The Wal-Mart ‘Mordida’ Monster

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I’ve been asked to pay bribes in countries all over the world. Occasionally, I’ve actually had to shell out some dough. A couple of the demands were covered by American diplomats I was traveling with — and that is also not uncommon. When Air Force One travels on a worldwide tour, there’s always a guy on the second plane (for press and staff) who has a gym bag full of ready money, in $100 bills. The president’s plane always gets off without a hitch, at which time the TV cameras and tripods all break down and get packed up. At that point, a gaggle of low-level airport employees from country X suddenly appear out of nowhere and explain that there’s a problem in the tower that might take a few hours to resolve before Air Force Two can take off. “Where’s that guy with the gym bag?” Everything gets worked out pretty fast, and off they go.

Yes, your money pays bribes, all over the world, all the time. Heard of Iraq? Afghanistan?


Perhaps the Pentagon should get charged under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. But I digress.

I used to live in Mexico. Like many other foreign countries, it is a land of bribes. Many government officials and policemen there scarcely get paid. They are expected to make a living from “La Mordida." It’s no offense, and certainly no insult — it’s a way of life. When I translate for local law enforcement here, the sheriff tells me, excitedly, “get their hands out of their pockets!” I have to explain calmly that they are not reaching for a gun, they are reaching for their wallet, to pay him a bribe. Every man in uniform they have ever seen in their life has insisted on being paid off. When I explained to them that are local police are professional, that they are especially vigilant about this area because there have been two murders here, the Hispanics virtually disappear. Smiling.

Back to Mexico. When I was staff director for Latin America on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, American businessmen would complain all the time about the bribes that they were forced to pay in order to do business in Mexico. This was long after the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act had been passed in 1977. That legislation, a sniffing pirouette of American moral superiority strutting across the stage, was laughed at worldwide. Companies that had once paid bribes now pay lawyers to pay bribes. It actually raised the price of doing business in Mexico for many American firms. Why? Mexican lawyers caught on quickly, and demanded a higher percentage because the entire transaction was supposedly illegal. "Thank you, my Congress Amigos!"

So all these American businessmen would come to Capitol Hill complaining that the high rates of bribery they had to pay to do business in Mexico. Local officials would demand a percentage of the gross! Their families would handle the construction. Electricity, gas, security — you name it, everybody demanded bribes. What if you don't pay? Well, your building might burn down – if you're lucky.

And if you're not lucky? Well, I used to tell these businessmen, “Wow, this is dynamite! Why don’t you come and testify before the Foreign Relations Committee? This would break the whole corrupt system wide open!”

But those were my younger days. A steely look from the bribing businessman would set me straight: “What? Do you think I’m crazy? They’ll kill me.”

Ah yes, and they kill folks all the time in Mexico. They leave heads on the doorsteps of widows, all of them widows who don’t yet know that they're widows. They leave rows of heads on the steps of municipalities to "influence" the mayor. If that doesn't work, they kill the mayor. It usually works. Stateside, we hear that it’s all about drugs — but it can be all about anything. Everybody whom you refuse to bribe has a pal in a gang that collects notches on their machetes. You pay the bribe.

Bribery is possible only when a government (or government-controlled) service or product exists. Imagine going to a gas station where the attendant demands a bribe. Adiós, Amigo! But if you're a New York crane operator confronted by a city building inspector? You can't go down the street to another building inspector. You pay the bribe.

Bienvenidos a México!

The other day I heard Mexican President Felipe Calderon complaining on Spanish news that Walmart has been — he's shocked! Shocked! — Paying bribes! Bribes to Mexican officials! And American “justice” brigades have found out that bribes are being paid by American firms and businessmen in Mexico! Why, something must be done! It all brought on carcajadas (thigh-slapping peals of laughter).

I learned about bribery in Mexico early. I was a kid waiting for some banjo strings sent from Harold’s music supply in South Bend, Indiana to little old me in my apartment at the corner of Avenida Benjamin Franklin and Taumalipas in Mexico City. Instead of the banjo strings, I got a card in the mail. “Come and pick up your package.” It looked very official. How efficient, I thought! So, as I prepared to go off to the aduana, my pal who had lived there a while said, “they’re going to want a bribe.” Said I: “I’m not gonna pay a bribe! I’ve never paid a bribe in my life!” So we hatched a plan.

I arrived at the customs office about an hour later. It resembled a huge auto-parts warehouse store. Rows and rows of shelves, going from floor to ceiling, and going back a full 50 meters to the far wall. When it was my turn, I confidently handed the clerk my card, which still looked very official, and was none the worse for wear. He glanced at it — for a millisecond — and looked up at me, shrugging his shoulders: “Pues, No está!" Now that means, either “it isn’t here,” or “he isn’t here.” Assuming he meant the package, I said, “Well, the card says that it’s here.” He looked at me gloomily and shook his head saying, “Pues, No está."

I said, “okay, I’ll be glad to wait.” He gave me a weird look.

Here is where my pal's expert advice came into play. I had brought my lunch. I had also brought my guitar. There was a bench opposite the counter, next to a window, with room enough to put down my guitar case and open it, while on the other side I could open up my lunch, which included something smelly, some bread, and something to drink. As people came and went from the counter, I proceeded to eat, and then, wiping my hands, I took my guitar out of the case and started playing (honest, I am not kidding), "if I Had a Hammer." Loudly.

Before I had even finished the second verse, my friend at the counter — remember, he had only glanced at that card for a millisecond — was calling to me from the counter, waving my package in his hand. "Aquí está, Señor, Aquí está!" — "Here it is, Señor, here it is! " This guy was really good.

And there it was. I packed up my gear, handed him the card, took my package, and left.

I don’t know what Walmart should do. Everybody doing business in Mexico pays bribes. Every elected official (who takes bribes) in Mexico complains about the corruptos who demand bribes, but they continue to thrive — even among the top brass. Not long ago, it was worth $100 million to occupy a senior position in a Mexican Ministry. And thirty years ago, President José López Portillo was one of the richest men in the world. But there is also "trickle-down Mordida." I went to a party once at the home of a woman who was the manager of a Social Security hospital in Mexico City. Medical care is “free” in Mexico — once you’re in the hospital door. In exchange for favors handed to her at her hospital door, this woman had amassed the most marvelous world–class collection of Chinese ivory that I have ever seen. Ivory tusks, several feet long, intricately carved, lined the walls. It filled several rooms.

Maybe Wal-Mart should hire her.

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