(Bloomberg) -- Thousands of dollars in bribe payments from oil trader Vitol Group were handed over to a Mexican oil official in a Houston parking lot, a federal jury in Brooklyn, New York, heard on Monday.

The revelation is the latest from the trial of former Vitol trader Javier Aguilar to lift the lid on bribery in the commodity trading industry. Companies like Vitol have for years tried to shake off the popular image of deals won with brown envelopes full of cash, but five weeks of testimony has demonstrated that, in some cases, it has remained remarkably accurate.

Gonzalo Guzman, a former manager at a subsidiary of Mexico’s state oil company Pemex, testified that he received at least a dozen cash payments of up to $9,500 from Vitol via a middleman, including some that he picked up in the car park just outside his Houston office. Some of the handovers involved stacks of bills stuffed into medicine boxes or envelopes.

Guzman and his former colleague Carlos Espinosa said they received about $600,000 in bribes in exchange for confidential information to help Vitol win a deal for the supply of ethane to the Mexican state-owned oil company.

Vitol, the world’s largest independent oil trader, in 2020 admitted to having paid bribes in Mexico, Ecuador and Brazil and agreed to cooperate with the US government. Aguilar, who’s accused of directing the Vitol bribe payments, denies the government’s charges.

Guzman testified he and Espinosa met twice with Aguilar at Houston’s St. Regis Hotel, where they discussed supplying Vitol with confidential information about a tender for the procurement of ethane. Guzman and Espinosa have pleaded guilty to violating US anti-bribery laws and are cooperating with the US.

The jury heard that Aguilar paid the former Pemex executives through Christian Cazarin, a middleman based in Mexico. Guzman and Cazarin exchanged coded WhatsApp messages about pending payments from Vitol, the jury heard. “Can you bring a box of Riopan?” Guzman asked Cazarin in October 2017. “When are you arriving with the medicine?”

When prosecutor Matthew Galeotti asked Guzman what he meant by “a box of Riopan,” and by “medicine,” Guzman told jurors, “That was a code that we used usually to refer to cash to be handed and which could be in the amount between 9 and 10,000.”

Guzman also testified that he arranged meetings at the airport in Mexico City and at the Pemex Procurement International parking lot in Houston to receive cash payments in US dollars and Mexican pesos. “There are 416 Mexicans, around 21 gringos at the party,” Cazarin told Guzman in another coded message from December 2017. Guzman said this referred to 416,000 Mexican pesos ($24,000) or $21,000. 

Cazarin, who owned five shell companies involved in the scheme, pleaded guilty to violating US anti-bribery laws in October 2023.

The case is: US v. Aguilar, 20-CR-390, Eastern District of New York (Brooklyn).

--With assistance from Jack Farchy, Patricia Hurtado and Simon Casey.

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