The Next Disaster

Jesse Bogan, Kerry A. Dolan, Christopher Helman and Nathan Vardi, Forbes, December 22, 2008

The Nov. 4 crash of a Learjet in an upper-class Mexico City neighborhood caused a disproportionate amount of destruction. All eight passengers were killed—including Interior Minister Juan Camilo Mouriño, President Felipe Calderón’s right-hand man, and José Luis Santiago Vasconcelos, a leading prosecutor against the powerful drug cartels; seven people on the ground died, too.

snip} Still, says Larry N. Holifield, former head of the Mexico City office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, “people won’t believe it was an accident. They think everything down there is a conspiracy because half the time it really is.” One witness to the crash believes the worst. “A plane just doesn’t fall out of the sky,” says Guadalupe Rodríguez, 42, a law firm assistant. “The narcos are saying, ‘Here we are—and nobody’s going to get rid of us.’”

You can forgive Rodríguez for thinking so. This year, through mid-November, there have been 4,300-plus drug-related deaths in Mexico, compared with 2,500 in 2007. Edgar Millán Gómez, who oversaw the joint efforts of the army and federal police, was assassinated in May in his home in Mexico City. Roberto Velasco Bravo, a federal chief of criminal investigations, was shot in the head a week earlier. The narcotraficantes have infiltrated the highest levels of law enforcement, including, allegedly, Mexico’s principal link to Interpol and its former senior drug czar. Mexico, once again, is battling the ever powerful gangs. “It has been a fierce bloodbath,” says Felipe González González, president of the Senate public security commission and former governor of the central state of Aguascalientes. “We have more dead than you have in Iraq.”

Is Mexico descending into criminal and economic chaos? “Failed state? That is a very irresponsible remark,” bristles Arturo Sarukhan, Mexico’s ambassador to the U.S. “The challenge of corruption is being taken on. We are rooting out people who have been infiltrated. Look at the role of the Mexican private sector and civil society. Nowhere can you see signs of anything akin to a failed state.”

But there is urgent concern north of the border about a potential strategic threat. “We’re fixated on Iraq and Afghanistan, but from a homeland security perspective, right here on our border, isn’t this more important?” asks Fred Burton, a former State Department counterterrorism official, now a vice president at Stratfor in Austin, Tex.

Washington, D.C. is fretting, too. “The consequences for both our countries in the near future and the not-so-near future could not be greater,” says John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, a.k.a. the drug czar. “The consequences if President Calderón fails and the institutions of government, at least in the northern part of his country, become controlled by terrorist mafias—well, we worry about ungoverned spaces far away from the U.S., and this is right next door.”

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{snip} After expanding by 3.2% in 2007 to $900 billion, Mexico’s GDP growth will slow to 1.5% this year and tumble to somewhere between zero and 0.7% in 2009, predicts Raúl Feliz, an economist at CIDE, a Mexico City think tank that specializes in economics and politics. While some of that meager expansion will come from government stimulus spending, its hands are tightly tied because state-owned oil monopoly Pemex (Petróleos Mexicanos) contributes 37%—$80 billion in 2008—of federal revenue. Next year analysts expect a plunge in petrodollars. Unemployment will jump from its current 4.1%. Throw in part-time workers, who account for roughly one-third of GDP, and the jobless figure soars to 10%. Feliz expects that number to reach 12% next year.

Credit-rating agencies are taking notice. In November Fitch put Mexican government foreign and local currency debt on “negative outlook” (though the ratings are still investment grade). It said that Mexico’s ability to absorb global shocks was limited.

To say nothing of internal shocks. Eighty percent of Mexican exports—$240 billion this year, up 10% from 2007—go to the U.S., where shoppers aren’t spending. {snip}

Drug-related violence pervades all segments of life in Mexico. “The cartels have an extraordinary capacity for corrupting and intimidating,” says U.S. Ambassador Garza. The drug lords operate through most of the country (see map). In Ciudad Juárez the body count is 1,100 this year—200 or more of those deaths in August.

The cartels are also taking a big toll on business. “U.S. companies are worried about the safety of their workers,” says Maria Luisa O’Connell, president of the Border Trade Alliance in Phoenix, Ariz. “Drugs have become such a big problem.” As they have for the business community throughout Mexico. As a result of many high-profile kidnappings and murders, one of the most vibrant businesses in the nation is security—bodyguards and armored vehicles. An executive can shell out as much as $500,000 a year to protect himself and his family, reports Stratfor.

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On the economic front Mexicans like to point out how they are in better shape to weather tough times than they were 14 years ago, when the U.S. and others had to intervene to save the peso. Some of that is true. The federal deficit is down to 0.2% of GDP. Short-term interest rates on government debt, while still high, are 8.3%; inflation is at a manageable 5.8%. Solid companies like Wal-Mart de México (68% owned by the Bentonville, Ark. giant) and América Móvil, the wireless services provider, are still forging ahead with precrisis capital expenditures. There’s still hiring going on at the factories in Guadalajara, Chihuahua and Reynosa operated by contract manufacturer Jabil Circuit. PepsiCo recently decided to spend up to $3 billion to expand its snack and drink business.

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But these investments hardly make a dent in Mexico’s economy. There is plenty of grim news to darken the bright spots. The three leading sectors of the economy—services, industrial and agriculture—are slowing; manufacturing is expected to contract next year.

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Default rates will rise in a degrading economy. Already there are bleak signs in the $85-billion-a-year auto industry. While Toyota North America insists it’s sticking to its schedule next year, Ford of Mexico says it will “adjust our plans accordingly.” Nissan Mexicana recently halted production for six days at its Aguascalientes plant and canceled a planned third shift in Civac. General Motors has cut 660 of its 13,000 workers, discontinued its line of GMC Kodiak medium-duty trucks in Toluca and slowed production of SUVs and pickups in Guanajuato. “Everyone is worried about the future,” says a spokesman. Chrysler Mexico laid off 400 of 6,000 people in October and is culling 20% of its 1,200 white-collar employees. Delphi has 55,000 workers at 48 Mexican plants, down from 65,000 at 54 factories two years ago. The auto parts maker is asking some employees to take a voluntary reduced workweek at 50% pay.

On the other side of the border look for a large drop in remittances from Mexicans living in the U.S. For 2008 they will be down roughly 10% to $21.6 billion. In 2009, predicts Roberto Newell, chief executive of the Mexican Institute of Competitiveness, total remittances may be off by as much as 25% from last year. Of the 11 million Mexicans in the U.S., 60% of them send money home. Perhaps as many as 150,000 will be unemployed by June, says Manuel Orozco, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. Many more have already been forced out of high-paying construction jobs into jobs paying a lot less. After interviewing migrants, Orozco concludes that 3% to 7% of them will go home next year.

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It may be a lot harder to forget next year, when some government subsidies disappear. Hit by the double whammy of sinking oil prices and lower production, Pemex’s contribution to state coffers could drop 20% or more to $65 billion in 2009. This despite only $18-per-barrel production costs, a $22 discount on today’s spot price in Mexico.

Pemex is in sorry shape. From a peak of 3.3 million barrels a day in 2004, output is down to 2.8 million barrels. Unless someone figures out how to halt the decline, Mexico may become a net oil importer by 2015, says Allyson Benton, analyst at Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy in Manhattan. Pemex vigorously contests the prediction.

The problem isn’t a lack of resources. Exploration and production chief Carlos Morales Gil says Pemex has 14 billion barrels of proved reserves, 30 billion barrels of probable and possible oil and another 54 billion barrels yet to be found. The culprit is Mexico’s constitution, which stipulates that all oil and gas reserves are the sole property of the people of Mexico. That bars Pemex from selling stakes in oilfields to foreign companies—depriving Mexico of the risk capital and the talent that Western oil companies are instead sending to colder climates and deeper waters.

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A new law passed by the legislature will help to a degree. While the wording of new contracts must still be painstakingly matched to the constitution, the reforms permit Pemex to develop the technology of foreign oil services companies—finally opening Mexico to deepwater exploration of the Gulf—and to pay them incentives based on Pemex’s success. Morales Gil can envision a nonequity partnership to produce Mexico’s oil via platforms on the U.S. side of the maritime border, where Royal Dutch Shell, bp and Chevron are installing an estimated $6.7 billion spar platform that will be linked to fields as far as 10,000 feet below sea level. “Perhaps in these reservoirs it makes sense to get together with the other guys and plan a joint investment,” he muses, but “keep the reserves separate.”

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But what foreign investor would be eager to buy that debt when the Mexican public markets themselves are pretty spooked these days? “People don’t want to put their surnames on a share listing,” Mexican stock exchange president, Guillermo Prieto, recently said. “At least six or seven companies have said crime is a reason [for not floating an issue].” {snip} On Nov. 3 there were 58 drug-related deaths, including four men burned to death in the beach town of Sinaloa de Leyva. On that same day surgeons in a Ciudad Juárez hospital were ordered out of an operating room as hooded men executed a patient who had shown up with a gunshot wound. With so little faith in his own men, Juárez’s mayor fired 400 police officers for failing lie detectors and other tests to root out corruption and started to recruit federal troops to the force.

Chronic fear of kidnapping, or worse, is driving more and more Mexicans north to the U.S. {snip}.

The narcotraficantes have found opportunity in the U.S., too. If the late Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar had Miami, then Joaquín Guzmán has Atlanta, which has become the East Coast distribution center of cocaine and other drugs for the Mexican cartels. Atlanta’s accessibility to key interstates like I-95 and I-85 make it a perfect hub for moving cocaine and marijuana and taking bulk cash back to Mexico. Atlanta’s fast-growing Mexican population, lured largely by the region’s building boom, has provided excellent cover and resources for the cartel’s U.S. emissaries.

Northwestern Georgia is dotted with drug warehouses and money-counting houses, often set up in empty suburban homes furnished with a few tables and laptops. From there cocaine is moved to New York, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Miami and Chicago. The cash can be counted and inserted within 24 hours in sophisticated hydraulic traps built into tractor trailers for the trip to Texas and the southwestern border. No need for cages or safes—the cash at the money-counting houses is kept in closets, and one Gulf cartel moneyman made it clear that the lives of families in Mexico of anyone messing with the efficiency of his money-moving operation were at stake. {snip}

The Gulf cartel has dug its claws into the Atlanta area, as shown by a federal indictment in September of 34 of its members who authorities say were organized into distribution and transportation cells. The feds say the leader, 20-year-old Edgar Rodríguez-Alejandro, was taking orders from the highest levels of the Gulf cartel in Mexico until he was arrested in May with 12 kilos of cocaine and $7.7 million, a slim fraction of the 16,000 kilos of cocaine and 116 weapons recently seized in the U.S. Two cells of Shorty Guzmán’s cartel in Atlanta were tracked and 20 indicted in December 2007.

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