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Mexico Political Ties : New Owner of UPI Stirs Press Unrest

July 12, 1986|THOMAS B. ROSENSTIEL | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In business meetings at United Press International now, a simultaneous translator sitting behind a screen interprets the words of the new owner to his staff. They, in turn, listen to the translation through headsets.

"It's like the United Nations," Editor-in-Chief Maxwell McCrohon said. "But it is a lot faster than having the interpreter in the room."

A language difference probably is one of the simpler problems that Mexican newspaper magnate Mario Vazquez Rana faces as he tries to revive America's tattered, bankrupt second news agency.

Vazquez Rana, who bought UPI last month, not only must transform a company that last turned a profit in 1963, but he also must convince his journalistic clients that a foreign owner will maintain American-style editorial independence.

Mysterious Death

That task may be complicated, however, by Vazquez Rana's ties to Mexican government officials and concerns about whether he might use the agency for political purposes. At a meeting of the Inter-American Press Assn. in March, for example, other Latin American journalists sharply questioned Vazquez Rana about the Mexican government's handling of the mysterious death earlier this year of one of Vazquez Rana's most vocal domestic critics.

American journalists also have concerns. "I'm not accusing the new owner of UPI of any wrongdoing," said E. W. Scripps, chairman of the Scripps League Newspapers group, which has canceled UPI at its 20 daily papers. "We just don't know where it (foreign ownership) might lead," he said, explaining that few countries share the American tradition of an independent press.

"I've heard the stories pro and con about Vazquez Rana," said Gene Roberts, executive editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, which has retained the service. "I think UPI is too important for the new owner not to be given a chance."

850 American Papers

Who owns UPI matters to journalists both abroad and at home. About 850 American newspapers and 3,300 radio and television stations buy some type of service from the organization.

And in Latin America, where many governments restrict local reporting, wire service stories often are the most reliable material published.

That has made interest in the short, carefully groomed 53-year-old Mexican publisher all the greater. Although little known in the United States, Vazquez Rana is famous in Mexico as head of the country's largest newspaper chain, the 61-paper El Sol group, whose size he has doubled in 10 years.

He runs his empire from a Mexico City headquarters complete with interior gardens, fountains, a computer room, cinema, gymnasium, sauna and a barber shop. His home includes a soccer field and, like many of Mexico's wealthy, he surrounds himself with bodyguards.

Vazquez Rana made his fortune running Mexico's Hermanos Vazquez furniture store chain, an enterprise he built in part by borrowing a technique from American used-car dealers--sponsoring late-night television movies.

At the request of his friend and then-Mexican President Luis Echeverria, Vazquez Rana, a former Olympic marksman, also helped found a Mexican national sports institute.

In 1976, again at the suggestion of his powerful friend, Vazquez Rana entered the newspaper business by buying from Echeverria's government the El Sol chain of newspapers for $12.5 million and debts. The government had seized the group in 1971 for unpaid debts to government banks.

Rumor of Partnership

From the beginning, "the rumor started that the ex-president of Mexico (Echeverria) was my partner," Vazquez Rana told the publishers in March. It is, he said, "a 100% lie. I deny it and I have denied it 1,000 times."

One reason for such suspicions was that Edward Garcia Valseca Jr., son of the founder of the El Sol chain, maintained that the papers were worth much more than Vazquez Rana paid for them. Valseca also disputed Vazquez Rana's contention that he has since paid off the debts he inherited when he bought the chain.

Assessing the charges is difficult because published accounts of the chain's debts differ. In a recent interview with The Times, Vazquez Rana said he assumed $84 million in debts at El Sol and paid them off himself.

But UPI's official biography of its new owner says Vazquez Rana assumed debts of $78 million. And last March he told the Reuters news agency that he assumed debts of less than $30 million.

Named Echeverria Aides

Vazquez Rana also fueled the allegations about governmental ties, he admits now, by naming two key Echeverria aides as partners in the newspaper company. Press Secretary Fausto Zapata became editor and part owner of the papers. Interior Minister Mario Moya Palencia--now Mexico's ambassador to the United Nations--became a partner and director general of the chain.

Vazquez Rana said the two left the company within two years and dismisses their contribution.

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