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 Hernandez
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
Hernandez'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, Hernandez has also been called a money launderer and a drug dealer. Giordano says he has reviewed published photos and testimony suggesting that Hernandez has shared his Yucatn beachfront with the boats and planes of the cocaine trade.
Hernandez 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 Hernandez 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
Wherever he found his money, Hernandez 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
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 Hernandez, 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.