The report had all the makings of a bombshell. Between 2019 and 2020, the son of the president of Mexico, José Ramón López Beltrán, and his wife, Carolyn Adams, rented a swanky house in Houston owned by the high-ranking executive of a firm that had received contracts from the state oil company, PEMEX. The report, a joint investigation by the organization Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI) and the US-based Mexican website Latinus, set off a national feeding frenzy.
Denunciations of collusion and kickbacks filled the airwaves, with fevered speculation that José Ramón had lived in the house for free as payback for favors received by the company Baker Hughes. Aerial views of the property and its pool filled television screens, and a model of the house was even set up on the floor of Congress. The opposition, it seemed, had finally found a scandal that would stick.
Then it all began to fall apart. The owner of the house, Keith Schilling, declared that he had rented the house through an agency and did not know the couple personally. The newspaper La Jornada dug up the rental contract with the agency, proving this to be the case. For its part, Baker Hughes clarified that Schilling had been the head of the Canadian division at the time, and had never handled Mexican affairs. And the director of PEMEX pointed out that Baker Hughes, in addition to its sixty-year history as a contractor, was actually more favored by the two previous administrations than by the current one. The damning exposé had sputtered out into little more than unsubstantiated innuendo.
Inference and Impressions
The house in Houston was not the only exposé directed against Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s children to have misfired in recent months. At the end of November, the news site Aristegui Noticias came out with a highly billed investigation of its own, purporting to show that another of the president’s sons, Andrés Manuel López Beltrán, was benefitting improperly from a government farm-aid program, Sembrando Vida, at a ranch the sons had inherited from AMLO’s late first wife.
The assistance, which had to do with the planting of cacao at the ranch, was to have been channeled through an old family friend, Hugo Chávez Ayala, who was previously a member of the program’s advisory council. The problem, as the authors of the article themselves admitted in a subsequent interview, is that the allegations were not supported by clear proof but rather constituted an “inference from the data” designed to “open a conversation” about the issue.
Any wrongdoing on the part of presidents or family members should be investigated fully, of course. But what stands out about these two reports is how, in the voracious media climate of today’s Mexico, the overweening desire to catch AMLO out can override standard journalistic due diligence.
Disappointing as this is from Aristegui — which has a more solid record of reporting — it is not at all so from MCCI and Latinus. MCCI is the brainchild of leading opposition figure Claudio X. González that is financed by both USAID and the Reagan-founded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), whose board of directors includes such illustrious figures as pardoned Iran-Contra criminal and promoter of Central American genocide Eliott Abrams (NED also indirectly contributed to funding the Aristegui report through the journalistic platform Conectas).
Latinus, for its part, is a shadowy organization of mercenaries, which, from the safe distance of the corporate tax haven of Delaware, devotes itself ceaselessly to attacking AMLO with recycled personalities from the Televisa broadcasting network; calling it a “news” organization in any meaningful sense is to stretch the word well past its breaking point. The site is financed by a network of opposition politicians and companies led by the Madrazo family, old enemies of López Obrador from Tabasco, and key figures in the state government of Michoacán under disgraced former governor Silvano Aureoles, currently under investigation for the embezzlement and diversion of over $50 billion pesos (US$2.4 billion) in public resources.
In a political sense, however, pieces like the Houston house or the cacao ranch do exactly what they’re supposed to do: create an ongoing impression of misconduct that seeps, with every headline, into public consciousness. At the same time, they provide opponents with handy attack lines on social media and foster an idea that “they’re all the same” in order to undermine his anti-corruption message and relativize the crimes of his predecessors. While this is extremely unlikely to work with the president’s impassioned base of supporters, the target of the strategy lies in the urban middle-class districts (like the ones in Mexico City that abandoned MORENA in last year’s midterm elections), whose voters plumped for AMLO in 2018 but are casting around, consciously or otherwise, for any excuse to return to the fold.
The Society of the Spectacle
At his morning press conference on February 11, AMLO raised the stakes in the affair by revealing what he claimed to be the annual salary of the leading face of Latinus, Carlos Loret de Mola: some $35.2 million pesos (US$1.7 million), seventeen times more than the president and nearly four hundred times what the average Mexican worker makes. The response from Loret and his supporters was contradictory: on one hand, insisting that the information was untrue while, on the other, accusing the president of accessing confidential salary data and abusing his office. In short order, the hashtag #TodosSomosLoret had sprouted up on social media, with a raucous virtual rally being held in Twitter Spaces.
It was, to say the least, a curious choice of martyr. Carlos Loret de Mola has made a career out of staging and falsifying events in ways that violate every tenet of the journalistic canon. As a Televisa correspondent in Afghanistan in 2001, he launched his rise by staging a supposedly harrowing scene in front of an old Soviet tank, according to veteran war correspondent Jaime Hernández.
In 2005, he went one better — or worse — by narrating on live television the staged arrest of French citizen Florence Cassez and her partner Israel Vallarta, accused of kidnapping. The made-for-TV sting operation (the couple had actually been arrested two days earlier) led to a diplomatic row between Mexico and France, with Cassez eventually being freed for violations of due process; Vallarta, for his part, continues to languish in prison sixteen years later.
Although Loret claimed to not have realized the arrest was fake, his denials were contradicted in a court hearing by his former associates on the program. Then, in the wake of the devastating Mexico City earthquake of 2017, Loret helped perpetuate the false story that a twelve-year-old named “Frida Sofía” was calling for help from beneath the rubble of a school. In this case, Loret and his cohost, Denise Maerker, blamed the navy for feeding them false information that they were unable to independently confirm, despite the network’s privileged access to the scene. Few people anywhere, in short, have done as much to debase the profession of journalism as Carlos Loret de Mola.
But in a larger sense, Loret is simply a reflection of the media culture that created him. For decades, Mexico has been in the clutches of a powerful television duopoly comprised of Televisa — which has just completed a $4.8 billion merger with the US Spanish-language broadcaster Univision — and TV Azteca, product of the 1993 privatization of the public channel Imevisión, owned since its sell-off by business magnate Ricardo Salinas Pliego.
For its founders, it was very clear what the role of television in the country would be. “Mexico is a country with a modest class that is very fucked . . . and will always be fucked,” former Televisa president Emilio Azcárraga Milmo famously said. “The obligation of television is to deliver entertainment to these people and take them out of their sad reality and their difficult future.”
Far from educating or informing, the goal was to incorporate the poor into a culture of consumerism, keeping them in their place and reaping fantastic profits as a result. Azcárraga Milmo accumulated a fortune estimated at over $5 billion; his son Emilio Azcárraga Jean, who ran the station until 2017, is worth approximately $770 million. TV Azteca’s Salinas Pliego, the third-richest man in Mexico, is worth $12.9 billion. Despite this fortune, which has exploded during the pandemic, Salinas Pliego went all the way to the Mexican Supreme Court in a failed attempt to get out of paying fifteen years of back taxes worth $2.63 billion pesos (US$127 million) for his company the Elektra Group.
The Media Caste
AMLO’s declaration of Loret de Mola’s salary has given voice to a long-standing public grievance against an unaccountable caste of media moguls and airbrushed stars that has twisted the news industry to its very lucrative advantage. Unlike in the United States, where the salaries of top anchors and hosts is a matter of public knowledge, the amount taken home by their Mexican counterparts is shrouded in mystery — and considering over 14 million people continue to subsist on a minimum wage of around $8 a day, the excessive discretion is hardly surprising. Indeed, the panic running through the higher echelons of Mexican corporate journalism is not just that the public will discover how much these media personalities earn but where the money to pay those salaries comes from.
An embarrassingly large chunk of it, to start, came from previous governments in the form of publicity spending and the condonation of taxes. Before 2018, the three branches of government would shower print, television, and radio news outlets with generous largesse in the form of official publicity budgets: the government of Enrique Peña Nieto, for example — himself a soap-opera creation of Televisa — spent a staggering $60.2 billion pesos (US$3 billion) in this area. In turn, many of these outlets would shower the government with favorable — or at least not unfavorable — coverage.
As the process was fully legal, there was no need for any explicit quid pro quos. In addition, individual journalists with sufficient name recognition would form their own companies in order to pull down more official “communications” money. During Peña’s tenure, some thirty-six journalists and their companies received over $1 billion pesos (US$50.7 million) in publicity cash, including many of the nation’s top columnists and commentators. The leader was Televisa’s longtime former news anchor Joaquín López-Dóriga, for example — owner of a luxury yacht and a slew of apartments in the high-rent Polanco district in Mexico City — who raked in some $251 million pesos through four different media companies.
Meanwhile, the Felipe Calderón and Peña governments together were condoning over $20 billion pesos (US$957 million) in taxes for Televisa, and another $7.7 billion pesos (US$365 million) for Grupo Salinas, owner of TV Azteca. All of this while the mass of journalists in Mexico continue to earn pitiful salaries, working the most dangerous beats where they are prime targets for extortion, disappearances, and murder at the hands of organized crime and corrupt local kingpins.
A Public Service of General Interest
A similar web of conglomerates, of course, plays out across Latin America under different names: Globo, Clarín, Mercurio. And every government that has genuinely sought to disrupt the status quo has faced an identical dilemma: play the co-option game, get walked all over, or stand up to the media overlords at the cost of being labeled authoritarian, dictatorial, or worse.
The fourth estate brooks no criticism and offers no apologies. And strangely enough, all of those who insist that a government such as AMLO’s requires “counterweights” have no apparent problem with the extreme concentration of media power in Mexico and its near-uniform right-wing bias.
Caught in the crosshairs, AMLO’s Fourth Transformation has struggled to find a timely and compelling way to respond. While AMLO’s morning press conferences have been effective, they have also had the counter-effect of concentrating communications activities in the presidency at the expense of other channels, such as surrogates, press secretaries, or a rapid-response team within MORENA that could pounce on matters immediately instead of waiting for the following morning or — on weekends — until Monday.
The defenses made by AMLO at the mañaneras, meanwhile, have remained at the level of the rhetorical. And while this has been often entertaining and useful in rallying the troops, it has done little to alter the media landscape in Mexico in any structural sense. To do that would require stiffer measures than the Fourth Transformation has, as yet, been willing to countenance. One immediate measure would be to crack down on informal and contract employment in the industry by preventing any media outlet that does not have its entire staff on direct contracts (with all the benefits prescribed by law) from receiving a peso in governmental publicity money. A second measure would be to radically reform the allocation of publicity itself, as well as restricting its scope, to prevent a return to the media-government money carrousel of the past.
A third step would be to take serious steps toward creating a public media network with national reach, instead of the patchwork of local and state channels that exist at present. And finally, media licensing practices would have to be brought out into the open and reviewed. Although many of us don’t stop to think about it, broadcasting outlets, as well as telecommunications companies, are licensees of a public good called spectrum — the waves on which signals are transmitted. And as Mexico’s Constitution (Article 6) specifically states, radio and television constitute public services of general interest; in addition, according to Article 4 of the Federal Radio and Television Law, they must fulfill a social function. Telecommunications in particular, according to the Constitution, are to be provided in conditions of “competition, quality, plurality, universal coverage” — a provision that would clearly justify a sort of Fairness Doctrine like the one that existed in the United States until 1987. Licenses, moreover, are not an eternal present from the public, and, as in any other industry, licensees that fail to uphold the law must be required to do so or lose their concession. At the same time, spectrum space must be democratized and opened up to new voices. There can be no genuine plurality under oligopoly.
In the meantime, the one thing AMLO and MORENA can be absolutely sure of is that there will be more Houston house and cacao ranch stories to come. Without a comprehensive media strategy, a low-grade war of attrition will bide its time, launching its salvos, one by one, while waiting for the right moment to escalate significantly. Just ask Dilma Rousseff, Evo Morales, or Fernando Lugo.