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A Culinary and Cultural Staple in Crisis

Gabriela Mejía Carrillo doles out tortillas at Aurora Rosales's shop in Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico, where the usual long lines have dwindled.
Gabriela Mejía Carrillo doles out tortillas at Aurora Rosales's shop in Nezahualcoyotl, Mexico, where the usual long lines have dwindled. (By Manuel Roig-franzia -- The Washington Post)

There is almost universal consensus in Mexico that higher demand for ethanol is at the root of price increases for corn and tortillas.

Ethanol, which has become more popular as an alternative fuel in the United States and elsewhere because of high oil prices, is generally made with yellow corn. But the price of white corn, which is used to make tortillas, is indexed in Mexico to the international price of yellow corn, said Puente, the Mexico City economist.

A combination of tortilla-maker organizations, farming groups and members of the Mexican Congress are clamoring for an investigation into alleged monopolies, commodity speculation and price fixing.

"It is probable that monopolistic practices played a role in the problem," Eduardo Pérez Mota, head of Mexico's federal competition commission, which investigates anti-trust cases, said in an interview. "In the recent past we have detected collusion on prices by corn buyers and by some tortilla makers."

Some tortilla makers claim Cargill is among those unfairly raising prices, an allegation that Tamayo, the company's spokeswoman, calls "absolutely false."

Mexico's corn behemoth is Grupo Gruma, owner of the Maseca tortilla brand and the world's largest tortilla maker. Mota said the company may control as much as 80 percent of the Mexican tortilla flour market. The company has already drawn his ire by allegedly buying a competitor without the competition commission's approval.

Mexico, which counts corn as one of its major agricultural products, now faces a shortage. As part of Calderón's plan to combat high tortilla costs, he gave emergency approval -- as suggested by large corn brokers -- to import more than 800,000 tons of corn from the United States and other countries.

But just the year before, Mexico was exporting corn. The administration of Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, allowed brokers to export 137,000 tons of corn, which farming groups say should have been warehoused for future use.

Rafael Rodríguez, finance director of a farming trade group, said the contradictory decisions by the two presidents are proof of government favors to big corn companies.

"Instead of sanctioning them," Rodríguez said, "the government sat down with them and made deals."

No one knows for sure how many tortilla makers are in Mexico. Estimates range from 65,000 to 200,000.

Long a fixture of the Mexican street scene, tortilla makers in the past few months were suddenly being accused by their customers of being the villains in the tortilla crisis.

As his prices rose, Salvador León, owner of the venerable El Mexicano tortilla shop in Nezahualcoyotl, watched his sales plummet.

"The customers just got mad at me," León said. "I tried to give an explanation, but they just went on in ignorance."

A few miles away, Rosales surveyed her shop, perplexed about how to cut costs.

She pointed at a stooped man struggling with a big ball of tortilla dough.

"He's a senior citizen, and those women over there," she said, nodding toward the counter, "they're single mothers. How can I fire any of them?"

While she talked, a 73-year-old woman named María Neri approached the counter. Neri has no pension and no savings, but she gets a few pesos each month from a nephew and a daughter.

She lives just around the corner from Rosales's tortilla shop and has been buying two kilos a week for years. On this day, even with the Mexican government's new price control, she could afford only one.

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