Mexico first lady's mansion causes stir

MEXICO CITY - Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto battled an emerging controversy Monday over his wife’s purchase of a mansion built by a company that later briefly won a lucrative bullet train contract.

The uproar over the luxurious house located in an exclusive Mexico City neighbourhood is the latest scandal to hit Pena Nieto in recent weeks.

The president is already facing protests over the suspected massacre of 43 college students by a gang allied with local police in the southern state of Guerrero.

Last Thursday, Pena Nieto abruptly cancelled a US$3.7 billion (S$4.8 million) contract that was awarded to a Chinese-Mexican consortium after the opposition raised concerns about transparency because the group was the only bidder.

The consortium, which was led by the China Railway Construction Corp., had won the contract to build the line linking Mexico City and the central manufacturing hub of Queretaro just three days earlier.

The Chinese firm is mulling whether to take legal action against the decision.

Then over the weekend, the news website Aristegui Noticias reported that a Mexican firm that was part of the group owned a subsidiary that built a house purchased by first lady Angelica Rivera, a former soap opera star.

Presidential spokesman Eduardo Sanchez denied that the news influenced the decision to revoke the deal, noting that the report was published on Sunday, three days after Pena Nieto scrapped the contract.

“I didn’t know about the report. I woke up to the news (Sunday),” Sanchez told the Televisa network.

‘The White House’

The report said the house, valued at US$7 million, was built by Ingenieria Inmobiliaria del Centro, a real estate company owned by Grupo Higa, which was among four Mexican firms that were part of the Chinese train consortium.

The government says Rivera – a famous telenovela star dubbed “The Seagull” for one of her roles – purchased the house with her own money in January 2012, months before Pena Nieto was elected president.

Officials have not revealed the price but said Rivera put a 30 per cent down-payment on the house and has been paying the monthly mortgage.

Pena Nieto’s spokesman said Rivera had decided to buy two properties adjacent to her old home in order to expand it.

The couple, who have six children from previous marriages, plan to live there when Pena Nieto leaves the presidency after his single six-year term ends in 2018.

The 1,400-square-meter house, dubbed “The White House” by Aristegui Noticias, has a swimming pool, marble floors, a huge library, an elevator and multi-colour ambient lighting, the report said.

Rivera accompanied Pena Nieto on a six-day trip to China and Australia on Sunday.

The pair attended the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on Monday in Beijing.

The tour has been criticised by rights groups and the opposition because it comes in the middle of protests over the alleged student massacre.

But Pena Nieto said Sunday it would have been “irresponsible” to cancel an important trip for Mexico’s place in the world.