By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
The lack of confidentiality amongst native-born professionals in the city of Oaxaca, and likely in resort towns such as Huatulco and Puerto Escondido, is remarkable. Over the past two decades my wife and I have borne witness to the disheartening phenomenon on the part of lawyers, architects, financial institutions, medical doctors including specialists, accountants, and even the judiciary.
My professional training was in Canada, so I can’t state with certainty that university curricula in Mexico include a week, a month or a semester dealing with the issue, but I would certainly hope so – at least a modicum of training in ethical conduct. (Investigating whether or not such training exists would seem to be an interesting comparative research project.) Tort law, damages at large for breach of implied contract, and other such legal niceties are in their relative infancy in Oaxaca. And so Oaxacan professionals apparently are not that concerned about breaching the First World concept of confidentiality.
Sitting across the desk from a financial consultant in a Oaxacan savings and loan office in mid-December 2018 spurred me on to write this article. Right in front of me was the renewal form of a Oaxacan investor who the day previously had rolled over his 1.2 million peso term deposit. There was his name, address, maturity date, rate of interest, and all the rest. It was only after explaining to the institution’s employee how inappropriate it was, that she smiled and turned over the piece of paper and placed it on a pile of documents beside her.
About 15 years ago, I was speaking with a lawyer acquaintance who had been representing a neighbor up the street in divorce proceedings. She told me that the neighbor’s estranged husband was in arrears of child support. The attorney’s spouse was the architect who built the home for our neighbor. I learned how much the neighbor paid for her land and how much it cost to build the house. It wasn’t as if I asked about any of this since I didn’t really care, although gossip is apparently healthy.
I really like our accountant since he is extremely knowledgeable, approachable with any questions I have had day or night, honest, and all the rest; well, almost. I visit his office regularly since I am required to file a tax return on a monthly basis. I enjoy seeing him since he is the accountant for friends and acquaintances, and accordingly I get the most recent information and gossip about how their businesses are doing, their love lives, and in one case I learned that a doctor we use had not been paying his accounting fees and was horrible at anything to do with the administration of his medical practice. So what does our accountant tell others about my business affairs?
A while back we had no choice but to sue our next-door neighbor over wet walls we were experiencing. She had been doing excavation on her property in an incompetent fashion. She refused to rectify the problem, even in the course of mediation. Litigating was the last resort. The judge came to look at the two houses in order to help her understand the problem and the issues. My wife drove her, our lawyer and the judge’s secretary back downtown after the “look see.” The judge exclaimed to my wife that she absolutely loved our home, and asked who our builder was. Now perhaps this does not fit into the realm of confidentiality, but rather “appearance of bias.” Nevertheless, if the judiciary lacks appropriate standards of conduct, it appears clear that mere attorneys would fall even further shorter of professionalism criteria.
Some Oaxacans get it. About two decades ago I began being consulted by a mezcal distiller friend about his receivables and other matters relating to brand owner clients who had been buying his hooch. Even though I am not licensed to practice Mexican law and would never give advice in that realm, my friend has regularly sought my advice, knowing full well that if he retained a Mexican lawyer his private affairs would end up being known by many in the Oaxacan mezcal trade. My advice has been restricted to common business sense and opinion, but nevertheless is valued more because of my closed-mouth professional standard than its legal underpinnings.
None of this is to suggest that those living in or visiting Oaxaca should hire non-Mexican professionals. Rather, consider explaining to the person you might retain the importance of maintaining confidentiality. The last thing you want is to be in your doctor’s waiting room filled with other patients, and being greeted right then and there with “How’re your hemorrhoids doing?”
Alvin Starkman owns and operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). To be clear, to date he has not had hemorrhoid problems.