By Daina Beth Solomon
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's tax chief is preparing to press criminal charges against some of the biggest companies operating in the country as part of an enforcement crusade, telling Reuters that officials had opened "four or five" cases of tax fraud this year alone.
The campaign has already squeezed hundreds of millions of dollars from retailer Walmart Inc's Mexico unit <WALMEX.MX> and Coca-Cola bottler Femsa <FMSAUBD.MX>, with other firms under scrutiny in the country with the lowest take in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Raquel Buenrostro, chief of the Tax Administration Service (SAT), said past administrations were too lenient with powerful firms, depriving the government of needed income.
"There was tax fraud in the past, and it never led to criminal procedures," Buenrostro said on Monday in an interview at her spartan office, decorated with a Mexican flag and a framed photo of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
"Executives now know that if they commit tax fraud, we will have to open a criminal procedure," Buenrostro said.
She declined to reveal which companies were facing criminal charges, but said the biggest debtors were in industries including steel, food, autos, pharmaceuticals, finance, mining, retail and energy.
Lopez Obrador tapped Buenrostro as tax chief in January, after she earned a reputation as a trusted aide - along with the nickname 'Iron Lady' - during a clampdown on federal procurement that cut spending by $9 billion in a year.
The president, a leftist, runs a tight budget and has promised no new taxes for three years. Instead he wants to increase revenue through more efficient collection and has threatened to expose 15 companies he says owe a total of $2 billion.
On Tuesday he said Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> was bringing its payments up to date, but that some Canadian mining companies were seeking international arbitration rather than pay what the government said they owed. It was not clear if they were on the president's list of 15 companies behind on taxes.
Toyota did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Buenrostro said the list of 15 represented just a handful of the companies in arrears.
When asked how many criminal complaints had been opened against large companies, Buenrostro said: "From big taxpayers we have four or five... for tax fraud, this year, plus others that have accumulated."
She did not say how many overall companies were targeted in the new complaints.
Walmart de Mexico paid $358 million to the SAT last month after negotiations over matters including the 2014 sale of a restaurant chain. The company said the amount was arrived at in collaboration with the SAT.
Walmart de Mexico's corporate affairs director previously said the retailer did not have knowledge of a criminal complaint. The company declined to comment in response to questions from Reuters on Tuesday.
Mexican conglomerate Femsa, one of the world's largest Coca-Cola bottlers, followed days later with its own agreement with the SAT, pledging to pay $398 million. The company said the payment resolved interpretative differences over taxes paid outside Mexico.
Femsa was not presented with a criminal charge, a corporate communications representative said.
Buenrostro said she welcomed reaching a deal with companies without resorting to charges.
"Our aim is not to send people to jail," she said.
Buenrostro declined to say whether Walmart and Femsa were threatened with, or faced, criminal charges.
The strategy appears to be yielding results. Large taxpayers forked over more than 50 billion pesos ($2.3 billion) in total from January to May, compared with only 37 billion pesos during all of last year.
Buenrostro also said the SAT, with 1,300 audits underway, has focused on cases where it was confident of proving a tax obligation, rather than entering the complicated world of tax law interpretation.
The SAT is reviewing recent transactions, typically from within the past five to seven years, she said.
"We selected not only the biggest debts, but also the easiest ones to recover," Buenrostro said.
($1 = 21.8634 Mexican pesos)
(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)