The Mexican Connection

How Governor Symington misused state resources to further the cross-border business interests of his friends and family.

The taxi comes to a halt on a two-lane paved road bisecting Villa Juarez, a bustling, peasant farming town in the heart of one of Mexico's most fertile farming valleys.

A herd of cattle blocks the road, paralyzing traffic on this busy farm highway about 25 miles south of Culiacan, the capital of the state of Sinaloa.

A couple of horse-mounted cowboys wearing wide-brimmed hats prod at 30 or so longhorned cattle. The animals prove reluctant; traffic quickly backs up.

Several flatbed trucks idle roughly. The backs of the trucks are jammed with young men and teenagers pressed against wooden slats. The convoy is ferrying the field workers to nearby farms owned by a few fabulously wealthy Mexican families.

Semi-tractor trailers pump diesel fumes into the afternoon air. The trucks are coming and going from packing plants, where they collect produce for shipment 600 miles north to Nogales, Arizona, and into U.S. supermarkets.

But no one is going anywhere until the cattle move.
With a series of sharp whistles, the cowboys steer the last few stray cattle off the main highway. The taxi drives south a few more miles and then turns west, down a narrow dirt road that passes campesino settlements, where farmworkers live in tin sheds and household water is gathered from pesticide-laced irrigation canals.

On the horizon, several dozen long greenhouses dot the landscape. But obtaining a close-up view of the greenhouses is almost impossible. The greenhouses are surrounded by a chain-link fence with three strands of barbed wire across the top. Sheets of plastic are attached to the fence. A guard refuses to let visitors enter.

Farmworkers say melons are grown and harvested in the greenhouses. Then they are sent to a nearby packing shed, where some are shipped to Japan. The planting season is in the spring, with harvest in fall.

The greenhouses mark the home of Melones Internacional SA de CV, a joint venture between one of Mexico's wealthiest men, Alejandro Canelos, and someone named J. Fife Symington.

The question is: Which Fife Symington?

May 20, 1996. Skeptical attorneys are grilling the wife of Arizona Governor J. Fife Symington III. The governor has filed bankruptcy. The attorneys don't believe he's as destitute as he has claimed and are questioning his wife under oath, looking for hidden assets.

"Are you an investor in any partnerships currently?" Phoenix lawyer Jeffrey Goulder asks Ann P. Symington.

"I have an investment in Melones Internacional," the governor's wife replies.

"What is Melones?" Goulder asks.
"It is a fruit-growing concern in Sinaloa," Mrs. Symington replies.
The business, she testifies, is operated by her stepson, J. Fife Symington IV. Mrs. Symington tells Goulder she invested $25,000 in the partnership, which her son was syndicating. The investment was made in November 1995, two months after her husband filed bankruptcy, claiming he had $26 million in debts and a mere $62,000 in assets.

During the deposition, however, Goulder did not learn several important facts about Melones Internacional. He didn't learn that it is part of one of the largest farming operations in the world. He didn't learn that Melones Internacional is more than a simple agricultural partnership. He didn't learn that Melones Internacional's president, Alejandro Canelos, is one of the wealthiest and most powerful agriculturalists in Mexico.

And Goulder didn't discover that one of Mrs. Symington's close family members is on the board of directors of Melones Internacional. A family member by the name of "J. Fife Symington," according to incorporation records New Times obtained in Mexico.

Those records do not specify whether this Melones Internacional director is Arizona's governor, J. Fife Symington III, or his son, J. Fife Symington IV (or, for that matter, J. Fife Symington Jr., the governor's father).

Using the name "J. Fife Symington" in business documents without generational designation is a departure for the Arizona Symingtons. Here, the two men have been careful to separate their business interests. Arizona Corporation Commission records show the governor affixes "III" and his son "IV" to their names in corporation filings.

The records obtained by New Times for Melones Internacional do not include a signature for J. Fife Symington. The Culiacan attorney who prepared the papers, Juan Jose Ruiz, said corporate directors are not required to provide signatures for incorporation filings. He said he prepared the incorporation papers at the request of attorneys who work for the Caneloses. He also said he was unaware that there was more than one J. Fife Symington.

The governor's attorneys have repeatedly denied that Governor Symington has financial interests in Mexican businesses. The governor and his son declined to return calls seeking explanation for the Symington entry in Melones Internacional incorporation documents.

Symington's bankruptcy attorney, Robert Shull, said last Friday the Symington listed as a director of Melones Internacional is the governor's son, J. Fife Symington IV.

"I am telling you that that person who is a director is J. Fife Symington IV," Shull says.

Shull says the governor "has no interest in this organization whatsoever." He says the younger Symington is both a director and an investor in Melones Internacional.

Shull offered no documentation to support his statements. He said he had a conversation with the governor about the matter. "Mr. Symington III states unequivocally it is not him, it is his son," Shull said.

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