Wal-Mart, the US retail giant, could face fines of billions of dollars, as allegations emerged its Mexican affiliate paid officials to speed up store openings.
In a report published this week, The New York Times claimed the world’s biggest retailer opened at least 19 stores in Mexico after paying bribes worth hundreds of thousands of dollars so as to ignore local regulations. If the company were found guilty under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, its settlement could dwarf the $800m paid by Siemens in 2008, the biggest FCPA pay-out to date.
The Times investigation uncovered evidence that in 2003, Wal-Mart de Mexico was blocked from building a supermarket in an alfalfa field in San Juan Teotihuacan. The company paid an official $52,000, and the store was built – within sight of the famous Teotihuacan pyramids. Teotihuacan’s mayor, Guillermo Rodriguez, told investigators his 2004 salary was $47,000 and that he had no savings, yet in the same year he bought a $30,300 ranch in cash, and spent a further $47,700 on refurbishments.
With the help of an alleged $765,000 in bribes, the company also constructed a refrigerated distribution centre in an “environmentally fragile” area, where other, smaller developers had been denied similar opportunities. When archaeologists found ancient ruins on Wal-Mart’s Teotihuacan site, including an altar, a plaza and nine graves, construction was halted, but only temporarily. The store opened in November 2004.