It is not easy to find a picture of Germán Larrea, Mexico’s most elusive billionaire. Perhaps he is the man in one of the two photographs circulating on the internet. A man in his 50s appears in a black-and-white picture that looks like a photograph taken for an ID card. He has a stout nose and thick hair covering his ears. The other picture shows an older man with an aquiline nose, small eyes and a bald patch on the right side of his head. “I can’t say which one is him and which isn’t,” says a PR professional who swears he has seen Larrea a few times. Forbes magazine has avoided this kind of trouble. The publication profiles the Mexican billionaire with the black silhouette used in class graduation photographs for shy students who will not be attending the ceremony.
Larrea is worth $14.7 billion and he is the majority shareholder in the powerful Grupo México, one of the largest copper producers worldwide. But his empire is under suspicion again for causing an environmental crisis. The government has forced the company to create a $150 million trust fund to make up for damage to millions of small farmers after 40,000 cubic meters of toxic waste spilled into the Bacanuchi and Sonora Rivers in northern Mexico. Analysts and political commentators have even called for the closure of the company, which has been involved in several other tragedies including the death of 65 miners in 2006.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the most popular leftist leader in the country, has called on the government to cancel mining concessions made to the company. “It is part of that power mafia,” he said.
The union has been fighting with this invisible millionaire over this issue, among others, for years. For a long time, miners left a poster that read “Murderer” on the side of Paseo de la Reforma, one of the city’s most emblematic streets. Larrea did not defend himself publicly. He never has.
Still, others admire the King of Copper. The expert mining analyst Mauricio Candiani knows the details of Grupo México’s operations – annual results, locations of mines, international market – but he would not recognize Germán Larrea if he passed him on the street. “Operations at Buenavista mine [where the spill happened] are at an international level. It’s the largest copper plant in Mexico. It’s essential to the development of our country. It’s a very solid company and it will pay for the damage and resume the work,” he says. Candiani has worked on a few projects with the company in the past.
Larrea is introspective but his right-hand man is expansive and diplomatic. When Larrea says no in a negotiation, García de Quevedo says maybe
Larrea’s face is blurry. Xabier García de Quevedo, who is in charge of operations in Peru, has the millionaire’s ear. García de Quevedo was recently honored by the Mexican association of engineers and geologists at University Club, one of the country’s most exclusive clubs. Larrea is introspective but his right-hand man is expansive and diplomatic. When Larrea says no in a negotiation, García de Quevedo says maybe. He is the friendly face of a company that has at times been seen as a bully. Since 1988, García de Quevedo has worked with Larrea and he compares the millionaire’s family to the Pujol clan in Spain. In 2012, one of his daughters married Jordi Pujol Ferrusola, the eldest son of Catalonia’s former premier, who is currently under investigation for money laundering and tax fraud.
Jorge Larrea, Germán’s father, built the family fortune 70 years ago. He opened a small construction company and gradually branched out into other sectors, such as energy. In the 1970s, the business bought its first mines and stuck to that strategy, taking advantage of ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari’s plan to offer mining concessions to domestic companies. Such were the beginnings of an empire that has reached the top, despite never being far from controversy.
In 1999, Grupo México acquired the American mine Asarco when it was facing a $1-billion fine for pollution. Asarco was transferred to a Peruvian subsidiary and the company subsequently declared in bankruptcy. There were not enough funds to pay investors.
One of his daughters married Jordi Pujol Ferrusola, the eldest son of Catalonia’s former premier, who is currently under investigation for money laundering and tax fraud
Past and present lawsuits have not stopped Larrea. Business reporters have been speculating about whether he will invest in the oil industry once Peña Nieto’s reforms to open up the energy sector go into effect. Oil is just one of many open fronts. The man who does not want to be photographed or seen on television is on the board of directors at Televisa, Latin America’s most powerful radio-TV network. He has also bought a chain of movie theatres, Cinemex. Every time one goes to see a movie, he must first watch the long advertisements about Larrea’s railroad empire and his philanthropic efforts with which he hopes to change his bad reputation.
Larrea’s proverbial enemy is a man who bears the name of an emperor: Napoleón Gómez Urrutia. The tragic incident at Pasta de Conchos mine where tens of workers died pitted the two men against each other forever. Gómez Urrutia, like Larrea, took over his father’s work. As leader of the mining union, he called for a strike that lasted several years. Legal battles between Gómez Urrutia and Larrea have reached epic proportions. “It is one of the most costly business disputes in the world,” Candiani says.
Meanwhile, Gómez Urrutia has been in exile in Canada, running from the law after he allegedly embezzled $55 million. The union leader claims the case is a witch hunt that Larrea instigated. And, Gómez Urrutia has never left his post. He was leading the union from abroad.
Larrea is well respected in certain business circles. He is seen as a serious and even friendly man. He takes advantage of his anonymity to bet at the racetrack, dine quietly at the best restaurants in the city and travel to Tuscany. They say he likes expensive wine and, although this information appears in every profile as if it were an absolute truth, no one will confirm it. People around him usually do not confirm or deny anything about him, which only deepens the mystery.
The invisible tycoon does not need the spotlight in order to keep growing his fortune.
Translation: Dyane Jean François