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Mexico's Slim defends his empire

March 13, 2007|Marla Dickerson | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Facing mounting criticism for his $49-billion fortune in a nation where nearly half the population lives in poverty, telecom mogul Carlos Slim Helu on Monday portrayed his business empire as a family enterprise that is creating jobs and investment in Mexico.

It was Slim's first public appearance since Forbes magazine last week announced that his net worth surged $19 billion in 2006. Slim ranked third behind Microsoft Corp. co-founder Bill Gates ($56 billion) and American investor Warren E. Buffett ($52 billion) on the magazine's annual list of the world's richest people.

Asked by a reporter to explain his stunning increase in wealth, the 67-year-old Slim pointed to a soaring stock market that increased the value of his telecom companies, notably America Movil, the largest provider of cellphone service in Latin America.

"The stock market goes up ... and down," said Slim, who noted that a dive in the market could erode his fortune just as fast. He spoke at the headquarters of his financial services firm Inbursa, one of many businesses he owns in Mexico. More than 100 journalists packed the hastily arranged news conference in a salon containing works from Slim's vast art collection, including a pair of sculptures by Rodin that flanked the dais where he spoke.

Critics for years have complained about Slim's vast telecommunications holdings here, which they say give him near-monopoly power to keep rates artificially high.

Slim produced his own figures Monday showing his firms' rates to be among the cheapest in the world. He characterized Mexico's telecom market as very competitive, despite government figures indicating that his companies controlled 77% of Mexico's wireless market and 91.5% of its fixed lines in 2006.

Some had expected Slim to announce a major new philanthropic effort to blunt the criticism that has accompanied the increase in his fortune. Slim said his foundations would step up their efforts in healthcare and environmental causes. But he did not provide a specific financial commitment.

marla.dickerson@latimes.com

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