The Mexican president’s reputation just took another big hit

Pena Nieto Mexico
Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto drinks water as he speaks during an investment announcement from brewer Grupo Modelo in Merida in Yucatan state, at Los Pinos Presidential house in Mexico City, May 29, 2015 Edgard Garrido/Reuters

The controversy surrounding the finances and business dealings of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto deepened on Thursday, when a Reuters report showed that he allegedly misrepresented how he had acquired property he owned on official disclosure documents filed in 2013.

The Reuters examination of documents found that the president had purchased the land, roughly a quarter of an acre in Valle de Bravo, an upscale area several hours south of Mexico City, from a third party in 1988.

The finding seems to contradict official asset declarations made and subsequently updated by Peña Nieto. The first filing, made at the beginning of 2013, described several of his properties as gifts without naming the givers, the locations or the values. In mid-2013, he amended the filings to give the properties’ values and to say that he had received the “donated” property as a gift from his parents. In neither the first two filings nor one made in 2014 did he list the locations of the properties.

The documents uncovered by Reuters, however, show that Peña Nieto had actually bought the property in 1988 for 11.2 million “old” pesos, or about $US5,000 at the time. This amount far exceeds what Peña Nieto declared on separate wealth-declaration forms: 11,200 “old” pesos, or just $US5 at the time of the purchase.

Reuters noted that the value of the property listing was declared in “old” pesos, the designation for Mexico’s currency before it was revalued in the 1990s. This, according to lawyers, might have been an effort to understate its worth.

Read the full Reuters report here »

While government officials in Mexico are not obligated to explain how the gifts they receive were originally purchased, they are required to disclose truthfully how they got the property, according to Reuters.

Though Peña Nieto amended his disclosures twice since their original filing, several legal experts who spoke with Reuters said the improper declaration could cause legal problems for the president.

Under Mexican law, a public official can be suspended or removed from office for a false declaration of assets. While some of the experts suggested the president should be audited, others cautioned that there was little precedent for prosecuting officials under these laws, according to Reuters.

Peña Nieto, his family, and members of his government have been at the center of several scandals involving conflicts of interest that have tarnished the president’s reputation.

In November 2014, journalist Carmen Aristegui revealed that Peña Nieto’s wife, Angelica Rivera, bought a luxury home in an exclusive Mexico City neighbourhood from a subsidiary of Grupo Higa, a company that had garnered state contracts worth $US652 million while Peña Nieto was governor of Mexico state from 2005 to 2011. The home, allegedly designed for the family, was reportedly worth $US7 million.

Pena nieto and wife
President of Mexico Enrique Pena Nieto and first lady Angelica Rivera Hurtado arrive at Brisbane Airport ahead of the G-20 summit in Brisbane, Australia. G20 Australia/Patrick Hamilton/AP

According to The Wall Street Journal, the first lady, a former soap-opera star, put a down payment on the home several months before her husband won the presidential election. After Peña Nieto became president, however, Grupo Higa continued to receive government contracts. The company was part of a Chinese-led consortium that won a $US3.7 billion high-speed rail project, which was canceled around the time Rivera’s home purchase was revealed.

The revelation about the home came as Peña Nieto was dealing with the fallout from the disappearance and suspected murder of 43 students in southwestern Mexico. The poorly handled investigation into the incident led victims’ relatives to denounce the president as “a donkey.”

Shady property dealings are not limited to the first family. According to documents seen by The Journal, Luis Videgaray, Mexico’s finance minister, also purchased a home from Bienes Raíces, a contractor that had won hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts from the government during Peña Nieto’s time as state governor and president. Videgaray reportedly paid $US581,000 for the home in late 2012, taking out a loan from the contractor to make the purchase, according to The Journal.

Luis Videgaray Mexico finance
Mexican Finance Minister Luis Videgaray speaks during an official ceremony at the National Palace in Mexico City, February 4, 2015. Edgard Garrido/Reuters

The home purchases by the first lady and Videgaray were technically legal, and Videgaray held that since he bought it prior to the Peña Nieto administration taking office there was no conflict of interest. But the appearance of impropriety has stoked public criticism.

The transactions also led many to recall the corruption and influence-peddling that marked the seven decades of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) rule in Mexico until the party’s defeat in 2000, according to The Journal. The PRI returned to lead the country in 2012 with Peña Nieto at the helm.

The Peña Nieto family’s personal spending has also stirred controversy. On a state visit to the UK in March, one of the president’s stepdaughters was photographed wearing a $US7,275 Dolce & Gabbana dress. The first lady and her daughters were seen in Beverly Hills a month later, where they visited Versace, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and other stores — though it’s not clear if they made any purchases.

While the first family likely has substantial personal wealth, the lavish outings sparked resentment in Mexico, where Peña Nieto’s government pushed through steep budget cuts at the end of 2014.

Mexico is home to 122.3 million people, 52.3% of whom live in poverty, according to the World Bank.

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