MEXICO CITY — A prominent Mexican journalist published an article Sunday alleging that the registered owner of the Mexican first lady’s house is a company affiliated with a business group that has received lucrative government contracts, including one to build a high-speed train that last week was awarded and then abruptly canceled.
In response to the article, a spokesman for President Enrique Peña Nieto said that the first lady, former actress Angelica Rivera, hired the company, Ingenieria Inmobiliaria del Centro, to acquire the real estate on her behalf and that she has been paying for it.
The alleged conflict of interest comes at a difficult time for Peña Nieto. His government has faced weeks of public outcry over the disappearance and likely deaths of 43 students in the state of Guerrero, at the hands of drug cartel members and corrupt local police.
The cancellation of the train contract also has raised questions about the fairness of the bidding process and whether companies with insider connections were initially benefitting.
The article, published on journalist Carmen Aristegui’s Web site, centered on a white $7 million house of more than 10,000 square feet in the wealthy Lomas de Chapultepec neighborhood of Mexico City. The spokesman, Eduardo Sanchez, said that on Jan. 12, 2012, Rivera signed a contract with the company to acquire the house because it is adjacent to another property she owned and her intention was to “expand the space of her own house.”
Sanchez said that Rivera, because of her long professional career, is “economically solvent” and has “sufficient resources to acquire this real estate.”
The first lady paid a 30 percent down payment nearly a year before Peña Nieto became president with a check from her personal account, Sanchez said. She has not fallen behind on any payments, the most recent of which was last month, he said. He did not identify the amount she paid for the house or the interest rate. The Aristegui report said that Ingenieria Inmobiliaria del Centro is part of a business group, known as Grupo Higa, that has won government contracts from Peña Nieto’s time as governor of Mexico state.
Last Monday, Peña Nieto’s government awarded the $3.7 billion contract for the high-speed railroad between Mexico City and Queretaro, one of the government’s signature infrastructure projects, to a group of Chinese and Mexican companies, including Constructora Teya, which is also part of Grupo Higa. But then the contract was canceled late Thursday, ahead of Peña Nieto’s trip to China.
“This is the decision of the president and the essential point is more transparency and clarity, so there is no doubt about the project,” Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, the transportation and communications minister, said while announcing the cancellation on television.
Another company affiliated with Grupo Higa, Eolo Plus, rented helicopters and airplanes for Peña Nieto’s presidential campaign, according to the report.