The Top of Mexico's Food Chain Swallows Tortilla Makers

RICARDO CARASCO PREZ surveys the conveyor belt carrying a dozen of the 25,000 corn tortillas his store's one creaky tortilla maker will churn out over the day, and he shakes his fist.

''What we have here is the No. 1 basic food of the humble people of Mexico,'' he says. ''Its makers can't be allowed to simply disappear.''

Mexicans may approach their tortilla with the same reverence that the French reserve for their baguettes or the Japanese their rice, but these are still tough times for the tortilla - and for the country's 40,000 tortillerias, or tortilla shops.

Once lovingly pressed one at a time in rustic iron presses, tortillas are now industrially produced, wrapped in plastic, and sold in supermarkets. Bread makes up a growing part of the Mexican diet, and fast foods that wouldn't know what to do with a tortilla are shouldering aside traditional street foods that use tortillas as the wrap for beans, meats, rice, and sauces.

But tortilla makers say that, more than anything else, the price controls on their product are doing them in. Nazario Palomera Aguilar, director of the largest organization of whole-grain corn tortilla makers, says 80 percent of the country's tortillerias could soon disappear if the government's price controls aren't scuttled.

''Already 4,000 tortillerias closed last year, and we're afraid that's only a start,'' says Mr. Palomera, who has headed his industry for 20 years.

''We need relief now,'' he says.

By law, a tortilleria in Mexico City can charge 1.10 pesos (about 15 cents) for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of tortillas, while those in other regions can charge a bit more. In Nogales, Mr. Carasco is allowed to charge 22 cents for a kilo of about 28 tortillas.

At the same time, the government subsidizes the cost of much of the dough the tortilla makers use - but it also limits the availability of subsidized dough.

''We could use 50 percent more dough, but that would be too expensive for the government,'' says Palomera. Keeping tortillas cheap already costs more than $1 billion in subsidies a year, according to industry estimates, although little of that trickles down to the tortilla makers.

Mexican governments have kept tortilla prices artificially low since before the 16th-century arrival of Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortes. The policy was revamped most recently under former president Carlos Salinas de Gortari to favor a handful of megamills that produce the flour and dough used by most tortilla producers.

And tortillerias aren't allowed to go out shopping for the cheapest corn they can find - say, from the United States.

The change in the subsidy program was made in the name of Mexico's modernization and greater efficiency, but it really led to more centralization and corruption, according to Palomera.

''The entire effort of the previous government was to make us disappear,'' he says. ''They are having some success, but they also ended up with the scandals we're having today.''

The former president's brother, Raul Salinas, now in prison on charges he organized the 1994 assassination of a presidential candidate, also administered various agriculture subsidies. The programs are being investigated to find if there is any connection to the more than $100 million that Mexican investigators say Mr. Salinas squirreled away in foreign banks.

Now with growing numbers of experts concurring that the subsidies must go, the government of President Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon is sounding more open to changes in the tortilla regime. Prices of other basics like milk and rice have recently been allowed to rise. Some government officials are hinting that a liberalization of tortilla prices is in the works, perhaps for as early as February.

If set completely free, tortilla prices would at least double to 30 cents per kilo, tortilla makers predict. That may not sound like a lot, but when considered along with Mexico's $2.40-a-day minimum wage, and the fact that many families consume more than a kilo of tortillas a day, the risks for the government become apparent. Some observers predict trouble in the streets if prices rise too quickly.

Tortilla makers advocate setting prices free and then assisting the poor by expanding an existing program that provides one free kilo of tortillas a day to more than 2 million families.

But the tortilla makers admit higher prices won't be a panacea for them, either. ''I'm afraid we'll see a very damaging price war,'' says Carasco, who as president of the Nogales tortilleria union knows something about the competition.

Besides that, Mexico's middle class is consuming fewer tortillas and visiting the neighborhood tortilleria less. Traditional tortilla makers are going to have to modernize their shops, most of which haven't been spruced up in decades, and branch out into new products - tortillas with soy? - to bring back consumers, Carasco says.

Others say nothing will ever replace the basic corn tortilla. Pulling a still-warm specimen from Carasco's conveyor belt, visiting tortilla maker Alfonso Isiordia puts it to his lips as if to kiss it, takes a bite, and declares, ''Nothing in the world compares.''

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