How Wal-Mart Got Its Way in Mexico

Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited, an examination by The New York Times found. Part 4  the concluding part  describes how protesters and concerned citizens from many walks of life were silenced because bribes had already been paid through various channels and Wal-Mart got its way in the end. 

how-wal-mart-got-its-way-inArchaeology Bribe: Up to $81,000
Wal-Mart could not build by the pyramids without a permit from the agency that protects Mexico’s cultural landmarks. Wal-Mart de Mexico offered a “donation” of up to $45,000 and a “personal gift” of up to $36,000 in exchange for the permit, records and interviews show.
“I told him, ‘I don’t want a dime, not as a donation, not as anything, because it may be interpreted as something else,’ ” she said. Sergio Raúl Arroyo, the director general of INAH, recalled in an interview that Ms. Miró had told him about Wal-Mart’s offer. He could not recall any other instance of a company offering a donation while it was seeking a permit. “That would have been totally irregular,” he said. “It was obvious we had to be very careful with these people.”
“I told Miró to accept no donations,” he added. “Not even a pair of scissors.” And yet in June 2004, three weeks after Ms. Miró signed the permit, Mr. Resendiz spoke about a payment to INAH during his private meeting with Teotihuacán’s council. “INAH itself is asking us for a considerable contribution,” Mr. Resendiz said. “We are going to formalise the contribution next Monday,” he added. “But it is a fact.”
Mr. Resendiz, who has been placed on administrative leave pending Wal-Mart’s investigation, declined to comment. Every INAH official interviewed, including Ms. Miró’s chief architect, Carlos Madrigal, denied accepting money from Wal-Mart. But Mr. Sabais, the agency’s top lawyer in Teotihuacán, knew nothing about official donations or personal gifts on the day he stopped construction. All he knew was that he was being summoned to INAH’s headquarters in Mexico City. Over several tense meetings, he recalled, his bosses confronted their embarrassing predicament: INAH had halted construction even though Wal-Mart had the required permit. Yet the agency had given Wal-Mart that permit without first conducting a survey and liberating the land.
Fearing a public relations debacle, senior INAH officials concocted a trail of backdated documents to hide its blunders, Mr. Sabais said. He pointed to an INAH report dated April 2, 2004, seven weeks before the agency issued its permit. The report suggested Wal-Mart’s plot had been liberated after a 1984 survey. “This document,” Mr. Sabais said, “was made later to justify what had not been done.”
INAH officials would later tell multiple government inquiries that Wal-Mart’s plot had been liberated because of this 1984 survey.
The Times tracked down the 1984 survey. It had nothing to do with the land where Wal-Mart was building. The survey was done on a different plot several hundred yards away. The archaeologists who supervised and evaluated the survey were appalled to learn that it had been used to justify INAH’s permit for Wal-Mart. “This is a fraud,” Ana María Jarquín, one of the archaeologists, said in an interview.
In interviews, top INAH officials acknowledged for the first time that Wal-Mart’s plot had neither been surveyed nor liberated, either in 1984 or any other time, before construction began. They also made one other startling admission. The agency has long maintained no ancient remains were destroyed during construction. But Verónica Ortega, INAH’s top archaeologist in Teotihuacán, acknowledged it was indeed possible ancient remains were destroyed during the excavation before Mr. Sabais halted construction. “I am not able to affirm categorically that no soil went out,” she said.
The work shutdown ordered by Mr. Sabais did not last long. Four days later, INAH allowed Wal-Mart to resume construction. The agency did take one precaution: it began an extensive survey, digging dozens of exploration wells alongside Wal-Mart’s crews.
A Gathering Protest
By now a loose protest movement had begun to form. Its leaders all had deep roots here. Lorenzo Trujillo owned produce stands in the public market. Emmanuel D’Herrera, a teacher and poet, had celebrated his son’s birth by tucking the boy’s umbilical cord in a crack atop the Moon pyramid. Emma Ortega was a spiritual healer who cared for patients a stone’s throw from the pyramid. “You feel that it’s part of you, and you are part of it,” she said.
The protesters immediately suspected something “dirty” had taken place, Ms. Ortega recalled. The first clue came on Aug. 1, 2004, when she and other protest leaders met with Mayor Rodríguez. By now the supermarket’s walls were being erected. They asked the mayor to show them the construction permit. The mayor, nervous and evasive, admitted Wal-Mart did not actually have one. “So we were like, ‘Why are they there working?’ ” Ms. Ortega said. They asked the mayor to halt work and hold hearings. The mayor said he would think about it. Two days later, he issued Wal-Mart a construction license. He signed it himself.
In response, the protesters demanded his resignation and filed the first of several legal challenges. Then they blockaded the construction site.
As word of the blockade spread, bells rang from a chapel in Purificación, the neighborhood where Wal-Mart was building. It was the alarm used to summon neighbours in an emergency. Residents marched toward the blockade.
“We thought they were there to support us,” Ms. Ortega recalled. “No. They were there to attack us.” The crowd descended on the small band of protesters, pushing and yelling insults until the blockade was broken. Wal-Mart donated these computers to the elementary school in Purificación, the neighborhood in Teotihuacán in which it built a Bodega Aurrera supermarket.

Wal-Mart had already bought the support of neighbourhood leaders. In interviews, several of those leaders recalled being invited to meet with the company’s representatives. The Wal-Mart people, the leaders said, offered money to expand their cemetery, pave a road and build a handball court.

What Ms. Ortega did not know was that Wal-Mart had already bought the support of Purificación’s neighbourhood leaders. In interviews, several of those leaders recalled being invited to Mr. Rodríguez’s office to meet with the company’s representatives. The Wal-Mart people, the leaders said, offered money to expand their cemetery, pave a road and build a handball court. They offered paint and computers for Purificación’s school. They offered money to build a new office for the neighborhood leaders. But the money came with strings: if there were any protests, they were expected to be visibly and loudly supportive of Wal-Mart.
Protest leaders began to get anonymous phone calls urging them to back off. In news conferences, the mayor dismissed them as a tiny minority of gadflies and self-interested local merchants. He insisted the town overwhelmingly favored Wal-Mart’s arrival, and as proof of his incorruptibility, he boasted of how he had rejected Wal-Mart de Mexico’s offer of a $55,000 donation to the municipal treasury.
But the tide turned as INAH’s archaeologists began to find evidence that Wal-Mart was building on ancient ruins after all. They found the remains of a wall dating to approximately 1300 and enough clay pottery to fill several sacks. Then they found an altar, a plaza and nine graves. Once again, construction was temporarily halted so their findings could be cataloged, photographed and analyzed. The discoveries instantly transformed the skirmish over Mrs. Pineda’s field into national news.
Student groups, unions and peasant leaders soon joined the protests. Opponents of other Wal-Marts in Mexico offered support. Influential politicians began to express concern. Prominent artists and intellectuals signed an open letter asking Mexico’s president to stop the project. Many were cultural traditionalists, united by a fear that Wal-Mart was inexorably drawing Mexico’s people away from the intimacy of neighborhood life, toward a bland, impersonal “gringo lifestyle” of frozen pizzas, video games and credit card debt.
The support emboldened the protesters. When the mayor held a news conference, they interrupted and openly accused him of taking bribes. They blockaded INAH’s headquarters and marched on Wal-Mart de Mexico’s corporate offices in Mexico City. “All we have found are closed doors and an ocean of corruption around the authorizations for this Wal-Mart,” Mr. D’Herrera told reporters with typical flourish. Their allegations of corruption seeped into the news coverage in Mexico and the United States. In September 2004, an article in The Times included this passage: “How Wal-Mart got permission to build a superstore on farmland supposedly protected under Mexican law as an archaeological site has vexed the merchants here, who freely accuse the town, the state and the federal Institute of Anthropology and History of corruption.”
Open for Business
Back in Bentonville, Wal-Mart’s international real estate committee was aware of the growing attention from the news media, former members said in interviews. Some committee members cringed at the ugly optics of Wal-Mart literally bulldozing Mexico’s cultural heritage. “I kept waiting for someone to say, ‘Let’s just move sites,’ ” recalled one member, who, like others on the committee, asked not to be identified because of the continuing inquiry. But top Wal-Mart de Mexico executives assured the committee that the situation was under control. They portrayed the protesters as a fringe group — “like they were from Occupy Wall Street,” another person recalled.
Despite multiple news accounts of possible bribes, Wal-Mart’s leaders in the United States took no steps to investigate Wal-Mart de Mexico, records and interviews show. Mr. Tovar, the Wal-Mart spokesman, said that while executives in the United States were aware of the furor in Teotihuacán they did not know about the corruption allegations. “None of the associates we have interviewed, including people responsible for real estate projects in Mexico during this time period, recall any mention of bribery allegations related to this store,” he said.
In Mexico, government officials were looking for a way to quell the controversy. Mr. Arroyo, INAH’s director general, urged Wal-Mart de Mexico to build elsewhere. The state’s urban development ministry quietly searched for alternate sites outside the archaeological zone. Then, on Oct. 2, Mexico’s newspapers reported a major announcement: Arturo Montiel, the state’s governor, was looking for another site “that is better for all.” With its supermarket more than half built, Wal-Mart de Mexico was not eager to accommodate the governor. The company raced to complete construction and mounted a public relations offensive. Executives argued that Wal-Mart de Mexico had scrupulously fulfilled every legal requirement: the zoning was correct, as confirmed by the map in the Government’s Gazette; necessary approvals had been duly obtained from INAH, traffic authorities and other agencies; the mayor himself had signed the construction license.
Not even a week after Mr. Montiel’s announcement, his top deputy told reporters there was, alas, no way to stop Wal-Mart. “We would be violating the law since they can tell us they complied with all that is required,” he explained.
The supermarket opened on Nov. 4, 2004. A year later, Mr. Cicero met with Wal-Mart’s lawyers and told his story for the first time. His allegations were shared with several of the same executives who were on the international real estate committee, records show. If the protesters’ vague allegations of corruption had been easy to dismiss, now they were coming from the person responsible for obtaining Wal-Mart de Mexico’s permits in Teotihuacán. More important, Mr. Cicero’s allegations emerged as a comptroller for the State of Mexico was wrapping up a lengthy investigation into whether officials had acted unlawfully in granting permits to Wal-Mart de Mexico.
But Wal-Mart did not share Mr. Cicero’s allegations with any authorities in Mexico. “This is one of the areas we are reviewing as part of our ongoing investigation,” Mr. Tovar said. When the comptroller’s office subsequently announced it had found no wrongdoing, it chided protesters for failing to present any specific proof.
The comptroller had been the protesters’ last hope. Most moved on, resigned to the idea that their struggle had been for nothing. But not Mr. D’Herrera. He continued to visit government archives, seeking access to Wal-Mart’s permit records. He kept appealing to public officials for help. “I shall continue my hunger strike until Wal-Mart leaves or until I die,” he wrote in a letter to Vicente Fox, Mexico’s president at the time. Despite the passage of time, Mr. D’Herrera never wavered in his conviction that Wal-Mart must have paid bribes. He was appalled by the store’s impact on Teotihuacán, and infuriated that so few seemed to care. It did not go unnoticed when protest leaders were spotted shopping contentedly in the Bodega Aurrera, where people can buy everything from tortillas to tires, almost always at a substantial discount from local shops.
Friends and relatives urged Mr. D’Herrera to let it go, but he refused. “He became obsessed,” Ms. Ortega said. Mr. D’Herrera finally snapped. On May 16, 2009, he entered the Bodega Aurrera and placed a crude homemade bomb in a shopping cart. According to prosecutors, the bomb consisted of a small juice can containing gunpowder and nails. Mr. D’Herrera pushed the cart into the store’s home section, looked around to make sure the aisle was empty, and then lit a fuse poking from the can. His intent, he later wrote, was to kill himself and damage the store to draw public attention back to Wal-Mart. But all the blast did was knock him down and damage $68 worth of merchandise.
As he awaited trial from a prison cell, he continued his hopeless campaign. He wrote more letters to politicians. He asked his wife to publish his diatribes against Wal-Mart on an obscure poetry blog. Yet he clearly recognised the precariousness of his circumstances. He was thin and severely diabetic. His teeth were falling out. In early 2010, he asked a cellmate to deliver a letter to his wife in case he died in prison. A few months later, he had a brain hemorrhage and slipped into a coma. Death quickly followed. He was 62. In his final letter to his wife, Mr. D’Herrera tried to explain why he had battled so long at such grievous cost. “I am not leaving material patrimony for you and our son,” he wrote. “I’m leaving you a moral and political legacy, dying as I am for a cause, in defense of the Mexican culture.”


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