of several luxury cars the younger Romero Deschamps reportedly kept at his Miami residence.

On Friday, Mexican President Lopez Obrador expressed his condolences to the family during his regular morning press conference, saying that “no one should wish for (somebody’s) death.”

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