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Billionaires in Mexico: Where did they all come from?

Stan Gotlieb

This piece was written in the summer of 1995. The number of Mexican billionaires has diminished, but the kidnappings have increased. The photo is of the inlet to Santa Cruz Huatulco. Photography by Diana Ricci

Salinasarse: a verb invented by a Mexican journalist from the name of the ex-president of Mexico, Carlos Salinas Gortari. It means, the act of reducing the value of a thing, an economy, or a revolution.

Mexico, a Third-World country with a crushing mass of rural and urban poor, made it almost to the top of one of the planet's most exclusive lists: it had the fourth largest number of billionaires of any country, after the United States, Germany and Japan. According to statistics released in July 1994 by the Mexican office of statistics, Mexico, which is unable to deliver basic health care and sanitation to many rural locations, managed to increase the number of resident billionaires to 24, thereby surpassing the combined totals of Great Britain, Brazil, France and Spain.

It is perhaps significant that in 1987, the first year of Salinas' regime, Mexico could boast but a single billionaire. To Sr. Salinas, who got his M.B.A. from a U.S. university, such "growth" probably seemed like some form of progress.

Mexicans are reeling under the burden of an inflationary economy and a peso devaluation. The 1995 Forbes list shows only 10 billionaires left in Mexico. No doubt the ones who fell to mere centamillionaires are feeling the pinch, but it is the average Juan who is really suffering.

In my town in Mexico, the town square is filled virtually every weekend with people protesting one form of social service cutback or another. The rural teachers, health workers and sanitation workers have not yet received the raises they were promised 3 years ago. The government is talking about "privatizing" drinking water projects, forcing the most poverty-stricken to pay for drinking water from wells that used to be free. The Mexican equivalent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been partially defunded in several important project areas, including schools and sanitation. The government wrings its' hands and pleads poverty.

Meanwhile, the latest growth industry in Mexico is Security. Kidnappings in Mexico City have become commonplace. Kidnappers stop a victim's car at a downtown intersection, with lots of people looking on, blow away the protection with an Uzi, blindfold the guy and handcuff him, throw him in the back of a vehicle, and leave the scene. To do this, you need a squad of dedicated gunmen, several vehicles, practice, and well-planned logistics. The bodyguards, therefore, are generally either foreign mercenaries, or ex-Army officers trained in "antiterrorism" at a clandestine intelligence - and - torture school such as the one the U.S. runs in Georgia. This kind of protection doesn't come cheap.

Sometimes a "revolutionary" group will claim credit for a snatch. Sometimes it is a caper pulled off by freelancers such as unemployed police or military personnel. Sometimes (probably most often) it will be the work of a professional criminal organization.

Carlos Slim Helu, recently ransomed for $100 million, and his 23 fellow kidnapping targets, account for about 12% of Mexico's wealth. No-one knows for sure how much of the remainder is controlled by the "35 families", as the members of the Mexican ruling class are called, but the estimates vary from 65% to 80%. A 1994 report by the government census bureau claimed that 70% of Mexicans share 30% of the wealth, but these numbers are regarded as conservative by most social service agencies. The opposition parties talk about 80% having a 15% share. One thing for sure: it takes a lot of peasants to support one billionaire.

A great many concerned members of the Mexican Intelligencia have joined writers Carlos Monsivais and Carlos Fuentes in speaking out against this obscene proliferation of billionaires at the expense of the Mexican people. All the opposition parties have deplored it. Nonetheless, it is the Zapatistas, with their call for a national movement of resistance, that the average campesino supports. Trying to forge a true movement of national resistance amidst the nightmare of conflicting interests and divergent doctrines of Mexico's disenfranchised has been, and will be, a long and difficult task.

In August, 1994, the nucleus of such a movement held its' first meeting in the Lacondon Rain Forest of Chiapas. Over 8,000 people from all over Mexico met to plan for the future of their children. Some were from organizations that had already tacked "Zapatista" on to their name; some were from groups that had asked for and received leadership from the Zapatistas; many were skeptical. After a year, they are still trying to work out their differences over doctrine and desires.

Differences aside, all regard the Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI) of Salinas -- and his successor, Zedillo -- to be the political happy-face painted on the iron fist of an oligarchy bent on feeding the rich and starving the poor. They send you greetings from the dark side of the "Mexican Economic Miracle".

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Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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