Wednesday, May 22, 2013 | 8 p.m.
One good thing about protesting a communications and technology mogul is that most of your target audience is quick to record and capture events on their cellular phones.
Such was the case Wednesday afternoon when a group opposing Mexican businessman Carlos Slim, one of the wealthiest men in the world thanks to his companies’ dominance of the Mexican telecommunications industry, set up a rally outside the Venetian, where the CTIA — the Wireless Association convention was occurring.
Several conference attendees, still wearing their convention badges, stopped to record the rally on their cellphones, but whether the message of the group, Two Countries One Voice, is getting through remains to be seen.
Slim, through holdings that grew out of his 1990 purchase of the national Mexican telephone service, controls a majority of both Mexican landlines and cellphones. Legislation that is on its way to approval in Mexico would give regulators greater power to break up a company such as Slim’s America Movil, which holds 80 percent of landlines and 70 percent of cellphones.
Two Countries One Voice launched early last year and is led by Las Vegas public relations executive and campaign adviser Andres Ramirez. The organization is tackling what it calls Slim’s monopolistic practices in Mexico, as well as his companies’ expansion into the U.S. market. They have held protest rallies in Washington, D.C., New York and California. On Wednesday about 20 protesters, some donning Carlos Slim masks with the eyes eerily cut out, chanted and handed out fliers to tourists and convention attendees.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a report in January 2012 noting that the dominance of Slim’s companies in Mexico is unprecedented, and allowed him to overcharge Mexican customers by $13.4 billion per year. Slim disputed the report, arguing that the independent group used outdated and fabricated data.
“It is very clear that America Movil in Mexico is buying companies in the United States and implementing the same deceptive practices in Mexico here in the United States,” Ramirez said. “… We are going to take every opportunity we can to make sure that those executives that you are trying to woo, the executives here at the CTIA conference are well aware of your deceptive and corrupt practices here and abroad.”
Two Countries One Voice argues that Slim’s power in Mexico has made it difficult for Mexicans to garner media attention for their complaints against the company.
Los Angeles-based immigrant rights advocate and co-founder of the organization Juan Jose Gutierrez said Slim has gouged Mexican consumers and now wants to use those profits to bring his unscrupulous practices to the United States and other countries.
“We have decided to be the voice for the poor in Mexico and Latin America who can’t come to the United States to denounce these predatory, inhumane and abusive practices. We will keep this up for as long as necessary, until he ceases these practices. The Mexican and Latin American people don’t deserve this treatment,” Gutierrez said, noting that many Mexicans communicate with family in the United States using Slim’s services.
Slim is the majority owner of Miami-based TracFone Wireless, a prepaid cell phone company that targets low-income consumers, and has been one of the main recipients of a U.S. cellphone subsidy program for the poor called Lifeline. In April Republicans in Congress noted that more than a quarter of the $2.2 billion subsidy went to TracFone, and argued the program is riddled with fraud. The California Public Utilities Commission is currently seeking back payments on surcharges and user fees the commission says TracFone failed to pay.
Slim has countered the protests from Two Countries One Voice by questioning the groups funding, and openly suggesting a television and telecommunications rival, Ricardo Salinas, is behind the group. Ramirez denies the claim, and has explicitly said the group has not received any money from Salinas or his companies.
TracFone, for its part, has filed a complaint with the California's Fair Political Practices Commission asking the commission to investigate the funding sources and political actions of the organization.
“There is ample evidence to indicate that Two Countries One Voice is in fact an unregistered political action committee. We believe California laws are being broken because Two Countries One Voice is not disclosing their donors,” TracFone spokesman Jose Fuentes said in an email. “The evidence clearly shows that Two Countries One Voice is engaged in a campaign to influence lawmakers for political and ultimately commercial ends. People have the right to know who is funding these types of ‘shadow organizations’ as determined by the California's ethics laws.”
Ramirez said Slim is avoiding the real issue of overcharging Mexican consumers and defrauding the U.S. government by filing ethics complaints, which he called “baseless.”