Mexico: new details emerge on Wal-Mart scandal

Following up on an exposé last April of bribery by Wal-Mart de México, the Mexican subsidiary of US retailer Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., the Dec. 18 edition of the New York Times provided details on how the company used payoffs to get around community opposition and building and environmental regulations that might slow down its campaign to build more stores. Reporters David Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab wrote that by reviewing tens of thousands of documents they had identified 19 Wal-Mart stores whose construction was aided by corruption.

According to the Times, the company, Mexico’s largest private employer, paid $341,000 in bribes to build a Sam’s Club near Mexico City’s BasĂ­lica de Guadalupe—a Catholic shrine which attracts several million pilgrims each year—”without a construction license, or an environmental permit, or an urban impact assessment, or even a traffic permit.” With $765,000 in bribes Wal-Mart was able to construct “a vast refrigerated distribution center in an environmentally fragile flood basin north of Mexico City, in an area where electricity was so scarce that many smaller developers were turned away.”

The company paid more than $200,000 to get permits for an Aurrerá department store it built in 2004 just outside the ruins at Teotihuacán, one of Mexico’s most important archeological sites, 30 miles northeast of Mexico City in MĂ©xico state. The bribes at Teotihuacán apparently included as much as $81,000 for officials of the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) and $114,000 for Guillermo RodrĂ­guez, then the mayor of the nearby town of San Juan Teotihuacán. (In April RodrĂ­guez told the Mexican daily La Jornada that Wal-Mart had paid off some local leaders but didn’t mention his own role.)

The Times investigation “reveals that Wal-Mart de Mexico was not the reluctant victim of a corrupt culture that insisted on bribes as the cost of doing business,” the reporters wrote. “Nor did it pay bribes merely to speed up routine approvals. Rather, Wal-Mart de MĂ©xico was an aggressive and creative corrupter,” using bribes “to subvert democratic governance” and to “circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction.” (NYT, Dec. 18)

Wal-Mart insists that it is thoroughly investigating the corruption allegations, but Mexico’s daily La Jornada noted that the manager of the Arkansas-based company’s international operations in 2005, when Wal-Mart executives decided not to pursue leads they had already received about the bribery in Mexico, was current Wal-Mart president and CEO Michael Duke. The new revelations in the Times coincided with other bad publicity for Wal-Mart. On Nov. 24, 112 workers died in a fire at Bangladesh’s Tazreen garment company, where two Wal-Mart contractors were having apparel made. On Dec. 15 a young man used a Bushmaster AR-15, among other weapons, to kill 28 people at and near an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut; the gun model, which was also used in recent massacres in Oregon and Colorado, is sold in 1,700 US Wal-Mart stores. The company removed the weapon from its website shortly after the Newtown killings. (LJ, Dec. 19)

Wal-Mart, which strongly opposes unionization, has also been hit recently by an organizing drive among its US employees. On Dec. 14 some 3,000 Wal-Mart employees in Argentina reportedly held brief walkouts as part of a global day of solidarity with the US workers. RubĂ©n Cortina, the president of the Americas division of the global union federation UNI, noted that Wal-Mart’s Argentine workers are unionized. “When Walmart first came,” Cortina told The Nation, “they were terrible.” Early in the struggle, “workers burned tires and broke windows… We had to fight tough in every place and try to convince [Walmart] that they had to talk to us,” Cortina said. (The Nation, Dec. 21)

The Times’ revelations about the Wal-Mart store at Teotihuacán have also created problems for INAH officials. INAH general director Sergio RaĂşl Arroyo, who appears to have been involved in the payoffs, was conspicuously absent from the ceremonies in MĂ©rida, the capital of the eastern state of Yucatán, on Dec. 22 to inaugurate the Mexican government’s new Great Museum of the Maya World. (LJ, Dec. 22)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Dec. 23.