Little outrage in Mexico for Wal-Mart bribe report

By Mark Stevenson

Associated Press

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

A visit to any government office is likely to bring the sight of a well-dressed man carrying reams of documents who glides past the long lines, shakes hands with the official behind the counter and gets ushered into a backroom, where his affairs presumably get a fast-track service. The suspicion is these go-betweens funnel a portion of the fees they charge clients to corrupt officials to smooth the issuance of permits, approvals and other government stamps.

In a country where laws on zoning rules, construction codes and building permits are vague or laxly enforced, the difference between opening a store quickly and having it held up for months may depend on using a gestor.

"Nobody is exempted" from the demands for bribes, said Mexico City security consultant Max Morales, who advises companies on everything from building projects to security against kidnappings. "Even the big American companies are subject to extortion."

There is none bigger than Wal-Mart de Mexico, which is the nation's largest retailer and private employer and opened a store a day last year. Corrupt officials "see money, and they exploit you and exploit you, and the first thing you know they try to close you ... as a way to exert pressure," Morales said.

Transparency International puts Mexico a low No. 100 on its 2011 list that ranks 183 countries by the perception of their level of corruption. On a scale with 10 as the least corrupt, Mexico rates only a 3 — the lowest for any OECD nation and a tie with countries like Suriname and Indonesia.

The pressure of corruption in Mexico is so great that some companies have reportedly opted to leave.

Morales said security and corruption concerns played a role in the 2005 decision by French retailer Carrefour to sell its operations in Mexico. Asked if that was true, Carrefour's press department responded in an email: "Carrefour Group doesn't comment on this information."

Wal-Mart's competitors in Mexico, the other large supermarket chains, all refused to talk about the scandal. "It is a very delicate issue," said Jesus Antonio Velazquez, spokesman for the Chedraui chain.

The only people willing to comment were operators of small markets and mom-and-pop grocery stores. They said Wal-Mart was able to put stores where they shouldn't have been allowed, and they saw something fishy in the company's rapid expansion that has given it 2,138 stores in Mexico.

"It was so evident," said Alfredo Neme Martinez, who leads a Latin American association of wholesale market vendors. "They would buy three lots on a corner, and open right away."

In a statement, Wal-Mart said the bribery accusations, "if they are true, do not reflect the culture of WalMart Mexico and Central America." It said it would not comment further because of the investigations.

Bohorquez said bribery is not necessarily part of Mexico's culture, noting laws against the practice exist on both sides of the border. The difference is real enforcement and the lack of a truly nationwide anticorruption policy in Mexico, he said.

"This is not in the genetic code of Mexicans, nor is it a cultural attribute," he said. "The explanation of culture and genetics doesn't apply in this case."

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