MEXICO CITY — Ricardo Salinas Pliego, Mexico’s second-richest man, flaunts his exuberant wealth on social media: Helicopter rides across the capital city’s sky. Days zigzagging around a golf course overlooking the Gulf of California. A Christmas party with a live band and a table seating more than 50 maskless TV celebrities flouting social distancing rules.
“How’s your #weekend going?” he wondered on Twitter last month, attaching a video of his 163-foot luxury yacht bobbing around the Sea of Cortez.
The 65-year-old founder of Grupo Salinas, a media, banking, telecommunications, and retail empire, has used his outsize influence to promote the notion that COVID requires few if any precautions. The school he owns stayed open. His television network — TV Azteca, the country’s second largest — called on Mexicans to ignore the government’s top health official responsible for managing the pandemic. In the meantime, Salinas Pliego’s net worth has increased to $13.5 billion, up 15% since last spring.
But his growing profits have come at a steep cost to those who keep his empire running. While Salinas Pliego publicly downplayed the dangers of the virus, his workers continued clocking in under allegedly dangerous conditions that left them vulnerable as infections surged across the country.
At one Mexico City call center tasked with collecting debt for Grupo Salinas, company management kept the office open in violation of lockdown regulations, told workers to come in even when they showed symptoms of infection, reneged on a promise to compensate the family of one employee who died from COVID-19, and refused to implement a government mandate to conduct coronavirus testing at worksites with 100 or more employees, even after two workers died, according to BuzzFeed News interviews with a current staffer, three former employees, and the relatives of two deceased ones.
So far, at least three people who work for Salinas Pliego’s businesses are known to have died of COVID-19 since last spring, according to interviews with workers and reporting by Mexican news media. But the full number could be even higher: Because Salinas Pliego outsources labor to third-party companies, many of the approximately 90,000 people who work for him have no public contractual ties to Grupo Salinas, making it difficult to trace the scope of deadly outbreaks within his empire.
At least 200 people were fired after an employee reported the workplace conditions and the deaths of their colleagues to the authorities, who shut the call center down temporarily, according to Iván Mundo, a supervisor at the call center who said he and his entire unit were terminated.
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With the world’s third-highest confirmed coronavirus death toll and the highest case fatality ratio, Mexico has struggled to contain the pandemic, which has disproportionately ravaged lower-income communities, widening inequities in a country where the rich live in walled-off mansions and ride in bulletproof cars.
Salinas Pliego has often seemed untouchable. He has won hefty government contracts, served as an adviser to Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — who invited him to a meeting with then–US president Donald Trump last year — and has been accused of violating laws without consequence. He has been tied to a corruption scandal involving the state oil company and owes the government up to $2 billion in taxes, according to the head of Mexico’s Tax Administration Service, though Salinas Pliego has denied wrongdoing in both cases.
“Life is always a risk,” he told the live audience at the annual conference La Ciudad de las Ideas, which he sponsors, in December. “That’s why we have to live it intensely.”
Salinas Pliego did not respond to an interview request from BuzzFeed News and Grupo Salinas did not answer a list of specific questions.
But shortly after this investigation was published, Salinas Pliego mocked a journalist who shared the article on Twitter, and then added: “Let the dogs bark … it’s a sign we’re moving forward,” with a GIF from the movie Dumb and Dumber in which Jeff Daniels wipes his face with a bunch of dollar bills.
Just a few miles from Salinas Pliego’s spacious Mexico City office, where he keeps expensive artwork and half a dozen shotguns, the consequences of his indifference to the pandemic are clear.
In a glass-fronted office building located on Calle Rascarrabias, more than 2,000 people work to collect debts from clients of Grupo Salinas. In March, when the coronavirus began to spread across Mexico, staff at the Rascarrabias call center grew nervous. Managers told them not to wear face masks or use disinfectant gel because there was no reason to panic, two supervisors who are no longer employed there told BuzzFeed News.
One of those supervisors, Iván Mundo, had once thought highly enough about the call center that he recruited two friends to work there. Both have since died from COVID-19.
“I took them there to improve their lives,” said Mundo. Instead, the company “ruined our fucking existence.”
Marketing to the poor has been Salinas Pliego’s recipe for success.
In 2002, he began lending money to the millions of workers who’ve had no way to build a credit score — housekeepers, market vendors, taxi drivers — and have long been shut out of Mexico’s financial system. Salinas Pliego set up thousands of branches of Banco Azteca inside his Elektra retail stores, where people with lower incomes buy electronics and home goods in weekly installments with interest rates as high as 85%.
“Grupo Elektra targets consumers at the base of the socio-economic pyramid in Latin America,” reads Grupo Salina’s description of the company online. In Mexico, a nation of 126 million people, that means plenty of clients: Around 56% of people work in the informal economy, often earning below the minimum wage, which is a little less than $7 a day.
The loan business succeeded so well in Mexico that Salinas Pliego soon expanded to Central America and Peru. In 2012, he purchased Advance America, the largest payday lender in the US, for $780 million.
Mundo began working in this empire in 2013, as a telephone operator at the Mexico City call center for Grupo Salinas. He quickly climbed up the ladder, becoming a supervisor and increasing his pay to $410 a month. A few years ago, he recruited two friends, Pedro Alejandro Hernández, 40, and Rodolfo Cruz, 32.
The three chatted often inside the building, which sits on a short, narrow street lined with taco vendors and tiny bodegas.
The building bears no mark of Salinas Pliego’s corporate presence, except for the printouts taped on the entrance with the names of two of his companies — Banco Azteca: 5th and 6th floors, Totalplay: 7th and 8th floors.
The money Cruz earned there wasn’t enough to help his parents move out of their modest home, but it did get him through university, where he was studying communications. He split his days before the pandemic between campus and the call center, and when the virus hit Mexico, he asked to work two shifts a day — his mother, a housekeeper, was out of work, and his partner had just found out she was pregnant with their first child.
Cruz, like the other staffers, had no real job security. They were employed by an outsourcing company that kept changing its registered name. Businesses in Mexico often use this scheme in order to pay lower taxes and avoid paying year-end bonuses, housing credits, and retirement benefits. Many outsourcing firms falsely register lower salaries, reducing the tax and social security contributions owed by employers. And by switching employees to new companies every few months, they strip them of their seniority and the benefits that come with it, including severance pay.
Mundo received three letters from his superiors during his seven-year stint at the call center informing him that his contracting company had changed, each time designating him a new official start date. First, Difusión de Servicios Administrativos, then Sistemas Empresariales Grann-s, then Staff E & I, according to the letters, which he provided to BuzzFeed News. But no matter the corporate name on his paycheck, his job stayed the same: calling Grupo Salinas clients to collect debts.
Difusión de Servicios Administrativos did not respond to an interview request. The latter two companies have no publicly listed contact information and could not be reached for comment.
President López Obrador has championed a bill banning companies from using outsourcing firms, which he said cost the country 277,000 jobs in December, as many of these companies typically fire employees that month in order to avoid paying year-end bonuses. With the $1 billion lost through outsourcing arrangements, Mexico’s Social Security Institute could buy 55% more medicines, the head of the institute said earlier this year. Salinas Pliego has criticized the anti-outsourcing bill, saying that it will cause overregulation and slow down business.
Across Mexico, workers were suddenly faced with a decision last spring: pay their bills or protect their health? In late March, the street outside the Rascarrabias call center doors, and the world at large, ground to a halt, with governments shutting down industries and people sheltering at home.
But inside the building, it was business as usual.
Employees, mostly part-time students or single mothers, had strict quotas to hit: a certain number of calls to place during each shift, a certain amount of money to collect from clients of Banco Azteca and Elektra. If they wanted to earn more than the baseline salary of $210 a month, they had to make sure to be on time and not take any sick days.
At the start of each shift, Mundo watched as about 240 people entered the area he supervised, took their seats elbow distance from each other in front of greasy keyboards, and adjusted their headsets so the microphone — still warm from another employee’s breath — would graze their lips.
As Salinas Pliego dismissed the coronavirus, managers at the call center instructed employees to fend it off by using aromatherapy oils and drinking juices, according to two former employees and a current one.
For Pedro Alejandro Hernández, it started, like so many of 2020’s tragedies, with a cough.
During the first days of April last year, Hernández, a data analyst at the call center, began to feel ill. Despite his persistent wheezing, his boss refused his request to work from home, according to his wife, Miryam Cabrera. Only when his symptoms progressed and he struggled to breathe was he allowed to miss work. By then, it was too late. He was hospitalized, and shortly after, intubated.
Hernández died on April 16, 2020. Cause of death: acute respiratory failure, pneumonia, “probable SARS-COV 2,” the death certificate stated. He left behind a 16-year-old son.
“They violated all the norms that they should have been following,” said Cabrera, 35, speaking of the directors at the call center. She met with a lawyer shortly after to sue the company for negligence. Attorneys who claimed to work for Grupo Salinas promised her $2,445 for her husband’s death and asked her to drop the lawsuit, recalled Cabrera. She did, eventually, after realizing that it was likely to stretch for years and take her away from her son for countless hours.
But Cabrera said she still has not received any money from the company. Three different people who claimed to be from Grupo Salinas contacted her regarding the payment, but she had not heard from two of them since December 2020. The third, she said, texted her at 4 a.m. last month, telling her his father had just died and that “he just wanted to talk.” She felt uncomfortable and cut the conversation short.
On April 17, Cabrera picked up Hernández’s body from the hospital. Just a few days earlier, her late husband’s friend and coworker at the call center, Rodolfo Cruz, got what felt like a seasonal cold.
One evening, he arrived home after working two shifts, complained about a headache, and began sneezing. Within days, he had diarrhea and a fever. Despite this, Cruz’s bosses told him to keep going to work, said his mother, Leticia Juárez.
Juárez, who is nearly blind and lives in a tiny one-bedroom apartment near the city’s international airport, begged him not to go. Worried about getting fired, Cruz dragged himself to the office. He died of COVID-19 on April 27, 2020.
Few people had found out about Hernández’s death by then, according to two former supervisors, who told BuzzFeed News that call center directors had called in managers and asked them to keep it under wraps so that the rest of the company wouldn’t panic.
“It was always about suppressing, hiding, and denying” information, said Nancy Soto, a former supervisor at the call center and close friend of Hernández’s.
Angry at what he considered a cover-up, Mundo, who had befriended Cruz at university, gathered a group of students to record a video denouncing the abuses at Grupo Salinas and demanding justice for their colleague’s death. Local press got wind of the situation, and soon, the video went viral. A few days later, city authorities took action.
Dressed in white biohazard suits, authorities arrived at the call center on May 4, placed “Suspension of Activities” signs across the doors, and vacated the building, which was finally closed more than a month after the country had ordered nonessential businesses to shut down.
That day, Mundo’s boss told him and others in his area at the call center to stay home until further notice. Mundo believes his superiors were angry that he helped put together the video. As many as 200 employees were fired shortly after and told that they would not be able to return to any company owned by Salinas Pliego, said Mundo. Jobless amid the raging pandemic, Mundo spiraled into financial trouble and guilt, feeling that he was responsible for the death of his two friends because he helped them get their jobs.
While some workers were sent home, others continued to work in secrecy.
Managers at internet provider Totalplay, a different Salinas Pliego–owned company in the same office building, told their outsourced workers to come in, ordering them to enter through the underground parking lot, according to videos posted online and former employees.
Other outsourced workers of Grupo Salinas kept getting sick and dying as the months went on. Writing in the newspaper El Universal, journalist Sabina Berman told the story of a 36-year-old cashier at Banco Azteca who contracted COVID-19. The woman and her mother died, leaving two young children behind.
In her story, Berman wondered whether Salinas Pliego “wanted to sacrifice his life for the sake of a theory of freedom.” She continued, “Go ahead, he can risk his life, not mine and not his workers.”
Berman, who worked for TV Azteca for over 10 years, resigned shortly after the pandemic started, citing concerns for her health and that of her team. She told BuzzFeed News that after her column came out, Salinas Pliego tried to get her fired from El Universal.
Grupo Salinas, in a release regarding Berman’s column, called her “a bitter and ungrateful person,” and said that her words “stem from avarice and a mercenary attitude.”
“I’m neither ungrateful nor am I bitter,” said Berman. “The size of their response, compared to the size of the crime in which they’re implicated, is ridiculous. It’s like comparing a drop of water to the Atlantic Ocean.”
Salinas Pliego continued to downplay the virus. In November, he announced that he had tested positive for COVID-19. “We’re all going to get it, and we’ll be okay,” he tweeted at the time, inserting a smiling emoji.
He quickly recovered from the virus.
By the end of last year, the coronavirus had made the call center too dangerous for some employees. Soto, Hernández’s friend, fell ill with COVID-19 in late October. While she was out sick, she received $98, a sliver of the $660 she would usually take home. She decided not to risk returning to the workplace.
When she resigned in November, human resources staff told her they’d place her name on a list of people who could never be rehired by Grupo Salinas, Soto said.
For Juárez, life after her son Cruz’s death was becoming even more untenable. A housecleaner, she had been out of a job since the start of the pandemic. Her cataracts were getting so bad that she could barely see. She wanted to sue Grupo Salinas for negligence over the death of her son but couldn’t afford a lawyer.
“I don’t want to fight. He is so powerful and I am just a piece of trash,” she said.
In December, a few days after Salinas Pliego tweeted the videos of his lavish and maskless Christmas party, Juárez’s husband died of a stroke. Now, she keeps two urns in a corner of her kitchen — one with her son’s ashes, the other with her husband’s. Overwhelmed with grief and loneliness, she cannot understand Salinas Pliego’s overt displays of wealth at a time when so many people are suffering.
“He has turned this into a joke,” said Juárez. “He is mocking our pain.” ●