Last week, for the second year running, Forbes magazine declared the Mexican telecommunications tycoon Carlos Slim Helú the richest man in the world. In 2010, Slim – who holds a near-monopoly on mobile and landline services in Mexico, and whose family fortune includes department stores, hotels, mining, chemical, oil drilling, tobacco, tyre, construction and financial services companies as well as substantial chunks of both the centre of Mexico City and the New York Times – edged past Bill Gates by $500 million. This year Slim enjoyed a more comfortable lead: in just 12 months, his net worth has swollen by more than 30 per cent to an estimated $74 billion. Gates trails behind with a measly $54 billion.
The son of a wealthy Lebanese immigrant, Slim took advantage of the inflationary crises of the early 1980s to snatch up ailing firms. At the same time, the administration of President Miguel de la Madrid was busy privatising state-owned assets, opening up the markets and slashing social spending. When de la Madrid’s successor, Carlos Salinas de Gortari, privatised Telmex, the national telephone company, in 1990, Slim made a grab for it. Telcel now controls 90 per cent of the Mexican mobile phone market at some of the highest rates on the planet. Its umbrella company, América Móvil, is the largest cellular provider in Latin America.
Slim isn’t the only one who knows how to make the best of a crisis. The latest Forbes list includes more billionaires (1040), more new billionaires and more Mexicans (11) than ever before. Collectively, the Forbes honorees are worth $4.5 trillion, about three times Mexico’s GDP. Their average net worth is up half a billion dollars from last year. It would be easier to celebrate their good fortune – ‘Where their inspiration leads,’ Forbes says, ‘we will follow’ – had it not been such a wretched year for everyone else, not least for Mexicans. Three decades of neoliberal reform have not been so generous to Slim’s countrymen. Industrial jobs have leaked to Asia, the domestic agricultural market was smothered by cheap, heavily subsidised US imports, and millions of Mexicans followed their money across the border to the north, leaving large swathes of the countryside almost abandoned.
Given the dismal job prospects in the US, some have recently been returning to a country where an official unemployment figure of 5.5 per cent hides a reality in which a third of the population works in the informal sector and about 50 million people live in poverty, 19 million of them in what statisticians call ‘alimentary poverty’. Then there’s the struggle to control the most unregulated market of all: the trade in illegal drugs from Mexico and points south to consumers in the US. Since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón declared ‘war’ on the drug trade – a conflict many Mexicans understand as an effort by the army and the federal police to monopolise, rather than eradicate, profits from the drug sales – 35,000 Mexicans have been killed, about 13,000 in 2010 alone. On the day that Forbes published its list of billionaires, 52 people were murdered across Mexico in incidents of what the newspapers call narcoviolencia. It was, in other words, a fairly uneventful day.
Which brings us to the most notorious of Slim’s companions on the billionaire list and the other great victor in Mexico’s ongoing neoliberal collapse: Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera, the elusive chief executive of the Sinaloa Cartel, which according to Forbes controls a quarter of all drugs smuggled out of Mexico. Guzmán first made the list in 2009, when he also made the magazine’s list of the world’s ‘most powerful people’. This year he was placed 60th on the power list, four spots above Oprah Winfrey. (Slim came in at 11, just after Hillary Clinton.) Guzmán’s rank among the billionaires, however, has plummeted. He tied for last. In the current booming crisis economy, a single billion doesn’t get you very far.