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Posted on on March 13th, 2010
by Pincas Jawetz (

Billionaire Among Us: How Mexicans See Carlos Slim.

Emily Schmall Contributor, AOL News.

MEXICO CITY (March 13) — How does a country battered by a lethal drug war and the worst recession since the 1930s react when one of its own, Carlos Slim Helu, is deemed by Forbes magazine to be the world’s richest person? In a word, mixed.

“There’s no way for a country with so many poor to have the world’s richest man without something being awry,” said Pedro Dominguez, a mechanic from Puebla. “The problem is, most Mexican people have no way to attain this kind of wealth.”

“He has my respect,” countered Rafael Contreras Martinez, a housepainter from Izucar de Matamoros, on his way to a job. “I’m not going to speak ill of a man who has worked and struggled.”

Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim walks before a meeting in Cozumel, Mexico in  2009.

Luis Acosta, AFP / Getty Images
Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim uses public transportation and lives in the same Mexico City house he purchased with his wife Soumaya 40 years ago. Here, he heads to a meeting in Cozumel, Mexico, last summer.
Slim, a 70-year-old son of a Lebanese immigrant, built a fortune Forbes pegs at $53.5 billion on the privatization of Mexico’s telecommunications. The bulk of that wealth consists of holdings in his companies, which carry an enormous weight in the economic life of Mexico.

Slim’s son-in-law and sometimes spokesman, Arturo Elias Ayub, an executive at Telefonos de Mexico SAB, the country’s dominant fixed-line phone company and the linchpin of Slim’s fortune, said Slim’s No. 1 status reflects investors’ “confidence.”

“We’re happy that there’s a lot of confidence in Mexico, confidence in the companies in the group and in the development of Latin America,” Elias said in a telephone interview from Mexico City.

Slim could not be reached for comment because he was traveling in Lebanon to meet with President Michel Suleiman and other officials, Elias said.

Slim’s father arrived in Mexico from Lebanon in 1902 and made a small fortune by acquiring property during the Mexican Revolution. Slim’s own strategy has been to buy struggling companies on the cheap and turn them into cash cows.

In 1990, in a joint venture with Southwestern Bell, France Telecom and several private Mexican investors, his holding company, Grupo Carso, won the bid to privatize Telmex. Since then, Slim has profited from taking risks on troubled companies. His latest forays include a $250 million investment in The New York Times Co., which made him one of the company’s largest shareholders. He also recently took an 18 percent stake in U.S. retailer Saks, prompting several board members to resign out of fear of a hostile takeover.

Slim, who can often be sighted wearing an expensive suit and eating a meal at his restaurant chain, Sanborn’s, portrays himself as a modest man without any particular political leaning. He uses public transportation and lives in the same Mexico City house he purchased with his wife Soumaya 40 years ago. Now a widower, Slim turned over the daily operations of his companies to his children in 2004. One son, Patrick Slim, is chairman of America Movil, Latin America’s largest mobile-phone company; another, Carlos Slim Domit, is at the helm of Slim’s holding company Grupo Carso; and a third, Marco Antonio Slim, leads the banking company Inbursa. Two of Slim’s daughters are married to telecom executives within their father’s corporate empire.

Slim has had to fight charges of monopolistic practices that critics say are essentially sanctioned by the Mexican government. His control of Mexico’s telecommunications, restaurants, retail stores, banking, construction companies and an industrial conglomerate lead some to say it is impossible for a Mexican to go a day without generating income for Slim’s businesses.

Slim has donated $10 billion since 2006 through his two foundations. The money has gone toward the restoration of Mexico City’s historic center, to help convert a former red-light district into an essentially open-air mall near the city’s business district, and toward an $800 million mixed-use development in a defunct tire factory, which will include an art museum named after his late wife.

“My big criticism is not about this often well-intentioned man, but rather the system that has permitted his enormous accumulation of wealth and the monopoly he’s enjoyed over 20 years,” said Luis Linares Zapata, an economic aide to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor and left-wing presidential candidate.

Slim and the eight other Mexicans on Forbes’ list — including drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera — are collectively worth $90.3 billion, equivalent to 10 percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product.

David Lozano, an economics professor at Mexico’s National Autonomous University, told Mexico City paper La Jornada that the concentration of Mexico’s wealth among a few is a consequence of a lack of rights for workers and economic regulation. “Labor and economic conditions are similar to those we had before the Mexican Revolution began a century ago,” Lozano said.

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