During the Enrque Peña Nieto administration, a new regulation came into effect to restrict the advertising of foods and drinks aimed at children in Mexico. It was 2014, when Mikel Arriola Peñalosa fronted COFEPRIS. The norm, however, was criticized by academics and civil organizations as it was considered “limited” and that did not seemingly guarantee that childhoods would be protected. An analysis by The Consumer’s Power concluded the regulation was “greatly flawed from its very design”.
Patricio Caso Prado was one of the key elements in the legislation of this Fair Labeling and Advertising General Law regarding Health. In October 2011 he received a temporary contract from COFEPRIS to provide “support services for analysis regarding the modification project to the rules” of said law. Public data from the institution makes evident that he received 11,570 dollars as payment for 30 days of work on this matter.
In 2015, the Auditoría Superior de la Federación (ASF, Federation’s Superior Auditor) found several irregularities in the advertising campaigns known as “Less publicity directed towards children’s audiences for non nutritious foods and non-alcoholic beverages”, as well as “Clear Labeling For Foods and non-alcoholic drinks” in which COFEPRIS spent 450,000 dollars. Televisa, Estudios Azteca, Ankia Comunicación, Mexicanos y Americanos Sistemas de Comunicación, Rack Star and Básico FM are some of the companies hired to broadcast the messages.
However, the ASF detected that the budgets do not specify the period of validity nor the full characteristics of the service provided. The audit also notes that the documents show no broadcast dates for the campaigns, there is no evidence of the airing of 120,000 TV spots or 50,000 radio ads. It could not be proven either that the objective of reaching one million people was reached. When copies of the contracts were requested, COFEPRIS replied that they could not find that information.
Likewise, the ASF observed irregularities in the hiring of CONAR, the Publicity Ethics and Self-Regulation Council, an private funded organization that seeks to “conciliate in advertisement-related controversies'' and that is associated with advertising agencies, communications media, and Coca Cola Mexico, Kellog’s and PepsiCo, among other companies. This organism was selected to monitor publicity in 2014; the auditing entity found that there were no conditions “of economy and impartiality” to carry out this work, for which a payment of 34,287 dollars was made, even though another previous budget of 19,000 dollars did exist.
One year before, the ASF had already pointed out irregularities in another contract celebrated with CONAR for a “minimal” amount of 387,000 dollars and “maximum” of 503,000 dollars; no evidences were shown for a purported market research for which three possible suppliers were invited (with no justification whatsoever of why were they chosen) and CONAR only replied that the supplier selection was given “without a reference parameter”.
The ASF also noticed that the services are not consistent with the requests made by COFEPRIS, the requirements for a tendering were not properly followed and no complete work was ever handed in. Besides COFEPRIS was in charge of revising the advertising of its own associates, in a way that suggests a conflict of interest, as shown by an academic study published by UNAM entitled Comida chatarra. Entre la gobernanza regulatoria y la simulación (Junk Food. Between regulatory governance and simulation) by Laura Beatriz Montes de Oca Barrera.
During the period in which Mikel Arriola Peñalosa fronted COFEPRIS, nutrition guides that recommended very high levels of sugar consumption were designed, as lawyer Javier Zúñiga explains; also, these charts did not contribute so consumers could take healthy decisions as they were difficult to interpret, as shown by a study published in 2019 at the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
In February 2016, Arriola Peñaloza left Corepris to work as director of the Social Security National Institute, IMSS. He quit this latter position to run as candidate for Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party) for mayor of Mexico City in the 2018 elections. In this professional path, Patricio Caso loyally followed his steps: he worked for IMSS and then, during the electoral process, was campaign coordination. The results, however, did not favor them.
When the election was lost and already out of public service, Patricio Caso formed six companies between March 2019 and March 2021. All of them have an ample social inclination that includes management services in health and food regulations topics and “design, supervision and evaluation of public policies''. In two of these companies, Caso had his ex-boss Mikel Arriola Peñalosa as an associate. He maintained links with former workmates at COFEPRIS: Antonio Grimaldo Monroy, Aldo Heladio Verver y Vargas Duarte, and Álvaro Israel Pérez Vega.
In December 2021, COFEPRIS warned about the services that ex-officers bring to speed up processes. No names were mentioned, but a document stated that they were touted by “people” who “have not been part of the institution for more than three years and, in spite of their promises, they lack attributions to provide the goods and services that they offer and have no access to our facilities”. A journalistic work had already denounced presumed extortions by a network of corrupt ex-officers and operators that assured they had privileges and offered the guarantee to carry out processes at COFEPRIS in exchange for money. Among them, the work mentions Caso, Grimaldo Monroy, Pérez Vega, Verver y Vargas Duarte, as well as Carlos Lizardi Álvarez and Gibrán Alejandro de la Torre. Nobody at COFEPRIS attended our request for an interview.
Two of Caso’s partners –Álvaro Pérez Vega, plus Aldo Verver and Vargas Duarte– also appear as recipients of a series of emails about an appeal against NOM 051 among COFEPRIS officers and Coca Cola employees in May 2016. Journalistic works assure that Caso, his partners and his successor, Carlos Lizardi Álvarez, are under investigation by the Secretary of Public Function; when more information was requested, the reply pointed out that all is yet confidential.
On the other hand, as a COFEPRIS officer, Patricio Caso was part of the public hearings to regulate marihuana use in Mexico. He organized the National Debate Forum on the Use of Marihuana, where “he underlined that marihuana regulation is of the utmost relevance” and in 2019 he appeared as consultant in other activities that promote the use of cannabis.
In an operation carried out on February 18, 2020 before the United States Securities Exchange Commission, Caso Prado is mentioned as director of Xebra Brands, a Canadian company that seeks to market cannabis-infused beverages. For that same company, Antonio Grimaldo has carried out procedures as a director. This company also has a Mexican subsidiary, the company DesartMX, in which Aldo Verver y Vargas is the sole administrator as of 2018; Arriola, Caso and Grimaldo joined in October 2019, but in 2020 they stopped acting as proxies.
In December 2021, the Supreme Court of Justice of the Nation legally protected DesartMX to plant, grow and harvest cannabis for industrial purposes. In a press release, Xebra Brands highlights that DesartMX is “controlled by a former group of high ranking COFEPRIS officials” that “identified an opportunity to challenge the constitution of Mexico for an injunction to commercialize hemp derived cannabinoids such as CBD and CBG”.
VCGA Consultores (VCGA Consultants) is another company whose Constitutive Act mentions Mikel Arriola, Patricio Caso, Aldo Verver y Vargas, Álvaro Pérez and Antonio Grimaldo Monroy as partners; it specializes in regulatory matters and has reached agreements with international firms like LLYC, who also highlights the relationship with these Mexican partners: “We are enthusiastic about working with VCGA Consultants, a firm comprised by recognized professionals with key roles in the public and private sectors in Mexico, like Álvaro Pérez Vega, Aldo Verver and Antonio Grimaldo Monroy'', said Javier Rosado, the north zone director. Neither Patricio Caso or his partners replied to our request for an interview.
Las empresas de Caso
In December 2020, already out of public service, Patricio Caso was hired as Senior Director of Government Affairs at The Coca Cola Company. Alejandro Calvillo, director of El Poder del Consumidor, a non-profit organization, warns that this is part of the firm’s “revolving doors” strategy. He therefore considers that there is also a need to regulate how people who held high ranks while serving private initiative switch to a public service position.
There is a clear conflict of interest here, according to Javier Zúñiga, lawyer for El Poder del Consumidor; by definition, this is an open possibility for an officer or its next of kin to obtain a personal or economic benefit by using his knowledge, relationships and responsibilities performed.
“By mandate of law, COFEPRIS has an interest, and that is to hold sanitary control in a public health scheme”, explains Zúñiga. “When an officer holds a relationship with private particular entities with economic interests and does not ATIENDE the public health recommendations, then we can say that the officer is not doing a partial job”.
Patricio Caso denied to POPLab that there was any conflict of interest or investigation about him: "I have not been a public official for several years and I have not had interaction with Cofepris for much longer."
The concept “conflict of interest” as a hindrance for corporations to hire ex-public officers that intervened in regulations was first legislated in Mexico with the Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration in 2018. It limits “occupying positions in companies that have supervised or regulated, or held privileged information in his tenure as public server, unless ten years have passed”. Before this reform, officers only had to wait one year before joining a private company.
The measure has been antagonized by López Obrador critics. But while the debate goes on, the acute public health crisis brought by the change in eating habits influenced by the aggressive marketing strategies of powerful companies has already changed the life of millions of Mexicans. The experts agree: even if all the controls established start effectively working now, it will take generations to revert the damage.