MEXICO CITY — The house was as grand as everyone expected.
A giant tapestry with the official seal of Mexico dominated the entrance. Everywhere there were antiques, paintings, sculptures and carvings, especially figures of horses. The five-level, circular library is said to hold 40,000 volumes.
Oriental rugs were scattered about. Dozens of old pistols and rifles hung from the walls. There were chairs covered in gold leaf, and no one could tell whether the swimming pool was Olympic-size or not.
It was the first large-scale open house at "La Colina," the home of former President Jose Lopez Portillo, the most vilified of recent Mexican leaders. Lopez Portillo, who was president from 1976 to 1982, invited about 600 friends and cultural luminaries to celebrate publication of a book he has written. It is called "Ellos Vienen" ("They're Coming") and is a history of the conquest of Mexico.
But judging from the large number of photographs of its interior that appeared in Mexican newspapers that covered the event, the house was the evening's main attraction. The photos and written descriptions renewed interest in--but provided no answer to--a question that has been much on the minds of people here: How rich is Jose Lopez Portillo, whose administration was reputed to have been modern Mexico's most corrupt?
Lopez Portillo seemed unconcerned at being surrounded by luxury.
"Life has been very generous," he told his guests.
Remarking on how he has been able to return to writing after his years in government, he said, "It amazes me, how the game of chance in life gives the opportunity of (having) many concerns."
The literary party, which took place late last week, was the latest in a series of small coming-out events for Lopez Portillo, a gradual return to the public eye that has certain similarities to former President Richard M. Nixon's re-entry into the spotlight as an author after the disgrace of Watergate.
This summer, after a long absence from the public stage, Lopez Portillo appeared together with his predecessor, Luis Echeverria, at an assembly of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. A cartoonist depicted their appearance as the return of two vampires from the grave.
Lopez Portillo's administration was rife with controversy. It left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Mexicans, who felt that the country's vast oil riches were squandered during his term. While he was president, Mexico's foreign debt increased fourfold, the rate of inflation hit triple digits and the currency began a sharp dive in value that has yet to end.
The decline of the peso is memorialized in the biting label that Mexicans have applied to Lopez Portillo's house. They call it "La Colina del Perro," ("The Hill of the Dog"), a reminder that Lopez Portillo once pledged to defend "like a dog" the value of the peso.
As for corruption, Lopez Portillo has long rejected charges that he made illicit gains while in office. Last year, as he began to emerge from the public obscurity into which Mexican presidents usually fall after leaving office, he wrote an open letter to the president of Honduras, Jose Azcona Hoyo, in which he bitterly denied acquiring wealth in office. Azcona, in an interview with the Mexico City newspaper Excelsior, had accused Lopez Portillo of having put away "$100 million or $1 billion" while in office.
'You Slander Me'
Lopez Portillo's reply, which was published in the same newspaper, said: "Either you are misinformed or lying. In both cases, you slander me."
The accusations of corruption against Lopez Portillo, like most such charges in Mexico, are the result of conclusions drawn from indirect evidence. For many Mexicans, his La Colina house, another house in Acapulco and the jewelry of his wife, Carmen Romano de Lopez Portillo, add up to excessive wealth. Two years ago, the former president's wife put six brooches up for sale, for $18,000 each. She had an auction in Mexico City that same year, offering for sale among other valuable items 11 pianos, according to press reports.
There is also alleged guilt by association. Two former officials from Lopez Portillo's administration have been tried in Mexico City for having obtained millions of illegal dollars while in office: Arturo Durazo, the former Mexico City police chief, and Jorge Diaz Serrano, head of Pemex, the government oil company, for much of Lopez Portillo's term.
In the case of Durazo, a childhood friend of Lopez Portillo, the verdict is still pending; Diaz Serrano was found guilty earlier this year of defrauding the government of $34 million in connection with the purchase of two oil tankers.
Enemies Are Blamed
Lopez Portillo publicly maintains that the charges of corruption can be traced to the bitterness of political enemies and the foreign press. As for his mansions, he once told an Excelsior reporter that he bought the land on which they stand for 16 million pesos. Depending on the value of the peso, that could be the equivalent of $300,000 to $600,000. To build the houses, he said, he borrowed money from Carlos Hank, who was mayor of Mexico City while Lopez Portillo was president.
Lopez Portillo reportedly donated to the government a substantial part of his land after the earthquakes of September, 1985.
In any case, there is a sense in Mexico that La Colina represents something venal in Mexican presidential history. Novelist Carlos Monsivais observed in the magazine Proceso, "From now on, anyone who mentions the Pharaonic zeal of Mexican politicians will immediately have a visual reference: the Hill of the Dog."