ACAPULCO, Mexico (AP) — President Enrique Pena Nieto's government, which had seen smooth sailing through its first year and a half in office, is suddenly listing in the face of multiple crises.
The administration scrambled Monday to respond to growing questions about the family's multi-million-dollar mansion owned by a government contractor, even as it tried to calm continuing protests over the disappearance — and probable murder — of 43 students.
The president has tried to shift Mexico's focus away from a bloody fight against organized crime to a series of political and economic reforms his administration successfully pushed through congress.
But as he attended a summit in China on Monday, Pena Nieto's aides were trying the quell doubts about what the administration called his wife's 2012 purchase of a $7 million mansion from a company that had won extensive contracts from the State of Mexico while Enrique Pena Nieto was governor. According to a story published Sunday by Aristegui Noticias, the house was built and is still owned by Ingenieria Inmobiliaria del Centro, a company belonging to Grupo Higa.
Grupo Higa also owns a company that was part of the Chinese-led consortium awarded a $3.7 billion high-speed rail project this year. The consortium was the only bidder. All other competitors bowed out, saying they had been given only two months to put together an offer on the extremely complex project.
But three days before the Aristegui story was published, Pena Nieto abruptly cancelled the contract, and the government announced it would take new bids in the interest of transparency.
Presidential spokesman Eduardo Sanchez denied there was anything improper about the housing deal in which the company granted first lady Angelica Rivera a loan to buy the mansion, saying she had money from her former career as an actress.
Sanchez said the property borders Rivera's existing home. "She needed to expand her house, she bought out her neighbor, regardless of who that neighbor was," Sanchez said. "Why is she to blame for being the wife of the president, being successful, having savings and, forgive the expression, spending it anyway she wants?"
But according to the Aristegui article, it wasn't a random purchase of a neighbor's property to expand. Rivera and Pena Nieto worked extensively with the architect, Miguel Angel Aragones, to build the home to their specifications. The plans posted on the website archdaily.com are dated October 2010 and the home is listed as being completed in 2011.
Sanchez's explanation was met with much skepticism.
According to the Aristegui article, Grupo Higa and its affiliates won more than $8 billion pesos ($600 million) in construction projects in the State of Mexico, which borders Mexico City, while Pena Nieto was governor.
It said an air-charter service owned by Grupo Higa ferried Pena Nieto during his 2012 presidential campaign, while another Grupo Higa company printed campaign materials.
"It opens up a lot of questions ... If she needed a loan to buy a house, why didn't she go to a bank?" said Mexico City-based security analyst Alejandro Hope. "When they realized it was a big government contractor, didn't that set off an alarm bell ... that a transaction like that might represent a conflict of interest?"
Federico Estevez, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said Pena Nieto's administration is "just being backed into a corner" by repeated scandals.
Pena Nieto began his term as the master of high-level political pacts to pass structural reforms, but made little progress on more chronic problems like corruption and violence.
"The carpet sort of has been pulled out from underneath him," Estevez said. "He's really good at elite consensus ... but this is no longer about that."
Meanwhile, officials were still trying to respond to public horror at the disappearance of 43 teachers college students at the hands of a city police force on Sept. 26.
On Friday, officials said members of a drug gang based in Guerrero — the state where Acapulco is located — had confessed to killing the students and burning their bodies, leaving only charred fragments of bones and teeth.
But supporters of the missing students, refusing to believe they are dead, continued protests on Monday, building on demonstrations that have blocked major highways and set government buildings ablaze in recent weeks.
On Monday, relatives and supporters battled federal police in Acapulco, then blocked roads leading to the Pacific resort's airport, forcing tourists to trudge for a half-mile (a kilometer) to the terminal.
Many then had to make the same hike back after finding the airport closed.
"We are carrying out a symbolic closures of the airport," said protest leader Felipe de la Cruz, who said outgoing flights would be blocked for a couple of hours to press demands that the government find the students.
Protesters had left and roads reopened by later afternoon. The airport returned to normal operations around 3:30 p.m., said security supervisor Rafael Fajardo. He added that flights were on time.
Pena Nieto's predecessors spent much of their terms lurching from one scandal to another, and the country's outbursts of violence threaten to erase the president's efforts to convince the world that Mexico has put the worst behind it.
"I think we are going through some difficult moments," Sanchez said. "I am sure we'll get through this, and that something positive has to come out of this all."
Mark Stevenson reported from Mexico City.