Report says Mexico leader was given mansion by train entrepreneur

Report suggests Mexico's president received a mansion for approving contracts

The sprawling mansion in the elegant hills on Mexico City’s western edge is said to be worth $7 million. Its floors and walls are white marble, it is equipped with spas and pools, and it has a particularly alluring feature: colored lighting that allows rooms to be flooded in orange or purple or pink.

Who lives in this palace of pricey if questionable taste, dubbed the White House?

According to a new report, none other than President Enrique Peña Nieto and his soap-star wife, Angelica Rivera.

He never paid for it, however. It belongs to a wealthy entrepreneur who was recently awarded one of the most lucrative public-works contracts in recent Mexican history, according to a months-long investigation published Sunday by a team of reporters led by prominent journalist Carmen Aristegui.

Quid pro quo? That is the suggestion from Aristegui’s report.

Aware the investigation was in the works, Peña Nieto’s government abruptly canceled the contract — a $4-billion deal to build a bullet train — on Friday. Yanking an already awarded bid was an unheard of move, commentators said.

The president's office said in a statement Sunday evening that Peña Nieto’s wife had signed a contract to buy the house almost a year before he took office and is making payments to the builder.

Peña Nieto left Saturday night for China, despite nationwide protests over the apparent massacre of 43 college students, explicit and gruesome details of which were disclosed by officials Friday.

The tail end of some of those protests turned violent late Saturday, when groups set the enormous wooden door of the ceremonial presidential palace on fire in downtown Mexico City — after first trying to break it down using metal barriers. In Chilpancingo, capital of Guerrero state where the 43 students were apparently killed by a drug gang working with local police, demonstrators attacked the state government headquarters and torched several vehicles.

It is a particularly angry and tumultuous time in Mexico, one that has complicated Peña Nieto’s well-choreographed effort to promote a positive image of his country and himself in hopes of attracting investment. Revelations about an apparent conflict of interest over his purported home will not help.

Officially, Peña Nieto lives in Los Pinos, the official presidential residence in central Mexico City. (The ceremonial palace is used for state functions, but not as a residence.) But according to the report on Sunday, he and his wife spend at least some time in the privately held mansion.

Documents cited by Aristeguinoticias.com, the reporting team’s news website, show the seven-bedroom mansion was built “a su gusto” (to their taste, alluding to Peña Nieto and his wife) by an engineering firm that still holds the deed.

That firm, in turn, is part of Grupo Higa, which is owned by longtime Peña Nieto friend Juan Armando Hinojosa Cantu, according to the report. Grupo Higa’s member companies received numerous building contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars in the state of Mexico while Peña Nieto was governor from 2005 to 2011.

More recently, on Nov. 3, a division of Grupo Higa was part of a Chinese-led consortium that won an uncontested bid for the bullet train megaproject. Sixteen other companies dropped out of the contest, citing, in some cases, untenable conditions and overly rushed deadlines.

Even before the Aristegui revelations, however, that awarding process smelled fishy to numerous opposition legislators. The Senate summoned Communications and Transportation Minister Gerardo Ruiz Esparza for tough questioning last week about public-works projects benefiting allies of Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Ruiz defended the train contract, saying it “wasn’t about friendships.” But within hours, Peña Nieto pulled the plug.

A new bidding period will be opened for the next six months, the government said. The project is for a high-speed rail system from Mexico City to the industrial hub of Queretaro, one of Mexico’s more prosperous and less violent cities, about 125 miles north of the capital. It is part of a wider, ambitious infrastructure project that Peña Nieto has hailed as a cornerstone of his administration.

Curiously enough, existence of the mansion in the posh Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood — though not exactly its ownership — first came to light in a celebrity magazine, Hola!, in which Rivera posed in the house and boasted that it belonged to her and her husband. It has never been included in the statement of assets that Peña Nieto, under Mexican law, must file annually.

Follow @TracyKWilkinson on Twitter for news out of Mexico

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

 

9:52 p.m.: This post updates with clarification to protests in Chilpancingo, where demonstrators attacked state government headquarters, not city hall. 

7:16 p.m.: This post has been updated with comments from the president's office.

It was originally published at 6:14 p.m.

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