On a single day in 2005, an official of Mexico’s powerful teachers’ union and his relatives spent $6.3 million on 11 luxury condos at a Brickell high-rise.
Bernardo Quezada Salas, now a congressman in Mexico, might have paid cash for the luxury units at the Espirito Santo Plaza. The deals were done through Florida companies owned by some combination of Quezada Salas, his wife, his sister-in-law and his brother-in-law.
The year before the Brickell deals, his wife, Jessica Peredo Rincon, had paid $1.1 million for a two-bedroom unit at the swanky Setai in South Beach. Then, in 2008, the couple bought a three-bedroom condo at a luxury tower in Sunny Isles Beach for $848,000.
The transactions — which do not seem to have been previously reported in the media — raise questions about how a union official like Quezada Salas and his family could afford so many expensive homes.
The Miami Herald recently reported on how questionable funds from abroad helped fuel the stratospheric rise of South Florida’s real-estate market. A data breach at Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca allowed journalists to sift through 11.5 million secret documents, the so-called Panama Papers, and trace a string of offshore shell companies investing in local homes. Many of the companies were controlled by people accused of corruption or other wrongdoing.
Quezada Salas and his relatives do not appear in the papers and their transactions don’t involve offshore accounts.
“Miami historically has been a welcoming city for people from all over the world where we don’t ask questions,” said William Hardin, a professor of real estate at Florida International University. “[Miami real estate] is an anonymous luxury market driven by cash. ... If you were going to buy a whole bunch of units in Charlotte, or the most-expensive house in Atlanta, people are going to ask questions. There’s more scrutiny.”
While the wave of foreign cash has boosted property tax revenue and created jobs, it has also driven housing prices out of reach for many locals. South Florida is now one of the least-affordable housing markets in the United States.
“We’re not building for local demand. We’re building for external demand,” Hardin said.
Quezada Salas’ union, the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE), is Latin America’s largest with 1.4 million members. It is widely considered the most powerful — and perhaps most corrupt — union in the region.
In 2013, Mexican authorities arrested STNE’s mighty president, Elba Esther Gordillo, for embezzlement and organized crime. They said Gordillo — a political power broker known as La Maestra ( “the teacher”) — and three top aides stole $200 million in union funds. The 71-year-old was accused of spending the money on shopping trips at Neiman Marcus, plastic surgery and waterfront mansions in San Diego, among other boondoggles.
Between 2002 and 2005, she also served as secretary general of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which governed Mexico for most of the 20th century and is back in power today.
Since her arrest, Gordillo has spent her days mostly in a hospital suite attached to Mexico City’s Tepepan prison or at a private hospital in the capital. The slow-moving legal case against her inches forward but her real estate has not been seized. The charges are still pending.
“She has apartments in Paris and in Buenos Aires, and she has a huge mansion in Mexico City,” said Carlos Ornelas, an expert on Mexico’s educational system who holds a doctorate from Stanford.
Quezada Salas has not been charged with any crime and has not been the subject of public suspicion in the media. News media that report on corruption in the teachers’ union rarely mention his name.
He began in the teachers’ union in 1986, and held various positions through 2015, although his legislative biography does not make clear if he held union posts between 2003 and 2009.
News reports, including an account in the highly regarded financial newspaper El Economista, say he has had a close relationship with Gordillo’s youngest daughter, Monica Arriola, who died of brain cancer three weeks ago. Arriola, 44, was a senator for New Alliance, a political party that Gordillo and the SNTE created in 2005 to play a kingmaker role in national politics.
Quezada Salas won a seat in the Chamber of Deputies, Mexico’s lower house, on the New Alliance ticket last year and is now a sitting federal legislator.
As a lawmaker, he is required to file a statement disclosing his personal assets. The disclosure is not made public unless the legislator so chooses. Quezada Salas has kept his private.
He did not respond to two emails sent to his legislative account. A spokesman for New Alliance, Miguel Angel Sosa, said he would speak with Quezada Salas, but did not immediately return messages.
Over three decades, Quezada Salas has occupied positions close to key union powerbrokers, starting with Gordillo, later with her daughter and since 2013 with current SNTE chief Juan Díaz de la Torre. He has served on the union’s national executive committee — its decision-making board — and overseen union programs with huge budgets, such as one offering teachers subsidized housing. He’s also been in charge of funneling union funds to political campaigns.
During a two-year period ending in 2014, Quezada Salas was the top union official at the National Polytechnic Institute, a sprawling university with more than 170,000 students and some 17,000 unionized teachers and staff.
“It’s an important union branch there. They have higher salaries, juicier salaries,” said Jorge Javier Romero, a public policy expert who teaches at the Autonomous Metropolitan University in Mexico City.
Still, Romero said Quezada Salas’ salary for his union post at the institute could not explain his purchase of millions of dollars in Miami real estate.
“At the most, his legal salary would have been 30,000 pesos. That’s not even $2,500 a month,” Romero said, making a rough calculation of the exchange rate at the time.
Whether Quezada Salas had outside sources of income was not known. His father-in-law, Hector Peredo Vazquez, owns a business based in Veracruz state that news reports say has grown large by offering appliances and other goods to teachers on credit, collecting higher-than-normal interest rates.
The 11 condos owned by Quezada Salas and his family gave them control of 10 percent of the units at the Espirito Santo Plaza. The 36-story tower at 1395 Brickell Ave. includes office space for Brickell Bank and law firm Fowler White, as well as a Crossfit and the luxury Conrad hotel. The building was renamed Brickell Arch after being sold last year for $142 million in a deal that did not include the hotel or condos.
The companies that control the Brickell condos have exotic-sounding names such as Xiber, Cache and Ilcati. They are registered in the names of Quezada Salas, his wife, his brother-in-law, Hector Peredo Rincon, or his sister-in-law, Claudia Peredo Rincon. While it is not known for sure, it is likely that the purchases were made in cash because no mortgages were recorded in Miami-Dade public records.
Frank Segredo, a Coral Gables lawyer who set up the companies in 2005, said he couldn’t remember anything about the deals. He said he did not remember working with Quezada Salas or his family. (Segredo was later disbarred over an unrelated incident involving mortgage fraud.)
Flight capital from Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela has traditionally boosted South Florida’s real-estate market. But Mexican money is making an impact, too.
Mexico’s first lady, Angélica Rivera, bought a luxury condo on Key Biscayne. The wife of Alejandro Murat Hinojosa, one of the country’s top housing officials and the son of the former governor of Oaxaca state, owns a $750,000 condo in Boca Raton. And the son of Carlos Romero Deschamps, a Mexican senator and leader of the oil workers’ union, spent $7.5 million for two condos in Miami Beach.
For Quezada Salas and his family, the Brickell units were a poor investment.
In 2012, Quezada Salas’ brother-in-law sold one of the units for $550,000, a loss of $83,000 from the original price paid.
Quezada Salas and family bought at the height of the real-estate bubble in 2005, paying $5.6 million for the 10 condos they still own.
Today, those same units have a market value of $4.1 million, according to the Miami-Dade property appraiser.
Condos at the former Espirito Santo don’t sell very often, said one local Realtor who asked not to be named. “Most people think it’s just the hotel and offices,” he said.
Quezada Salas and his wife also sold a three-bedroom condo they owned at Jade Beach in Sunny Isles for $800,000 in 2012. They’d paid $848,000 four years earlier.
But the two-bedroom at the Setai in South Beach turned out to be a steal.
The unit, owned in the name of Quezada Salas’ wife and bought with the help of a $770,000 mortgage from HSBC, is now worth $2.6 million, more than double the price paid in 2004.
Julio C. Roa, who runs the Mexican politics blog enlapolitika.com, contributed to this report.