In Mexico, drug lords throw just-in-time Japanese off schedule

Mazda Chairman Takashi Yamanouchi applauds with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto during the opening of Mazda's assembly plant in Guanajuato state this week. Photo credit: REUTERS
UPDATED: 3/3/14 4:27 pm ET

SALAMANCA, Mexico -- To the abhorrence of assembled Japanese executives and journalists, the inauguration of Mazda Motor Corp.'s assembly plant in Mexico last week started nearly an hour-and-a-half late, as dignitaries squirmed in the heat under an outdoor tent.

Yet, when the ceremony finally began, the local governor asserted -- with no hint of irony -- that the Japanese automakers flocking to his state, with their obsession for precision planning and timelines, had taught Mexicans how to be punctual and diligent workers.

"We have to learn so much from all you for being so punctual, honestly," Guanajuato State Governor Miguel Marquez Marquez told a crowd of some 600 visitors, calling the Japanese principle of just-in-time manufacturing a "rule of gold for the people of Japan."

"The arrival of people from Japan and other countries in this region in these past years means a profound cultural change," Marquez added, before concluding:

"This has led us to finish our work on time."

One can forgive both the Mexicans and Japanese for the day's delays. Japan's carmakers may have bent the Mexican work force to their clockwork production cycles. But there was one wrench in the scheduling they couldn't control -- the menace of the country's drug cartels.

Security was exceptionally tight because the guest of honor -- Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto -- is a marked man by the country's drug lords. Especially after the Feb. 22 capture of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, the Mexican underworld's most-wanted kingpin.

Mazda wouldn't even confirm the president's appearance ahead of time. Peña Nieto purposely keeps his schedule unpredictable to keep would-be assassins off kilter.

But his impending arrival at the ceremony was easily betrayed by the abundance of machine-gun toting paramilitary troops in camouflage and black-clad, face-masked commandos.

Security was unlike any plant opening I've experienced -- more akin to boarding an international airline flight. Visitors had to board specially vetted buses outside the main gate just to get into the plant complex. Once inside, special security passes were required to approach the ceremony tent. There, everyone was shuffled through metal detectors.

Bags were searched. No liquids were allowed inside. Water bottles were confiscated.

Everyone was seated in order. And told to remain seated. Then the waiting began.

Peña Nieto finally touched down in a helicopter and arrived in a convoy of black fortified Chevy Suburbans. He received a rock star welcome from the Mexicans in attendance.

On his way to the stage, the popular president spent a good 5 minutes glad-handing well-wishers held at bay by body guards. "My apologies to the company and all its guests for all the inconveniences," he said. "We know we have caused inconveniences to all of you."

Mazda Chairman Takashi Yamanouchi has seen such a lockdown only once: Two years ago during Russia President Vladimir Putin's visit to a Mazda factory in Vladivostok.

"Whenever I move, we have only one security car in a car ahead. It's completely different from the president," Yamanouchi said of the plant opening after Peña Nieto's visit. "We are so relieved that it was successful and secure."

You can reach Hans Greimel at -- Follow Hans on Twitter: @hansgreimel

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