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A Global Food Tycoon Who Began Over A Mexico City Counter

68 years of baking
68 years of baking

MEXICO CITY — Roberto Servitje, co-founder and former president of the Mexican bread and pastry giant Bimbo, is upright and elegant at 85 years old. He has plenty to stand tall about, having started a company with his brother 68 years ago that remains successful and in the family.

At a time when Mexican producers and household brands have been merging into multinational concerns, Bimbo has survived as a purely Mexican company. The Servitje brothers — Lorenzo being the other founder — resisted a veritable “siege” from foreign buyers to achieve this. One of the United States’ most important bread companies once warned them to “sell or face destruction,” says Roberto, laughing as he recalls those days.

Then the head of an investment bank asked them to sell most of their shares in the firm, insisting, everything has “a price in this world, give me a number.” Roberto responded by asking, “How much is your mother worth?” That was when the brothers decided they must expand abroad. They bought baking plants in San Diego and Los Angeles in the 1990s, and companies such as Mrs. Baird’s, a century-old Texas bakery. The U.S.-based Bimbo Bakeries was founded to run operations in the United States.

In fact, Roberto oversaw the group’s international expansion over previous decades and notes that Bimbo, one of the best-known household pastry names in the Hispanic world, benefited little from the 1994 NAFTA free-trade treaty, because it began exporting a decade earlier. Bimbo now has warehouses in 16 countries, including China, Brazil and the United States, its most important market where it began selling bread in 1984.

If Carlos Slim is present in nearly every person’s lives with his services and products, Bimbo too has become an essential part of that most Mexican of moments: parties. Beyond sliced bread and little cakes, Bimbo has become a supplier of appetizers, sweets, flour and baked pancakes, biscuits, prepared foods and more.

Bimbo will be 68 years old on Dec. 2. It has become one of the world’s most important food companies. Yet behind the cold figures – 125,000 employees, 10,000 products, net sales worth just over $13.1 billion last year — it carries with it a story of dramatic vicissitudes.

Two generations

The Servitje brothers began their business in an “old building” on September 16 Street in Mexico City's historic quarter, where they served customers sandwiches and fruit juice. With money lent by a relative, they bought a plot on which to build their first bread-making plant. From then on, hard work, customer service, professional staff and daily van deliveries of fresh bread gradually yielded them their a loyal and growing customer base.

They imported plastic wrapping so that people could see the freshness of the four types of bread they sold. That led to “skyrocketing” demand they could not meet, which in turn produced furious clients. In 1947 they began to make different products, heralding both triumphs and unforeseen failures. One little cupcake failed, as it was sold unwrapped and gathered dirt on shop counters. People didn’t like that. But the strawberry-filled Little Goose or Gansito launched in 1957 seemingly worked wonders. In one week in 1961, Bimbo sold more than 10 million of them in Mexico City alone.

Sometimes the Servitjes visit their own business personally to observe its changes and growth. They went to one of their warehouses in Santa Fe in Mexico City a few months back, in the company of Lorenzo’s son Daniel, who is set to be one of the Bimbo heirs along with his cousin Roberto. The patriarch’s eyes seemed lost amid the immensity of corridors filled with breads, biscuits and cakes. “I think we’ve grown a little big, right?” Lorenzo asked his son after a pause.

The first-generation brothers no longer make all the decisions, but they still go to the office every day and remain an “essential presence” when it comes to the most critical decisions. Roberto resigned from his presidential post last May, and nephew Daniel has filled the role. He keeps a close eye on vital activities and seeks growth opportunities for the company. The brothers also take an interest in their employees’ wages — it is a “moral” duty, says Roberto — and check on warehouses around the world to be sure they are duly filled with Little Geese.

“My work now is to give my opinion. I have no responsiblities,” he says.

Asked if he likes Bimbo’s cakes, Roberto glances at his waistline. “Of course, nothing makes me happier than our Tía Rosa cupcakes.

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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