Revealed: how Wal-Mart bribed its way into Mexico

by Jerome Roos on December 18, 2012

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According to the New York Times, “Wal-Mart was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited.”

The New York Times, not particularly known for its radical critique of corporate globalization, just released an extensive investigative report on a massive bribery scandal that allowed the Wal-Mart supermarket chain, one of the largest multinational corporations in the world, to push Mexican farmers off their land, force out domestic competition and citizens, and build a supermarket in the shadow of one of the Aztecs’ most revered cultural sites: the temple of Teotihuacán.

According to the Times, “Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance — public votes, open debates, transparent procedures. It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.” Despite severe opposition from the local population, in the form of protests, hunger-strikes and sit-ins, Wal-Mart eventually conquered Teotihuacán.

Yet this paradigmatic case is only one of many, with further investigations revealing extensive corporate wrongdoing by Wal-Mart in other countries as well, including the massive “emerging markets” of India, China and Brazil. And it is obviously not necessary to emphasize that Wal-Mart is only one of many corporations subverting democracy across the Global South. Ikea, Apple and Royal Dutch Shell are just a handful among hundreds of Western businesses exploiting the well-being of poor populations in developing countries.

Wal-Mart’s activities in Mexico should therefore not be read as a single episode of “corruption” subverting the pure operational logic of the free market and the proper functioning of representative democracy. Rather, this type of behavior is the logical ougrowth of the operational logic of the free market and the proper functioning of representative democracy. It is the very logic of corporate globalization that produces this blatant and widespread disrespect for human dignity, democratic accountability and indigenous culture.

As Subcomandante Marcos of the Zapatistas put it about a decade ago, “This is what this is all about: it is war. A war against humanity. The globalization of those who are above us is nothing more than a global machine that feeds on blood and defecates in dollars. In the complex equation that turns death into money, there is a group of humans who command a very low price in the global slaughterhouse. We are the indigenous, the young, the women, the children, the elderly, the homosexuals, the migrants, all those who are different. That is to say, the immense majority of humanity.”

SAN JUAN TEOTIHUACÁN, Mexico — Wal-Mart longed to build in Elda Pineda’s alfalfa field. It was an ideal location, just off this town’s bustling main entrance and barely a mile from its ancient pyramids, which draw tourists from around the world. With its usual precision, Wal-Mart calculated it would attract 250 customers an hour if only it could put a store in Mrs. Pineda’s field.

One major obstacle stood in Wal-Mart’s way.

After years of study, the town’s elected leaders had just approved a new zoning map. The leaders wanted to limit growth near the pyramids, and they considered the town’s main entrance too congested already. As a result, the 2003 zoning map prohibited commercial development on Mrs. Pineda’s field, seemingly dooming Wal-Mart’s hopes.

But 30 miles away in Mexico City, at the headquarters of Wal-Mart de Mexico, executives were not about to be thwarted by an unfavorable zoning decision. Instead, records and interviews show, they decided to undo the damage with one well-placed $52,000 bribe.

The plan was simple. The zoning map would not become law until it was published in a government newspaper. So Wal-Mart de Mexico arranged to bribe an official to change the map before it was sent to the newspaper, records and interviews show. Sure enough, when the map was published, the zoning for Mrs. Pineda’s field was redrawn to allow Wal-Mart’s store.

Problem solved.

Read the full report here.

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