Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto finally offered an apology for the high-profile Casa Blanca scandal on Friday. Yet few of the country’s citizens appear likely to accept it.
In a case that first emerged last November, the president and his wife allegedly purchased a $7 million house in an exclusive Mexico City neighbourhood from one of the federal government’s preferred contractors.
After being exonerated by the close ally he appointed to investigate the case, Peña Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) told a meeting of state governors: “The investigation showed that the conduct of my wife and I was completely in accordance with the law.”
“I am aware and recognize that these events created a sense of shock and outrage among many Mexicans. I offer them all a sincere apology.”
The notorious case has only heightened scrutiny on a president whose term has been plagued by controversy – from the forced disappearance of 43 student activists last year to the recent prison break by leading drug lord “El Chapo” Guzmán.
Shortly after one of the country’s leading journalists exposed the scandal, the president’s wife, Angelica Rivera, a former soap actress, went on national television to explain she had purchased the house with her own money – a performance that many Mexicans described as “Oscar-winning.”
“She was never this good in the telenovelas (soaps),” one widely-publicized tweet by a citizen read.
Scandals and corruption claims
Construction firm Grupo Higa, the federal contractor involved, has received a string of high-profile tenders in recent years. Finance Minister Luis Videgaray and Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong have also been accused of personal dealings with the company.
The scandal has unfolded alongside a fierce debate over anticorruption reform in Mexico, supposedly a cornerstone of Peña Nieto’s policy agenda.
In February, he appointed Virgilio Andrade, regarded as a political ally, to oversee federal spending through a rebooted Public Administration Ministry.
The scandal pales in comparison to some of the accusations made against past Mexican presidents, yet it would arguably see many a Latin American leader today, such as Dilma Rousseff or Michelle Bachelet, impeached.
The concern is that Mexico still lags behind many of its neighbors in its ability to sanction political corruption.
In February this year, an annual report by the country’s Federal Auditor revealed something of the depth of the cancer. Among the scandals: a staggering $45 billion of public funds allocated to state and local authorities had been misappropriated.
The issue of corruption has been at the forefront of Latin American politics of late with major protests against graft in the likes of Guatemala and Brazil. Yet whereas in the latter countries, politicians and officials have resigned, or been prosecuted, the sense among many in Mexico is that impunity reigns.
Virgilio Andrade dice que no hubo conflicto de interés en Casa Blanca. Todos pierden: él, @Epn y México. Cero credibilidad
— JORGE RAMOS (@jorgeramosnews) August 21, 2015
As Mexican-American news anchor Jorge Ramos wrote on Twitter: “When (anticorruption chief) Virgilio Andrade says there was no conflict of interest, everybody loses: him, Peña Nieto, and Mexico.”