Investigation Casts Doubt on Soap Opera Star's Marriage to Mexican President

The investigation says that the annulment of the bride's previous marriage was obtained through lies and irregularities, and ruined a dying priest's life.
February 6, 2016, 4:30pm
Captura de pantalla vía Youtube

On November 27, 2010, Mexican telenovela star Angélica Rivera swept into the cathedral of the city of Toluca in a white dress and long veil. She was heading to the altar with then-governor and current Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto. Outside, the crowds cheered from behind barriers.

That wedding helped cement the aura of success around the good-looking young governor. He seemed, with a beautiful actress by his side, destined to win the country's next presidential election, which he duly did in July 2012.

Now a joint-investigation by the news team of crusading Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui and respected weekly magazine Proceso has found evidence that the religious union between Peña Nieto and Rivera was only possible because leading church figures allegedly lied to help her annul her previous marriage. It even hints that the wedding between the then-presidential hopeful and the actress may have actually been staged.

The investigation, published on Saturday by Aristegui Noticias and Proceso, is primarily based on documents that link the wedding to the destruction of the career of a priest once known as the "Father of the Stars" — while he was dying of cancer.

Related: Mexico's President Has Dug Himself Into a Hole — And It's Going to Be Hard to Climb Back Out

The story begins on December 2, 2004, when Rivera married the father of her three children and longtime partner, telenovela producer José Alberto Castro Alva, in the Church de Nuestra Señora de Fátima in Mexico City. Nine days later, Rivera and Castro held another ceremony to celebrate their union on a beach in the resort city of Acapulco.

The couple divorced in 2008, shortly before Rivera became the girlfriend of Peña Nieto, then the governor of the state of Mexico, whose wife had died suddenly the previous year.

At the time, Peña Nieto's bid to become president was gathering steam with the help of a large amount of positive coverage on Mexico's main TV network Televisa. Rivera was one of the network's most popular stars. The couple met when she was contracted to promote his administration in political advertising.

Talk of a possible marriage filled the gossip columns and TV programs, giving Peña Nieto even more media coverage than before, and helping him broaden his appeal.

But there was a problem.

There could be no fairytale church wedding unless Rivera was able to get the church authorities to annul her first marriage to Castro.

The Aristegui investigation claims that Rivera managed this within a remarkably short time with the help of lies and irregularities. The investigation implicates high-level figures in the church with close ties to the political elite, particularly the Archbishop of Mexico City Norberto Rivera.

According to an excerpt from the annulment resolution — dated May 19, 2009, and published the following month alongside an interview with the actress in the society magazine Quien — the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Mexico declared her marriage to Castro "null and invalid" because of "defects of canonical form." The resolution said Rivera is consequently "free and can, for that reason, enter into canonical marriage, if she wants to."

Related: Mexican President's Approval Ratings Fall in Wake of Missing Students Case

The Aristegui Noticias/Proceso investigation says that the tribunal ruled that the marriage was invalid because José Luis Salinas — one of the two priests involved — tricked Rivera into getting married in the church, and then pretended that the ceremony on the beach that he officiated was the real wedding, when it was not.

"Neither the bride nor three of the witnesses who signed [the marriage act in the church], understood that they were celebrating a marriage," the tribunal ruling says, according to the investigation. The same document accuses Father Salinas of "simulating the sacrament and marriage" at the later ceremony at the beach.

With the successful annulment, the buzz around an upcoming spectacular wedding between the rising politician and actress intensified.

In December 2009, Rivera and Peña Nieto traveled to the Vatican, where Peña Nieto requested Pope Benedict to give the Catholic Church's consent to wed. Some considered this proposal at the Vatican a publicity stunt ahead of Peña Nieto's eventual presidential bid as the couple announced their engagement to the world in dramatic fashion.

Meanwhile, as a punishment for his alleged trickery, Salinas was stripped of his priestly duties and told to leave the Archdiocese of Mexico, even though he was receiving treatment for liver cancer in Mexico City at the time.

Furious, he took his case to the Vatican.

Salinas had been known as "The Father of the Stars," because he had a show on Televisa and a relationship with many who worked at the network. That was why, he said, Rivera and Castro had originally asked him to marry them back in 2004.

But the priest insisted he had told them right from the start that he couldn't comply with their wishes of marrying them on the beach because that would be irregular. That was why, he said, had arranged a wedding officiated by another priest at a church in Mexico City followed by a blessing ceremony on the sand.

He also insisted that the church ceremony in the city was completely valid.

In several letters he sent to Rome, obtained by the investigation, the priest claimed his life was being destroyed because some in the Mexico City diocese were jealous of his close relationship with TV celebrities, combined with political pressure to secure Rivera's annulment.

Related: The Pope is Planning to Visit Very Troubled Parts of Mexico

Salinas backed up his efforts to get the Vatican to order his punishments retracted with a signed letter from Rivera's first husband.

"The father was explicit with us from the start that the marriage could not be celebrated at that place [the beach in Acapulco] because it would be irregular and not valid," Castro said in one of the letters from the investigation. "He recommended that we first carry out the celebration in the church in Mexico City."

Salinas was also supported by the bishop of Parral in the northern state of Chihuahua, where he had been originally ordained, as well as the former rector of the Jesuit-run Iberoamerican University in the capital. Both sent letters to the Vatican complaining that priest was being squashed in order to push through the annulment.

By then the priest's health was fading, and he died in October 2015.

Before his death though, Salinas was found innocent by a Vatican court that ordered the Mexico City archdiocese to revoke its punishment of the priest, though this never happened.

"It is completely clear that the process that was started [against the priest] was a crass simulation of justice," the Vatican court's judgement said, according to a translation of the original Latin published in Aristegui Noticias.

"This is fantasy," archdioceses spokesman Hugo Valdemar Romero told VICE News, insisting that the disciplinary procedures against the priest followed years in which he had defied church rules, of which the wedding on the beach was just one example. "The priest lived in open disobedience and that is why he was taken to trial, not because he was turned into a scapegoat."

Romero suggested that the fact that the questioned beach ceremony involved the future first lady was essentially coincidental.

"To make a kind of novel up using imaginary arguments is not sticking to reality," he said.

Reality or not, Salinas' struggle to get his name cleared had also included a letter he sent to Peña Nieto three weeks before the wedding in November 2010.

"The marriage [of Rivera and Castro] was absolutely valid and not so easy to be annulled," he wrote to the governor in the letter that is published in the investigation. "The implications of all of this are very serious and, for that reason, very important to take into account."

The wedding went ahead, and, two years later, Peña Nieto became the president of Mexico.

Peña Nieto speaking at a summit in Brussels in June 2015. (Photo via Presidencia de México)

The president's marriage, however, soon began to create problems for his administration. In November 2014, an earlier investigation headed by Aristegui revealed that a favored government contractor had built a multi-million dollar mansion for the presidential couple.

The president has never full addressed the allegations of conflict of interest and corruption associated with the so-called White House. Instead he said that the massive modernist home, that was specifically designed to cater to his new family, had nothing really to do with him as it was being bought by Rivera.

An official government investigation last year, led by a direct appointee of the president, found he had done nothing wrong. The probe did not investigate the First Lady on the grounds that she was not a member of the government and so could not grant favors that could have benefited the contractor.

Related: Mexicans Outraged — But Not Surprised — After Crony Clears President in 'White House' Scandal

Earlier on in the scandal Rivera uploaded a video on YouTube in which she angrily insisted that she was purchasing the property thanks to her earnings during a lifetime of hard work as a soap opera star for Televisa.

A few months after the White House scandal broke, Aristegui lost her job as anchor of the country's most popular morning radio news show. She accused the government of pressuring the radio station to fire her. Both the radio station and the president's office denied the allegation.

With her latest investigation into the president's wedding, the crusading journalist has proved she remains a thorn in the president's side.

The investigation even hints that the religious ceremony in the cathedral officiated by a bishop was not actually a real wedding ceremony at all.

The arrival of the couple's guests at the cathedral — particularly the Televisa celebrities — was widely covered in the media, as was the couple's emergence afterward and Rivera's tossing of her bouquet into the assembled crowd.

The few images available of the ceremony itself show the cathedral empty except for a few pews at the front.

A video that was later released shows the actress and the then-governor walking up the aisle and sitting in front of the altar. Pena Nieto is also seen putting a ring on Rivera and the couple are shown signing something.

Aristegui's investigation notes that the video does not show the couple "saying their holy marriage vows."

Aristegui and Proceso also claim that they have tried and failed to find an official certificate of the church marriage in Toluca. They have found the document for Rivera's first marriage.

Proceso magazine and portal Aristegui News say they asked the presidential office to confirm the legal status of the marriage between Enrique Peña Nieto and Angelica Rivera. The presidential office, they say, declined to comment.

News of the annulment irregularities broke as Peña Nieto prepares to welcome Pope Francis to Mexico on Feb. 12 for a visit expected to produce tense moments as the pontiff takes up issues such as corruption, poverty and violence – all matters the Mexican government has preferred to keep out of the press.

"This new revelation will lead to a new round of corruption charges against both (Peña Nieto's) anemic administration and members of the Church hierarchy all of which strengthens Pope Francis's anticorruption message," says Andrew Chesnut, religious studies professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and expert on Catholicism in Latin America.

The investigation appears to support allegations the country's Catholic Church backed Peña Nieto's electoral aspirations – something Valdemar vehemently denies.

Catholic priests consulted by VICE News expressed little surprise a prominent and politically connected person would receive an annulment.

"I've never had anyone do the entire process," said Father Robert Coogan, an American priest in the city of Saltillo, who adds working-class people such as his parishioners could never complete the process in fewer than four or five years – if at all. "There is no way to do this quickly."

As for the original ceremony at the Nuestra Señor de Fatima church, Father Coogan said "if the marriage was properly celebrated and witnessed at Fatima, then it was valid."

Presidential spokesman Paolo Carreño told VICE News that there would not be an official government statement forthcoming.

Related: Mexico's President and First Lady Face Scandal Over Lavish 'White House' Mansion

David Agren and Alan Hernández contributed to this report.

Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter:@ngjanowitz