Domination of Latin airwaves has 'Ghost' scaring his critics

GUATEMALA CITY — He calls himself a "Robin Hood who pays taxes." Newspapers call him "the Ghost." Lawmakers and media experts call him one of the biggest threats to free speech in Latin America.

But everybody agrees on one thing: Angel Gonzalez, a Mexican-born, Miami-based, ever-mysterious broadcast mogul, is fast becoming the king of Latin America's airwaves.

And almost nobody outside Guatemala has heard of him.

In this Central American nation, Gonzalez owns seven television stations — including the only four with nationwide coverage — as well as 20 radio stations.

Elsewhere in Latin America, he controls 34 TV stations and more than 70 radio stations in five other countries. His list of major TV stations includes three in Costa Rica, two in southern Mexico, two in Nicaragua, a pair in the Dominican Republic and one in Chile.

He says that's only the beginning for his holding company, Televideo Services.

"Over the next 10 years we will come to control three more stations per year," Gonzalez said in a telephone interview.

With a net worth estimated at $350 million, he is often described by admirers as a shrewd entrepreneur who is quietly gobbling up a broadcast market overlooked by most high rollers.

But critics say he is out to build broadcast monopolies all over Latin America — from south Florida to Tierra del Fuego.

"You hear reports of just how much power and influence people like him have in Latin America — except with Gonzalez it's all true," said Santiago Canton, a freedom-of-expression envoy for the Organization of American States. "He is looking to do what he did to Guatemala to other countries, and there doesn't seem to be any way to stop him."

Gonzalez, 58, was born near the northern Mexican city of Monterrey and got his start in television peddling syndicated shows to stations in the region. On one of his trips to Guatemala he met his wife, and decided to stay. Using loans, he started his broadcast operation by buying Guatemala's channels 3 and 7 in 1981.

Gonzalez said he has sidestepped laws prohibiting monopolies by using phantom companies run by local relatives, friends and stand-ins to acquire his Latin American broadcast interests.

"Why lie? In Guatemala I use my wife's name. In Chile I have Chileans. In Peru I have Peruvians," he said. "I run a holding company and I let my friends and relatives control everything else. I violate no laws."

Gonzalez's business dealings are so secretive that newspapers call him "el Fantasma" — "the Ghost" — a man whose money and influence are everywhere even if records bearing his name are not.

According to the Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre, Gonzalez was allowed to take over Peru's Channel 13 after paying $15 million to the since ousted spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos to settle a payment dispute between a Gonzalez stand-in and station owner Genero Delgado.

Shortly after the payment, a Montesinos-controlled court ruled in favor of Gonzalez, who took control of the station and canceled an investigative reporting program critical of then-President Alberto Fujimori.

Delgado said Gonzalez used similar tactics to take over Lima's Channel 9.

Gonzalez called such accusations ridiculous.

"I live in the United States. I would have serious legal problems if these reports were true," said Gonzalez, who said he owns homes in Miami, New Orleans, Mexico City and Guatemala City. "I don't have anyone after me."

Still, Gonzalez doesn't deny his control of the Guatemalan airwaves is airtight. Guatemalan leaders say chatting with Gonzalez is a must for those who want to succeed in politics.

"There is no one in power in Guatemala left to criticize Angel Gonzalez," said Sen. Pablo Ceto, head of a small opposition party. "He has supported all the major parties and all the major candidates, and no one will ever forget that."

A self-described conservative, Gonzalez said he backs any candidate he thinks can win, regardless of ideology.

"I award free publicity to everyone who deserves it, and that makes some people who are used to running things in Guatemala mad," he said. "I have an interest in all things political, because if I didn't, the upper classes would continue happily controlling who wins every election."

During the 1999 presidential race, Gonzalez donated more than $2.6 million and provided plum airtime free of charge to the campaign of populist Alfonso Portillo. Political analysts say the free commercials helped Portillo win the election.

After becoming president, Portillo named Gonzalez's brother-in-law, Luis Rabbe, as his minister of communications, infrastructure and housing, a powerful Cabinet position whose jurisdiction includes the oversight of broadcast media.