Tuesday, July 11, 2017

In Mexico, in No One we trust


Capitalism requires trust among the players. 
Maybe that's why it doesn't work so well in Mexico.

Two-and-a-half years ago we got the notion to apply for an ATM card from Interbank, a mutant of Intercam, the financial organization where we'd kept our money for close to ten years. 

We talked to Victor, a bespectacled bank clerk and lone occupant of a stifling, barebones office on the second floor of Intercam's tiny branch in a shopping center on the outskirts of San Miguel. 

Forget handshakes. What's the color of your house?
So many questions Victor asked it felt as if we were applying for a job at a North Korean missile factory. Parents' names, place of birth, former employer and line of work, plus innumerable documents, from passports, visas, statements from banks in the U.S., property tax receipts, a copy of the deed to our house and phone bills.  

In addition, Victor asked for a physical description of our house, including the color of the front door. 

Such inquisitions of potential customers are not unusual. Two friends who had applied for a cell phone account at Telcel, which owns a near-monopolistic share of the cell phone market in Mexico, put me down as a reference. And so someone from Telcel called me to ask about the color of my friends' house in the Los Frailes neighborhood of San Miguel. 

I chirpily replied that it was a shade of orange and one of the best paint jobs I had ever seen! The Telcel sleuth didn't appreciate my stab at irony.

Banks, retailers and other service providers likewise function amid a blizzard of paperwork and procedures that point to an endemic lack of trust in Mexican society. 

Transactions that can be zipped up in minutes in the U.S. by using a credit card, which guarantees payment, get mired in Mexico's world of suspicion, questions and investigations.   

Outside of San Miguel, particularly at gas stations, our U.S. credit cards often have been rejected. Ticketmaster will not take U.S. cards for phone or internet orders. You can buy tickets via internet for the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, but not for the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City. 

Nowhere in our travels, from Norway to the Patagonia, have we had our U.S. credit cards rejected so frequently as in Mexico—most recently two days ago at Home Depot in Queretaro. No reason given. 

Service providers sometimes will accept personal checks that then bounce when a gimlet-eyed bank clerk detects a suspicious middle initial or a curlicue on the letter "a" that doesn't quite match the one on record. We've had a dozen checks bounced but never for lack of funds. 

A simple retail transaction can turn into an intricate tango. To buy a spool of thread at the Parisina fabric store you first ask a floor clerk who takes you to another clerk behind the counter who shows you the item in question. 

If that's what you want, she'll write a sales slip that someone walks to a cashier, perched behind a tall glass booth looking down on the sales floor. After you go pay the cashier, and have your receipt duly rubber-stamped—whomp!—you present it at a third counter where someone fetches the item you're looking for.   

I've never met the owner of Parisina, a nationwide chain, but I sense the dude doesn't much trust either his customers or his employees.  

Phone orders involve a different rigamarole. Vendors won't accept a credit card number but instead give you the name of their bank and their account number. 

You march over to the local branch of the bank and deposit the money in the vendor's account. You then go home to scan or take a picture of the receipt that you email to the vendor, who will verify the deposit. 

If it's all good you get a tracking number that you use to check when the merchandise arrives. Ah, but you better remember to bring not one but two photo id's, in our case a drivers license and our passport to pick up the parcel.     

Granted, distrust in Mexico is not mere paranoia. The country is riddled with corruption, from the highest levels of government down to local store owners trying to cut a few corners on their taxes. Vendors will unspool tales of shoplifting, check-kiting and worse. You just can't trust anyone, they say. 

The cost to Mexico's economy of this climate of distrust would be hard to calculate but I'm sure it's enormous, starting with the cost of reams of paper, photocopiers and personnel to handle the process.

On a more macro scale, this distrust-driven inefficiency no doubt retards the growth of the economy, particularly the retail and internet commerce sectors. 

If too loosey-goosey credit, and outright fraud, drove the American economy almost over the cliff in 2008, the opposite keeps the Mexican economy from growing. Here, distrust is choking the goose of a consumer economy honking to lay golden eggs. 

By the way, we did get an Interbank ATM card—three months after submitting our application and signing an agreement twenty-eight (28) pages long, full of incomprehensible whereases, conditions and codicils, in tiny type.  

Stew and I might have donated our kidneys to the bank for all we know. 

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