Little outrage in Mexico for Wal-Mart bribe report

By Mark Stevenson

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 24 2012 2:45 p.m. MDT

In this Nov. 18, 2011 photo, a man pays at the cash register at a Wal-Mart Superstore in Mexico City. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. hushed up a vast bribery campaign that top executives of its Mexican subsidiary carried out to build stores across Mexico, according to a published report by the New York Times. (AP Photo)

The Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

MEXICO CITY — Allegations that U.S. retail giant Wal-Mart used bribes to speed its break-neck Mexican expansion are sparking some soul-searching in Mexico, but not the outrage that the scandal has provoked in the United States.

While Wal-Mart says it is probing the allegations and U.S. Congress members are demanding answers, Mexican authorities say they have nothing to investigate.

The charges have, however, focused fresh attention on Mexico's long-entrenched culture of bribery, a place where crowded government offices remain the working grounds of shadowy facilitators known as "gestores." Although Mexicans are aware such payoffs occur, most would prefer to pretend it doesn't exist.

Wal-Mart's bribes in Mexico "are a scandal in the United States," Luis Miguel Gonzalez, editorial director of El Economista newspaper noted in a Monday column. "Here we live in a different way. Over there, there are expressions of indignation ... In Mexico authorities take more than 50 hours to react" to the first news reports that made the charges.

Eduardo Bohorquez, the director of the watchdog group Transparency Mexico, agreed there was a striking difference between the United States, where investigations have been launched by congressmen and, reportedly, the Justice Department, and Mexico, where authorities seemed eager to find reasons not to investigate.

"The enormous difference is the reaction," Bohorquez said. "State and local officials (in Mexico) are clear that there will be unequal enforcement" in the two countries.

Whether at least $8.5 million that was apparently paid to gestores actually wound up as bribes for corrupt local officials remains unknown. The Times also said an additional $16 million were paid directly to local governments.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. says it is conducting its own investigation, and two U.S. congressmen announced they are opening a probe.

The Mexican federal government, however, announced Monday evening that it had no jurisdiction in the case because the report referred only to the involvement of state and city officials with authority over permits and zoning decisions.

State-level governments in the state of Mexico and Mexico City also appeared to duck the issue, saying they had not opened any investigation because none of their officials were specifically mentioned in the allegations.

But the corruption scandal does sting. "This is an endemic vice, a vice that leads us nowhere," front-running presidential candidate Enrique Pena Nieto told The Associated Press in an interview Monday. "There is a truly critical situation in the country."

The candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party said an independent governmental anti-corruption commission is needed to root out the bribes and payoffs that many Mexicans say are as common as paying a light bill, and sometimes easier.

In the case of Wal-Mart, The New York Times said executives turned to middlemen in the early 2000s to grease the way for building up the company's Mexican subsidiary, which has become its biggest foreign operation.

Many Mexicans wouldn't be surprised if the claims are true. According to a survey of Mexican households by Transparency Mexico, bribes paid by individuals, not including corporations, amounted to something like $2.4 billion in 2010. Households reported average bribes were about $12 apiece; the poorest families reported paying the equivalent of about 28 percent of their income in bribes.

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