In the fall of 2013, one of Mexico’s top housing officials posted an item on Twitter about an advertising campaign promoting mortgages for low-income Mexicans. The campaign’s message was simple: “The most important thing in life is in your house.”
It carried the tag line, “Homes with value.”
The official, Alejandro Murat Hinojosa, knows something about homes with value, especially across the border.
Over the years, he and members of his immediate family — starting with his father, José Murat Casab, a former governor of Oaxaca — have bought at least six properties in the United States, including two condominiums near a ski resort in Utah, another at the beach in South Texas and at least one in Manhattan, according to records and interviews. In New York, José Murat’s children have also lived for periods of time in one of the more modest condos at the luxurious Time Warner Center overlooking Central Park.
Ownership of the homes was often obscured through variations on family names listed on deeds or through shell companies, according to records examined by The New York Times. In fact, on the day the younger Mr. Murat tweeted about the housing program, public filings in Florida recorded the transfer of a $750,000 Boca Raton condo that had been purchased in his wife’s name to an entity called IMRO 2013 Trust.
The Murats’ real estate holdings stand in contrast to the Everyman image that José Murat, renowned for his political might and booming personality, worked to project as governor.
“I arrived to the state government with my wife, Lupita, and my four children,” he said a year before his term ended in 2004. “And I’m leaving as I arrived, with the same trousers, with the same shoes, with the same shirts and the same car.”
The Murat properties, which emerged during a Times investigation into the people behind shell companies that own condominiums at the Time Warner Center, have not been the subject of any official inquiry and there is no evidence of any wrongdoing behind the purchases. But the private assets of Mexico’s public officials have come under intense focus recently with a fresh round of revelations and protests centered on the country’s endemic corruption. (Read a summary of this article in Spanish.)
Last fall, a scandal erupted over reports that a government contractor had built a multimillion-dollar home for the wife of Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto. While Mr. Peña Nieto’s wife, Angélica Rivera, said she was paying for it with money she earned as a soap opera star, she also revealed she owned a condo in Florida. Around the same time, Mr. Peña Nieto disclosed his own $3.3 million in real estate, jewelry, art and other investments. Last week, he said a new federal comptroller would examine purchases by him and his wife of homes in Mexico.
And in December, an official at Infonavit, the housing agency run by Alejandro Murat, resigned after a photo of his son with a Porsche was posted on social media, setting off a furor and prompting federal inquiries. The official said the posting was a joke and the car did not belong to his family.
These revelations added to the already widespread anger over accusations that corrupt police officers were involved in the abduction and presumed murder last year of 43 college students by a drug cartel. As demonstrations spread, Mr. Peña Nieto was reeling. His Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, had ruled the country for seven decades until 2000, and he had pledged to erase its legacy of corruption when he took office more than two years ago.
José Murat, the former Oaxaca governor, has long been a PRI insider. His rise from a childhood in one of Mexico’s poorest states to a position as a power broker who has the president’s ear is the stuff of lore. There was a failed, and to some skeptics faked, attempt on his life; a long campaign to block a federal audit of state spending; and a record of hardball political tactics. Mr. Murat, who has also served as a federal legislator, recently raised his profile again by leading an effort by the Peña Nieto administration to build a cross-party legislative agenda.
Mr. Murat’s 39-year-old son, Alejandro, by contrast understated and polished, worked for Mr. Peña Nieto in state government before being appointed to the federal housing post. In some ways, the father and son represent the new and the old of the PRI, said Edward L. Gibson, a Northwestern University professor who studied Oaxaca for a book on authoritarian governments.
“Peña Nieto may be the new face of the PRI,” Mr. Gibson said, “but the dinosaurs are still part of the coalition.”
José and Alejandro Murat denied ownership of several residences around the country that The Times traced to them.
José Murat said the Time Warner condo was owned by a relative. Alejandro Murat said the Florida condo was owned by his mother-in-law. Another Manhattan condo, which records show was originally purchased in the name of Alejandro’s wife, belongs to an uncle, he said.
In an email, José Murat said the only United States properties owned by his immediate family were the two condos in Park City, Utah. They were purchased in 2004 — one by his two sons and the other by his two daughters — for a total of $690,000. At least one of the Murat children was a teenager at the time. But Mr. Murat said: “I do not personally own any real estate directly or indirectly in the United States.”
The Murat properties show how the legal mechanisms available in the United States to hold property without disclosing the actual owner’s name can make tracing money difficult. This can be a particular problem for Mexico, which, like many developing nations, has long experienced the flight of both legitimate and illicit capital.
Wealthy Mexicans are buying property in the United States at a brisk pace with few questions asked, The Times found, even as border security is tightened against poor immigrants trying to cross into the country.
“You have all these governors coming and going here, and they have investment properties in the United States with money made in Mexico,” said Juan Ruiz-Healy, a Mexican journalist who anchored the country’s “60 Minutes” program and has written about José Murat over the years. “The U.S. will never say to them, ‘Where did the money come from?’”
The assassination attempt is like so much of Mr. Murat’s 40-year political career, full of drama and suspicions ultimately left unresolved.
There are numerous versions of the event, but the initial one went like this: One morning in March 2004, Mr. Murat was outside the Hotel Victoria in Oaxaca when armed men ambushed the 1999 Nissan Quest minivan he was in, leaving six bullet holes.
“The matter here is that they tried to assassinate,” Mr. Murat said in a televised interview days later. “I have mixed feelings — anger, rage — because what they wanted at the end of all this was a dead body.”
Even though the governor was slightly injured, there were skeptics who believed he had staged the attack to somehow enhance his image. The federal attorney general issued a news release questioning details of the attack. During the federal investigation, Mr. Murat repeatedly delayed giving a statement and the attorney general asked a judge to order the arrests of seven people who had backed up the governor’s account on charges of perjury or altering the crime scene.
The whole matter faded away after Mr. Murat demanded that the federal Congress put the attorney general on trial instead.
The episode came toward the end of Mr. Murat’s term, but by then there was much intrigue around him, built up over decades in politics.
Mr. Murat grew up in Ciudad Ixtepec, in poor, mountainous Oaxaca State, where his parents were shopkeepers. He was in law school in Mexico City around the time of the Tlatelolco massacre in 1968, when military and police officers turned their guns on student protesters. While students raged against the PRI, Mr. Murat joined a pro-government group and met other young party loyalists, including Fidel Herrera Beltrán, the future governor of Veracruz, who remains a close friend. Mr. Murat went on to hold numerous PRI jobs, including posts as a party spokesman and as party representative to several states.
“He was just a middle-level functionary,” said Federico Estévez, a political science professor at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México. “But he had the right connections.”
Files from a former Mexican intelligence agency, which kept tabs on many foes and friends of the government, suggest that early on, Mr. Murat caused some amount of controversy.
The files, available at the national archives, contain what amount to unverified field reports. One reported on a 1982 visit by the PRI presidential candidate to Oaxaca, which Mr. Murat then represented as a federal legislator. Residents circulated a letter signed by three local politicians, saying Mr. Murat had been putting his friends and relatives in public offices in an effort to “take over everything” and impose a “dictatorship on the people.”
Beyond connections, Mr. Murat has a certain bravado and an imposing physical presence. “It was Lyndon Johnson style,” Mr. Gibson, the Northwestern University professor, said. “Stand up, tower over them and just threaten them with his size.”
In 1998, Mr. Murat, then about 50, was elected to a six-year term as governor of Oaxaca. Mexico’s governors wield considerable power, mostly owing to the large amounts of federal money at their discretion, especially in poorer states like Oaxaca.
But there have been few checks on how the public money is spent, and Mr. Murat had a reputation for tightly controlling the distribution of federal funds to local officials as a way to maintain power.
Manuela Garza, who worked in the state’s planning office, said, “The distribution of policies and all of that wasn’t equal.” As part of her job, Ms. Garza visited villages where people lived without power, water or adequate health care, and she said the perception was that Mr. Murat “wasn’t prioritizing the people, that he was steering money to his regions.”
Soon after Mr. Murat became governor, a new federal commission moved to audit Oaxaca’s use of federal funds. The Mexican Congress also proposed looking into money that the state had started steering to a handful of companies, according to congressional records.
For years, Mr. Murat and some other governors argued that federal audits were an overreach of power. When the audit agency sent officers to Oaxaca, Mr. Murat blocked them. The auditors gained access only after a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, but by then Mr. Murat had left office. His tenure would never be fully audited.
Over the years, Mr. Murat and his family have periodically faced questions about their finances.
In a recent email to The Times, Mr. Murat said: “As is widely known in Mexico, my family and the family of my wife who passed away in 2000 have many assets and sources of income. This patrimony has been built up over generations through hard work and is unrelated to my public service.”
Documents and interviews show that over his career Mr. Murat was paid modest salaries in party jobs and that he did some work as a private lawyer. Around the time he first won election as a federal legislator in the 1970s, he reported total earnings of 25,000 pesos, or about $1,100 a month. His salary as governor reached just over $11,500 a year — plus a bonus whose amount was not disclosed.
His brother-in-law, Mateo Jiménez, said that the Murat family was “more or less middle class” and that he knew of no large inheritances from Mr. Murat’s parents. Early in José’s political career, he said, Mr. Murat’s mother sold housewares from her home.
When Mr. Murat was governor, Proceso, a Mexico City magazine, wrote that he and his deputies experienced “inexplicable enrichment.” He had a particularly rough relationship with the local newspaper Noticias, which published an article questioning where his mother, Juana Casab, had gotten her money.
Ericel Gómez Nucamendi, the paper’s publisher, said in an interview that he believed the governor had long held a grudge against him for refusing his request to purchase part of his newspaper. “He wanted to grab the newspaper,” said Mr. Gómez, who is now a politician in Oaxaca. “He offered to buy it and return it to me when he was no longer governor.”
Another local businessman, Humberto López Lena, said in an interview that Mr. Murat proposed that he act as a proxy to gain a share of businesses in Oaxaca. Mr. López Lena said that soon after Mr. Murat was elected, the governor said: “You have a good image and you can be my rep”.
Mr. López Lena said Mr. Murat asked him several more times, and he repeatedly turned him down.
Recently, Mr. Murat has been drawn into a controversy involving two other former governors, including his friend from the 1970s, Mr. Herrera of Veracruz. It centers on accusations brought in a lawsuit by an activist and lawyer from Chiapas who alleged that the former governor of that state improperly steered state business to construction companies. The lawyer, Horacio Culebro, has said that Mr. Murat and Mr. Herrera have an interest in those companies.
In summer 2013, opposition legislators urged prosecutors to look into the allegations, with one saying, “what we see is a large network of corruption involving ex-governors.” A federal tribunal is deciding whether a state attorney general must review the evidence. Mr. Herrera and Mr. Murat have denied any involvement. Meanwhile, Mr. Culebro said in a deposition that he had received threats via cellphone and Facebook. “I hold José Murat Casab and Fidel Herrera Beltrán responsible for anything that may happen to me,” he said.
Responding to written questions about his governorship — including the allegations by Mr. López Lena, Mr. Gómez and Mr. Culebro — Mr. Murat wrote in an email: “Most of your questions are based on the libelous and false assumption that I have done something corrupt. As such they do not merit a response.”
PURCHASES IN THE U.S.
Mr. Murat and his family purchased property in the United States throughout his long political career. In 1984, Mr. Murat and his brother, Karim, bought a condominium on Texas’s South Padre Island, a resort town popular with Mexicans, according to public property records.
The purchase followed a familiar course taken by many Mexicans of means.
“The U.S. and maybe Switzerland are the two main places where Mexican wealth has been deposited,” said Mauricio Cano, a Mexico City lawyer who wrote a book titled “Game Theory and Tax Evasion” and advised friends of Mr. Murat on a Manhattan real estate deal.
Soon after buying the South Padre Island condo, the Murat brothers purchased a house nearby, in Brownsville. In both instances, they listed only their maternal surname on the deeds — meaning José Murat’s name appears as “José M. Casab.”
The deeds, on file in Cameron County, list their sister’s address in Brownsville, where her husband owns a building used for a nightclub. In political filings and other public records, Mr. Murat has alternated between using “Casab” and the more common Mexican surname “Casas.”
By the 1990s, The Times found, Mr. Murat’s brother, Karim, and his mother, Juana, had begun buying properties in Michigan, where she had relatives. They have four properties there between them — a modest suburban home, a condo, land and commercial property. A cousin, Alfredo Casab, a lawyer in Michigan, confirmed that Karim and Juana were related to the former governor.
Just as Mr. Murat’s term as governor was drawing to a close in 2004, his children purchased the condos in Park City, Utah, where the family likes to ski, and put their names on the deeds.
Mexicans are among those who have been increasingly using shell companies and trusts to move money abroad, said Geralda Buckley Kral, a wealth adviser based in Zurich. Such mechanisms provide privacy, yet can also enable a person to deny ownership. “If he gets questioned about these assets, he can legally say he doesn’t own it because he doesn’t own it in his name,” she said.
Ms. Kral said that she helped set up a trust for a Mexican family named Herrera that was used in 2007 to purchase a condo at 40 West 55th St., a small building just off Fifth Avenue, near the Museum of Modern Art and Central Park. The deed lists the name of a son of Fidel Herrera, Mr. Murat's friend, as a representative of the shell company that bought the condo.
After the apartments were upgraded and converted to condos in 2007, the Herreras and four other Mexican families scooped up five units for a total of $6.1 million. “They were all friends of friends,” said Louise Phillips Forbes, a broker at Halstead Property who handled the sales.
“I have over the years placed many, many wealthy Mexican families, and their philosophy has been that many of them were educated in the States and many of them hold a residence here,” Ms. Forbes said. “They’re home working, but they come all the time.”
Alejandro Murat’s wife, Ivette Morán, purchased Unit 6C, according to New York City property records. Next to her apartment, the records show, is a unit purchased by Melissa F. Alcántara, the daughter of José Murat’s longtime girlfriend.
Upstairs is a unit owned by a shell company, but property records include the name of a son of Fernando Margáin, the former mayor of San Pedro Garza García in northern Mexico. Another owner in the building is Víctor Manuel Álvarez Puga, who ran an accounting firm in Mexico.
Despite public records containing their names, sons of both Mr. Herrera and Mr. Margáin told The Times they were simply doing legal work for the actual owners, whom they would not identify. But in both cases, family members registered telephones to the units.
For the Murats, the 55th Street condo meant they now had two places to stay in New York. “The Time Warner came before 40 West 55th Street,” Ms. Forbes said. “Alejandro’s family owns in Time Warner.”
The Time Warner condo used by the Murats is owned by a shell company called Nivea Management, which was incorporated in the British Virgin Islands. The condo, purchased for $1.76 million, was one of two sold together on Jan. 12, 2004; the other cost $3.68 million. But figuring out whose money is behind any shell company is difficult.
John Zampino, the lawyer who set up both companies, declined to identify the buyers, saying his job called for discretion. “It’s a very delicate situation, and I can be criticized,” he said. “I can’t even say who I represent.”
Both transactions were handled by the Ira Berman real estate law firm. The firm did “robo-signing for the rich” and did not check the backgrounds of buyers, according to a former lawyer there, who asked not to be named out of concerns for his reputation. Mr. Berman, who has since served a prison term for day-trading with his clients’ escrow money, declined to discuss whether his firm did background checks of its clients and said he did not recall the Time Warner sales.
Soozy Katzen, a real estate agent at Fox Residential Group who handles rentals for one of the two condos, said, “There’s no way you’re going to reach the owners. They buy under corporate names to not reveal who they are.”
But she did say that the owner of the condo on the 57th floor, after originally planning to rent the unit, let his son use it instead.
In fact, Alejandro Murat, who was then in graduate school at Columbia, began using that condo, according to records reviewed by The Times. José Murat confirmed that his son lived there in the summer of 2005.
As for the ownership of the condo, people with knowledge of the building said they were told it was purchased by a group of Mexicans, including a businessman named Guillermo Vogel Hinojosa.
José Murat said in response to questions that the condo was owned by Mr. Vogel. Mr. Vogel, who declined to discuss the properties, is a cousin of Mr. Murat’s deceased wife.
THE HOUSING CHIEF
Protesters gathered outside Oaxaca’s grand 16th-century church in 2013, as friends and family flowed into a baptism and first communion ceremony for Alejandro Murat’s daughters.
“Repudiate José Murat” a sign said, according to news reports at the time. Another called José Murat a “two-legged rat,” Mexican slang for thief.
The Murats spend much of their time outside Oaxaca, but as Alejandro has risen as a contender to be Oaxaca’s next governor, some old tensions over the family are being stirred.
It remains an open question in political circles how independent the son is of the father.
“Alejandro has his own merits and his father’s figure may even be uncomfortable at times,” said Dulce María Sauri, a former national leader of the PRI.
Alejandro Murat practiced law for a few years before working for the State of Mexico, where Mr. Peña Nieto was governor, and then becoming head of Infonavit, which administers loans and mortgages to a large number of Mexican workers.
All the while, the family has taken steps that obscure the ownership of several holdings in the United States.
Alejandro Murat’s wife, Ivette Morán, had purchased the $1.18 million condo on West 55th Street using her maternal surname. The deed reads “Ivette M. Rodríguez,” but in one place it lists “Morán” under her signature.
In 2011, while her husband was working for the State of Mexico, Ms. Morán transferred the property at no cost to a trust called Himo Ltd. That transfer was handled by Mr. Zampino, the lawyer who also set up the shell company that owns the Time Warner condo used by the Murats. (Mr. Zampino told The Times that he never worked for the family.)
In a statement provided through the housing agency, Alejandro Murat said the 55th Street condo is owned by his uncle, José Hinojosa. Mr. Hinojosa’s name is on the forwarding address for a temporary mortgage placed on the condo, but Ivette Morán Rodríguez is listed as the borrower. She is also listed on the deed as the president of the Himo trust, and she signed the line for the buyer.
Alejandro Murat’s statement also said the Florida condo is owned by his mother-in-law. But when the condo was transferred into a trust in late 2013, his wife was listed as the trustee. There have been two mortgages on the condo, one signed by Alejandro Murat and his wife, and the other signed by his wife.
Late last year, the day after The Times contacted the Murats with an additional interview request, José Murat’s four children transferred their Utah condos into shell companies. Both companies — XILA Company and LOMA AEAI — were incorporated in Florida in 2013 by Alejandro Murat’s wife. The forwarding address for one company was the Florida condominium.
José Murat's youngest daughter, Lorena, has been the most recent Murat at the Time Warner Center, living there for two years and studying fashion at Parsons the New School for Design. She now runs a fashion blog called The Fancy Archive. The site’s registration lists the Time Warner condo as its base.