Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Tuesday named a longtime party loyalist to head up an anticorruption agency, then gave him his first assignment: investigate accusations of conflicts of interest in real estate deals by the president, his wife and his finance minister.
Among the many crises facing Peña Nieto in recent months, scandals involving possible corruption have undermined his claims of managing a transparent and efficient government. Until now, he had portrayed his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) as having shed its corrupt past and having morphed into a modern organization.
But a string of revelations in the press showed that his wife had purchased, under favorable terms, a multimillion-dollar mansion from a contractor who has also won numerous lucrative contracts in Peña Nieto's governments -- both now as president and in his earlier term as governor of the state of Mexico.
One such contract was for a high-speed train from Mexico City to the industrial hub of Queretaro. The $4-billion bid was awarded to a consortium that included the Mexican contractor, the Higa Group, and a Chinese company. The award was canceled in November, a couple of days before reports surfaced of the first lady's mansion, known here as the White House.
Subsequently, it was revealed in press accounts that Peña Nieto was also lent a house by a contractor, and that Higa Group had similarly sold a mansion to Finance Minister Luis Videgaray.
Peña Nieto, his wife, Angelica Rivera, a former soap opera star, and Videgaray all have denied wrongdoing. But the whiff of impropriety hovered over the government, at the same time it is dealing with accusations of egregious human rights violations committed by the army and police, and the kidnapping and apparent massacre of 43 college students by police working with corrupt politicians and a drug gang.
On Tuesday, in a midday announcement televised to the nation, Peña Nieto appointed Virgilio Andrade, a veteran PRI official, to the post of secretary of public function, essentially a watchdog ministry. He ordered the agency to investigate real state acquisitions and toughen financial reporting by all officials.
"Although in every moment, I have acted in accordance with the law, there have been suggestions in recent months of possible conflicts of interest in my government," Peña Nieto said. Bidding processes have always been above board, he said. "However, I am aware that the suggestions create an appearance of something incorrect, something that in reality did not occur," Peña Nieto added.
Commentators immediately questioned whether a minister appointed by a president could be expected to investigate him, saying an independent commission would have been preferable.