Watch What You Say About Banamex
Last month, when Citigroup bought Banamex, the second largest bank in Mexico, the deal was praised as good for the Mexican people and good for the banks. Citigroup vice chairman Robert Rubin told the press that the deal was the result of an overture from Banamex chairman Roberto Hernández Ramirez, who is worth $1.3 billion and has been promised a seat on the Citigroup board. On May 18, The New York Times faithfully regurgitated Hernández's rags-to-riches success story.
But the fruit vendor turned billionaire has a dark side. According to statements made in 2000 by Al Giordano, publisher of the Mexican-based NarcoNews.com, Hernández has also been called a money launderer and a drug dealer. Giordano says he has reviewed published photos and testimony suggesting that Hernández has shared his Yucatán beachfront with the boats and planes of the cocaine trade.
Hernández has denied the allegations since they were first reported in 1997 by the Mexican newspaper Por Esto! Last summer, after failing in his efforts to get Por Esto! prosecuted in Mexico, the banker decided to sue his critics in New York. He hired Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a firm that has represented alleged money launderers in the past, to file a libel suit on behalf of Banamex. His lawyer calls the portrayal of Hernández and Banamex as drug traffickers "utterly false," and claims that Giordano's comments "injured Banamex's business reputation" -- a conclusion which seems especially odd now that Banamex has been snapped up by Citigroup for $12.5 billion.
Wherever he found his money, Hernández has enough of it to sue Narco News for years -- or at least until the Web site shuts down. But it would be a mistake to underestimate my friend Giordano, a respected reporter and activist who plans to defend himself against the libel charges. In what is shaping up to be the summer's most entertaining media trial, Giordano will appear in New York State Supreme Court on July 20, where he plans to throw curve balls during the first round of oral arguments in the case.
In his motion to dismiss, Giordano chronicles his lifelong commitment to free speech and claims that every one of his supposedly libelous statements is what the courts call an opinion, because in each case he cited the facts on which his opinion was based. Via e-mail, Giordano wrote that the opinion defense has solid precedents, including a case in which an umpire sued Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for mocking his calls as "ludicrous" and incompetent. Because Steinbrenner referred to specifics to back up his opinion, his statement was found to be not defamatory. Giordano says, "We razzed the umpire -- in this case, the government, which leaves certain white-collar traffickers alone."
Attorney Thomas Lesser, who represents Narco News, also filed a motion to dismiss, arguing that the court cannot allow Banamex to sue the Web site in New York for content uploaded in Mexico. According to Lesser, that would be tantamount to giving any libel plaintiff permission to sue any Web site anywhere in the world -- a precedent that would seriously threaten free speech.
In its response, Akin Gump calls Lesser's argument a "straw man" and paints Giordano as having superhuman powers to raise money and affect public opinion. The plaintiff also claims jurisdiction in New York because Giordano has business contacts and does fundraising here.
It's too early to call a winner, but as of this week, Giordano will stop posting new reports on his Web site. When he arrives in New York, he intends to dispense with the technicalities and turn the spotlight on the drug trade, which is the heart of the case. "We may be out-hollered and out-dollared," he quips, "but we're not outsmarted."
Unlike Hernández, who Giordano says is "hiding behind his bank," the journalist will step up to the plate. "Just showing my face," he says, "will speak volumes about which side of this dispute is telling the truth." Given his passionate opposition to the drug war, Giordano should have plenty of fans cheering from the bleachers.