MEXICO CITY -- During the heated debate last year over approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement, critics in the United States warned that the accord would encourage American employers to shift their resources south to Mexico.
Yet in the four months since Congress voted in favor of the agreement, the boldest acquisitions so far have been made by Mexican companies in the United States.
Since November, Mexicans have signed multimillion-dollar contracts to buy all or part of a major U.S. bus manufacturer, one of the nation's largest bakeries and 39 Westin hotels spread across the United States. In smaller deals in both countries, Mexicans and Americans have formed joint ventures, with the Mexicans retaining majority control. So far, the deals have not caused jobs to cross the border in either direction.
While the free-trade pact did not create financial incentives for Mexican companies to acquire businesses in the United States, it did create a psychological climate that has led some Mexican business owners to feel that they can compete on an equal footing with the Americans.
"There probably were some people who thought it was going to be a 100 percent flow from the United States to Mexico," said Daniel Servitje, president of the cookie division of Grupo Industrial Bimbo, which is buying 50 percent of a Fort Worth, Texas, bakery and forming a joint venture to sell its products in the United States. "If they are surprised because Mexican companies have been aggressive, it's probably because they really haven't devoted much time to understanding our country."
The spate of deals in the wake of the trade agreement cannot compare with the powerful position that U.S. companies held in Mexico before the pact was signed. Companies such as Ford and General Motors have operated here for generations.
But the recent Mexican acquisitions have drawn attention to Mexican businessmen who say they are ready to compete in the international market. And they have quieted, at least temporarily, concerns that companies in the United States would flood across the border in search of $1-an-hour workers.
The cross-border deals have put the Mexican companies in a position to fight off U.S. competition by moving first to expand their own reach.
The bakery deal, for example, gives Bimbo, Mexico's largest baking company, a crack at the U.S. market, in which it has dabbled over the last year selling tortillas.
The financial strength of the Mexicans in making these acquisitions offers evidence that there is more money in the hands of business and industry here than many thought.
The recent $708 million deal for the Westin hotels may best exemplify the Mexican corporate spirit. Bernardo Dominguez, a 33-year-old entrepreneur in Mexico City, has signed a letter of intent to buy a company, with the help of Salomon Bros. and a group of U.S. and Mexican private investors. The hotel chain is much larger than his own three-resort property in Mexico.
The Westin chain was founded in the United States in 1930. It was sold in 1988 to the Aoki Corp. of Japan, from whom Mr. Dominguez is buying the 39 hotels.
Such deals have shown how eager Mexican businessmen are to play in the big leagues.
"Now comes the real competition, when that Mexican entrepreneur who can put a few things together no longer has the government standing in his way," said John P. McCray, an associate professor of strategic management at the University of Texas at San Antonio.