What connects a gleaming all-white mansion, a bullet train that's yet to be built, and billions of dollars worth of business between Mexico and China?
The answer is a scandal that has unraveled around Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his wife this week, linking them all in a web that is casting an uncomfortable glare on Mexico's leader at a sensitive moment for the country.
At the heart of the allegations sits a huge house custom-built for the president and his first lady, Angelica Rivera Hurtado, and their combined family of six children. The mansion happens to be owned by a company linked to a consortium that had been awarded a multibillion-dollar contract to build a bullet train in central Mexico.
The case is raising allegations of quid pro quo for the president, and couldn't come at a worse time for Peña Nieto's government. The administration is grappling with nationwide protests over the forced disappearance of 43 students at the hands of a drug gang working for corrupt local authorities in the state of Guerrero.
The new accusations focus on a mansion called "Casa La Palma" that is clad in floor-to-ceiling marble in Las Lomas de Chapultepec, one of Mexico City's most affluent and exclusive neighborhoods. Valued at around 86 million pesos, or $6.3 million, the 1,200 square meter property built in 2011 boasts an elevator, underground parking, and gardens. Its interiors can be lit pink, orange, or violet to match the mood of the owner.
Its residents are Mexico's presidential couple, Peña Nieto and Rivera, a former soap opera star, and they hadn't exactly been hiding it. In May 2013, in fact, Mexican society magazine Hola published a cover-story interview with Rivera, where she is seen posing for photos inside Casa La Palma.
"We have Los Pinos [the Mexican president's official residence] on loan for just six years," she told the magazine at the time. "And our real home is here, where we have done this interview."
The problem is that "the White House," as it has been dubbed, is not registered in the name of Peña Nieto, nor Rivera, nor their children, according to an investigative report published on Sunday by a team of reporters at Aristegui Noticias. Instead, the house is in the name of Ingeniería Inmobiliaria del Centro, a subsidiary of Mexican company Grupo Higa.
Mexican first lady Angelica Rivera (right) and President Enrique Peña Nieto meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan, at the APEC Economic Leaders summit in Beijing, November 10, 2014. (Photo via Presidencia de Mexico)
Grupo Higa and Enrique Peña Nieto's administrations have been doing business for quite some time, the Aristegui Noticias report explains.
When the president was governor of the state of Mexico, a heavily populated entity that partially wraps itself around Mexico City, several juicy contracts went the way of Grupo Higa's subsidiaries. They included a specialized hospital, highways, and deals on raw materials like cement.
According to the Aristegui report, the company made more than $500 million from the various projects given to them by Peña's state administration.
The relationship has carried on with Peña Nieto as president.
One of Grupo Higa's subsidiaries, Constructora Teya, is part of a consortium that was awarded a $4.3 billion contract on November 3 to build a bullet train between Mexico City and Queretaro, a tranquil colonial city 160 miles north of the capital that is home to a significant base of industrial manufacturing. The consortium is led by a Chinese state company called China Railway Construction Corporation. It was the only bidder in the process for the project, which is seen as essential to boosting commerce in Mexico's central region.
By that point, Grupo Higa's subsidiary had long since built the private residence for Peña Nieto and his wife. The architect who designed it said it was built in accordance with their particular tastes. In fact, the company that officially owns the house was incorporated the day after Peña Nieto announced his relationship with then-girlfriend Rivera, the investigative report notes.
'The Mexican government awarding and then revoking a contract of this importance is almost unheard of and this decision obviously creates serious doubts about the process in which this contract was awarded.'
But last Friday, three days before the investigative report was published, the Peña Nieto administration made what looked like a preemptive move, revoking the bullet train contract already awarded to the Chinese consortium, which included Constructora Teya, the Grupo Higa subsidiary.
"With a view to providing a greater period of time so that a greater number of train manufacturers take part, and to ensure the absolute clarity, legitimacy and transparency, the federal government decided to convoke a new bidding process," the communications and transport agency's press release on the decision said.
Above, the Aristegui Noticias video report on Casa La Palma.
The president's office responded to the investigation with a statement that did not deny that the "White House" was registered in the name of the Grupo Higa subsidiary, but insisted that the first lady is paying off the house in installments.
"[Angelica Rivera] is economically solvent and had enough resources to pay for the house. Her long career as an actress has allowed her to consolidate her personal assets," the president's statement said.
But national and international media have continued to link "the White House" with the cancellation of the bullet train contract. The story carried legs overseas, as Peña and Rivera traveled over the weekend to China and Australia to attend trade-related summits.
Eduardo Garcia, editor of SentidoComun.com, a Mexican financial news outlet, said the Peña Nieto administration's decision on the rail contract was highly unusual.
"The Mexican government awarding and then revoking a contract of this importance is almost unheard of and this decision obviously creates serious doubts about the process in which this contract was awarded," Garcia told VICE News.
The presidential office's statement makes no reference to the fact that Peña Nieto has not listed the mansion as one of the assets belonging to his immediate family, which he is required to do under Mexican law. Nor does it address the alleged conflict of interest seen in the first lady buying a house from a major government contractor.
One news outlet in Mexico noted that Rivera would have had to work for 53 years at Televisa, the media conglomerate which produced the telenovelas that made her famous, for her to earn enough to pay off a mansion in Las Lomas at this price.
Many Mexicans already have a low opinion of government officials, often viewing politicians as corrupt money-grabbers who exploit their positions for kickbacks. It's an image particularly associated with Peña Nieto's party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000.
Peña Nieto has tried to shake off that reputation since he took office in late 2012.
For its part, the China Railway Construction Corporation has said that it is considering legal action after the revocation of its contract. But Chinese state media also reported Prime Minister Li Keqiang as saying that the Asian powerhouse is still interested in bullet train projects in Mexico, leaving the door open to an eventual approval of the very same contract that was rescinded.
Follow John Holman on Twitter @mexicorrespond