By Linda Lutton

When Cristina Perez Romero went to the Mexican consulate last month to get an ID, she thought she knew what she’d be charged. “When I asked they told me the cost was going to be $25,” says Perez, a native of Puebla who now lives near 35th and Archer. She stood in various lines for nearly an hour, but when it came time to pay she was charged $30. “I said to the cashier, ‘Excuse me, is it $25 or $30? I asked earlier, and they told me it was $25.’ ‘No, it’s $30,’ the young man told me. So that’s what I paid.”

Every day more than 500 Mexicans go through the consulate’s doors to obtain documents–birth certificates, passports, IDs–and from mid-December until last week they paid an extra $5 for each document they received. Consulate officials explain that the $5 was actually a voluntary donation to the Mexican Cultural and Educational Institute of Chicago, a nonprofit with close ties to the consulate.

That was news to Perez. “They didn’t tell me $5 is going toward this or that,” she says. “They didn’t tell me anything. I was going to complain, but I don’t like to get involved in problems. I just said, ‘Whatever. They charged me $30. Now I’ll have to live with it.’ That was the money for my bus fare for the rest of the week.”

“Essentially they were forcing people to make a donation,” says Juan Andres Mora, a member of the International Coalition of Mexicans Abroad, a group formed last month by 128 organizations from the U.S., Canada, and Europe to improve the way Mexicans living abroad are treated by the Mexican government. “The consulate was not operating in a clear manner. Lots of people didn’t even know they had just made a donation. They thought the fees had been raised. Others didn’t say anything because they feared they would be denied their documents.” People who ordered multiple documents were charged a “donation” for each document.

Mora says the coalition started hearing weeks ago from community organizations that people were being charged extra for documents at Chicago’s consulate. The group then contacted the consul general, Heriberto Galindo. “We told him, ‘You guys aren’t explaining to people. These are people who don’t have a lot of extra money lying around. You shouldn’t be overcharging them. They don’t know that it’s voluntary, so they pay it. They think the fees have gone up. This is illegal.’ He said that none of that was true.”

On February 28 the coalition held a press conference and demanded that the consulate immediately stop collecting donations without asking people whether they wanted to contribute–and do so without making people feel that they needed to contribute to get their documents. The coalition also called for an investigation. “No functionary of the government is allowed to set new fees or impose surcharges,” said Mora. “No public official is or can be above the law.”

Galindo responded by calling his own press conference that afternoon. The wall behind him was plastered with copies of a poster that read, “For giving a donation of $5 you will obtain a 10 percent discount on round-trip tickets to Mexico if you purchase them in the offices of Mexicana Airlines, 216 N. Michigan. You will also participate in the monthly raffle of two round-trip airline tickets.”

Galindo said that the same poster had been up in the consulate and that people were given receipts making it clear the $5 was a donation. “This promotion of voluntary donations has been fully explained and publicized and is being carried out in a completely open manner, so that there should be no doubts or confusion,” he said. “We’re getting fewer than one percent of the people who don’t want to participate. Anyone who doesn’t want to pay doesn’t pay.” He also noted, “The Mexican government authorized me to use this establishment for the collection of these resources.” Two round-trip tickets were raffled off that same day.

But the following day Galindo announced that he was changing the way the donations were collected. As people entered the consulate they would be asked if they wanted to make a donation, and if they did they’d be handed a donations card. By the end of the week Galindo had scrapped the entire donations drive. “There has been a lot of controversy on this issue,” says press secretary and consul Teodoro Alonso. “[Galindo] has gotten a lot of input from different representatives of the community, and that’s why he has resolved to suspend the donations–because he doesn’t want to contribute to more controversy.” The consulate also offered to refund donations.

In less than three months the consulate had collected some $82,000, all of which had been channeled to the Mexican Cultural and Educational Institute. On paper the institute is an independent entity. But Galindo is president of the institute’s board of directors, the deputy consul is the board’s secretary, and 4 of the 11 people who work at the institute are paid directly by the Mexican government. Its executive director is the daughter of a former governor of Tabasco, a loyal member of Mexico’s ruling party.

The institute certainly needed the money. A year ago it bought a building in the River North gallery district, at 702 N. Wells, and opened the Galeria Arte de Mexico. To pay for it the institute took out a $545,000 bridge loan at 18 percent interest, which the institute’s accountant, Maria Felix Ruiz, says was possible only because last March Galindo wrote a letter to the lender, Active Assets, committing the Mexican government to back up the loan. “Because the Republic of Mexico and the people of Mexico, through their Consulate General in Chicago, will derive significant benefit from the Loan to the Institute,” he wrote, “the Mexican Consulate and Mexican Government hereby agree to guaranty all obligations of the Institute…in connection with the loan.”

By September Active Assets was pushing the institute to pay the loan off. But it wasn’t refinanced until this January, when the institute was taking in $2,000 a day in donations generated at the consulate. According to Ruiz, most of the money collected from the donations went toward mortgage payments and the remainder went toward “very legitimate expenses–printing and operating costs.” She says the organization is currently $60,000 in debt and faces a $7,000 monthly mortgage payment.

Ruiz’s husband is a leader of the International Coalition of Mexicans Abroad, and the couple has a history of community activism. She worries about mismanagement at the institute. “Unfortunately, what’s happening is people have to follow the orders of the consul,” she says. “The staff has little say. We’ve tried to institute a budget, but [Galindo] comes in and says, now we’re going to do this, now we’re going to do that. It’s run in such a way that when it’s convenient for them to be an Illinois nonprofit, they’re an Illinois nonprofit–and when it’s better for them to be part of the Mexican government, they’re part of the Mexican government.”

Mora accuses Galindo of using his position to promote his own political career. And he charges that Galindo’s daughters have been on the institute’s payroll (Galindo says they were volunteering). Mora points out that Galindo’s niece edited La bamba cultural, a stylish, full-color 400-page digest of Mexicans’ cultural contributions to Chicago–Galindo appears in about 40 of the photos.

Mora says that even though Galindo stopped the donations campaign, the coalition plans to submit a formal complaint to the government of Mexico. “Our concern is that he respect the law and the rights of Mexicans here,” says Mora. “This is not a personal problem. This is a historical problem. The history is such that for 70 years government officials break the law. This is an attempt to do away with impunity when public officials break the law. We want to end corruption in Mexico.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.