Mexico's Privatization Pinata

By Wheat, Andrew | Multinational Monitor, October 1996 | Go to article overview

Mexico's Privatization Pinata

Wheat, Andrew, Multinational Monitor

If Mexico's monolithic Ruling party was a hamburger chain, its motto might be: 15 billionaires served.

Forbes Magazine named 15 Mexicans in its July 1996 list of the world's billionaires. Members of this billionaire fraternity tend to enjoy superb access to Los Pinos -- the Mexican White House. Many of the Mexican super-rich reached their dizzying heights with a boost from a common springboard: the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

For decades, Mexican presidents and other top PRI officials have left office with far more money and property than they had when they were sworn in. Mexican capital flight data reveal multi-billion-dollar spikes every six years as top officials send money abroad at the close of each administration. Nonetheless, graft investigations were unheard of until recently. Impunity has ruled because presidents hand pick successors, the PRI controls the legislature and independence among journalists and judges can be fatal.

Recent years have brought two collision-course changes. Enrichment opportunities have skyrocketed for top officials and tolerance for such shenanigans has plummeted among civil society, the media and some opposition members of Congress.

Business opportunities took off in Los Pinos after the government launched a privatization binge in the 1980s to sell off billions of dollars in public assets. Top PRI officials wield considerable clout over this process, determining what regulations newly privatized businesses face.

An unprecedented probe of this privatization pinata over the past two years has focused on Raul Salinas de Gortari, brother of former president Carlos Salinas. Raul was apprehended in 1995 on charges of "unexplained enrichment" and murder conspiracy charges related to the 1994 killing of Jose Francisco Ruiz Massieu, who was once the PRI's number-two official. That a former top official and member of a first family was suspected of graft and murder did not surprise Mexicans as much as the fact that this suspect was actually thrown into a maximum security prison.

First family first

When then-President Salinas was riding high as a reformer and NAFTA architect, however, there was little talk of the bad smell that NAFTA and privatization cheerleaders now say followed him even then.

"What was suspicious was that Raul seemed to be everywhere," says Peter Cleaves, director of the Center for the Study of Western Hemispheric Trade in Austin, Texas. "If you wanted to do a deal, you kind of had to talk to Raul. For some reason, people were so in love with Carlos that they just didn't want to believe that there could have been this back door channeling of either equities or money to the Salinas family through Raul. The impression was you had some sort of rogue brother ... out there operating on his own watch and not necessarily for his brother. [But] as events have unfolded, it looks like that's the way that President Salinas reaped his rewards for being president."

Serving in a top position at the state food distributor Conasupo, Raul Salinas was one of Mexico's highest-paid officials. Although his peak salary was a generous $190,000, this income fails to explain the $300 million in worldwide bank accounts that Mexican, U.S. and Swiss officials have traced to him.

Raul Salinas entrusted many of his discrete financial dealings to Citibank. Using a fake name in 1993, he transferred $80 million to Citibank's New York headquarters, which forwarded the money on to Swiss banks. According to Salinas, Citibank officials also devised a scheme to deposit his money in Swiss banks using just the names of Cayman Islands shell corporations. Raul Salinas' attorney Eduardo Luengo Creel has confirmed that his client opened half a dozen Cayman Island accounts the day after his brother left the presidency.

Citibank private bank manager Amy Elliot told investigators that Carlos Salinas discussed the the management of some of his brother's accounts with her on the telephone. …

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