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Mexico leader faces charge contractor rewarded him with mansion

A Mexican investigative team reported Sunday that President Enrique Pena Nieto and his actress wife possess a posh mansion built to their taste by a company that has grown fat with government contracts.

Pena Nieto has not reported the mansion, worth an estimated $7 million, on his official declaration of assets in the past two years, the team said.

The allegation falls on Pena Nieto at a time when he faces lagging support and public outrage over an apparent massacre of 43 students. It may also test his image as a leader who claims to battle corruption and fight for the rule of law.

Known as Casa La Palma, the mansion was built by a subsidiary of Grupo Higa, which has earned hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts under Pena Nieto, according to investigative reporters at aristeguinoticias.com, a news portal led by Carmen Aristegui, a radio and television journalist.

The mansion has an underground parking garage, an elevator, seven bedrooms, marble floors and a special system of recessed mood lighting that changes colors. Two distinctive palm trees jut above its white exterior.

First lady Angelica Rivera told a society magazine that the mansion belongs to her and her husband, and says it will be their future home once they leave Los Pinos, the official presidential residence in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park, even though the deed remains in the name of a subsidiary of Grupo Higa.

Rivera’s claims of possession of the mansion might not seem newsworthy, except for the explosive events of the past week.

Mexico awarded a contract Nov. 3 to a Chinese-led consortium for a high-speed rail link between Mexico City and Queretaro, a center of the aerospace industry. China Railway Construction Corp., a mammoth concern that built up much of China’s high-speed rail system in the past decade, led a consortium that was sole bidder on the project, which has been valued at between $3.7 billion and $4.3 billion.

The award came before Pena Nieto headed Sunday to Beijing for a state visit and to attend a summit of leaders in the Asia Pacific region.

But in a stunning move certain to put in jeopardy Mexico’s relations with China, Pena Nieto’s government rescinded the bid late Thursday, reacting to claims by opposition National Action Party legislators that the bid was rigged to favor the Chinese-led consortium. Authorities said the bidding would be reopened for six months to allow more companies to take part.

One of the members of the Chinese-led consortium is Constructora Teya, a Mexican company owned and controlled by Grupo Higa.

Pena Nieto’s office released a statement Sunday afternoon saying that Rivera, who had “consolidated her fortune . . . over a long professional career,” struck a deal in January 2012 for the Grupo Higa subsidiary to accept a down payment of 30 percent for the mansion and finance the rest over an unspecified term.

The five-paragraph statement did not specify the value placed on the property, the terms of the loan or acknowledge any wrongdoing in having the first lady accept a loan from a major government contractor.

Had the China Railway bid stood, it would have been the latest stroke of fortune for Grupo Higa that began when Pena Nieto, a telegenic politician who many saw as the new face of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, took the reins as governor of the state of Mexico from 2005 to 2011. The state wraps around much of the capital.

Under Pena Nieto, the company’s subsidiaries built a regional hospital in specialized medicine, a highway leading to the largest airport in the region, and numerous other projects. One subsidiary, Eolo Plus, provided aircraft for his 2012 presidential campaign. Still others provided cement and other materials to the state.

The Mexican news team under Aristegui estimated the value of state contracts to Grupo Higa’s companies while Pena Nieto was governor at $652 million.

In a coincidence of timing, Grupo Higa launched a new subsidiary in 2008 that would begin building a mansion in the posh Lomas de Chapultepec district of the capital the day after Pena Nieto announced publicly that the television actress known to the public as La Gaviota, or Seagull, for one of her roles in a popular soap opera, had become his girlfriend.

Pena Nieto and Rivera married in 2010.

It was around then that a prominent architect, Miguel Angel Aragones, began collaborating with the president and his wife on the design of the mansion, including building six bedrooms for the six children in the combined marriage, as well as a sprawling master suite, the Aristegui news team reported.

In a television interview on Oct. 26, 2013, Aragones acknowledged that he’d worked closely with the couple, and praised Pena Nieto as a client.

"He’s a first class fellow; intelligent, sensible, respectful, friendly. It was a delight to work with him," said Aragones, who put renderings on his website (aragones.com.mx) of the mansion under its name, Casa La Palma.

The mansion slightly abuts a more modest property that Rivera said she acquired from Televisa, the entertainment conglomerate where she rose to fame, and is connected by a passageway, the news team said.

Rivera told Hola! Magazine in a splashy photo spread in May 2013 that the mansion is the home to which "she will return once her husband stops being president." She was photographed in several rooms that match the renderings of Casa La Palma.

Mexican law requires Pena Nieto as president to submit a list of his assets and those of his immediate family. In the past two years, Pena Nieto included four houses and four lots in the state of Mexico, and a condo in Acapulco.

As he approaches the start of the third year of his six-year term, Pena Nieto has repeatedly emphasized the need for Mexico to fight corruption under his slogan "Mexico on the Move," designed to underscore that he leads a modern state.

While visiting New York City on Sept. 24, Pena Nieto was tapped to chair the Open Government Partnership, a global alliance to promote transparency.

"Today, open governments are the new frontier of democracy," Pena Nieto said. "They are the most modern instrument for those interested in public matters to actively participate."

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