Mexico: privatization scandals multiply

The Sept. 26-27 killing and abduction of several dozen students in the southwestern state of Guerrero could be creating problems for Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto's efforts to improve the country's international image and to continue the opening of its economy to private businesses. Los Angeles Times correspondent Tracy Wilkinson reported on Oct. 25 that Peña's "government is clearly concerned it is losing a finely crafted domestic and international public relations campaign that emphasized major reforms of Mexico's energy sector. Publications in the US and Europe that once lavished praise on the president have turned the tables." (LA Times, Oct. 25)

But Peña's "energy reform" program has problems of its own. On Oct. 20 Mexican entrepreneur Amado Yáñez Osuna was arrested in Acapulco and charged with money laundering and failure to pay social security taxes. Due to the nature of the charges he is being held without bail. Yáñez Osuna is the sole director of Oceanografía SA de CV, one of the private companies that contract to provide services to Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the giant state-owned oil monopoly, in an arrangement that critics consider a disguised form of privatization. Yáñez has been under house arrest since March, following allegations of massive fraud by the company. (La Jornada, Mexico Oct. 21, Oct. 23) At the end of February the US banking corporation Citigroup Inc. announced that its Mexican subsidiary, Banco Nacional de México (Banamex), had lent Oceanografía some $400 million based on falsified invoices that Oceanografía claimed it had issued to Pemex. Banamex is Mexico's second-largest bank; it was privatized under former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) and was bought by Citigroup in 2001.

The Oceanografía case was the first of two major bribery scandals for Pemex this year; in April the US government fined the California-based technology company Hewlett-Packard (HP) for bribing Pemex officials to sell the oil enterprise hardware, software and licenses worth some $6 million.

Another of Oceanografía's creditors is the Monterrey-based Grupo Financiero Banorte (GFNorte), which lent the company 512 million pesos (about US$38 million). The bank's officials insist that in this case the loans were properly documented. Privatized in 1992, Banorte is the largest Mexican bank not owned by a foreign corporation. During the week of Oct. 20 rumors circulated that Mexican banker Carlos Hank González would soon head Banorte. (LJ, Oct. 24) Currently the director general of Grupo Financiero Interacciones, Hank González is the grandson of a former Mexico City mayor of the same name, a notoriously corrupt politician who died in 2001. The younger Hank González's uncle is the equally notorious Tijuana racetrack owner Jorge Hank Rhon, and his father is billionaire banker Carlos Hank Rhon. A report by the US National Drug Intelligence Center in the late 1990s claimed that Jorge Hank Rhon, Carlos Hank Rhon and the elder Carlos Hank González were so involved in drug trafficking and money laundering that they "pose a significant criminal threat to the United States."

Meanwhile, Mexico's Supreme Court agreed on Oct. 17 to consider a request from the center-left National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) for a national referendum on the energy reform program. Electoral officials have certified that MORENA's petition has the two million valid signatures required for a referendum. The court has 20 days to decide whether to allow Mexicans to vote on the question: "Do you agree or do you not agree that contracts or concessions should be granted to national or foreign private entities for the exploration of oil, gas, refining, and the petrochemical and electrical industries?" (TeleSUR, Oct. 20; LJ, Oct. 21)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, October 26.