Flanked by compatriots in linen guayabera shirts, Camilo Atala puffed on a Rocky Patel cigar and soaked in the Caribbean breeze at the Indura Beach & Golf Resort in northern Honduras.
The group was gathered to discuss child migration while Atala, who co-owns the resort, finalized a deal to buy some of Citigroup Inc.’s assets in Nicaragua. Atala had bought Citigroup’s Honduran operations a year earlier, a move that helped turn his Grupo Financiero Ficohsa into the biggest financial conglomerate in Honduras.
Across the border in Nicaragua, Ramiro Ortiz Mayorga was eyeing other Citigroup assets in the region, following his purchase of Ecuador’s Banco de la Produccion SA in 2013. The acquisitions by both bankers have helped create two of the biggest financial conglomerates in Central America.
“We believe that local banks have an important role in economic development in the country,” Atala, 52, said in a February interview. “That’s nothing against the foreign banks. We are an active player in the growth process.”
Banking has made both men billionaires, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. With a $1.4 billion net worth that’s mostly derived from his family’s majority stake in Tegucigalpa-based Grupo Financeiro Ficohsa, Atala is the wealthiest banker in Central America. Ortiz, who was born in 1947, has a $1.3 billion fortune, most of which comes from his majority stake in Nicaraguan lender Grupo Promerica.
Neither has appeared on an international wealth ranking.
Ortiz began building his conglomerate 24 years ago after he left the business now known as BAC Credomatic, which was sold by fellow Nicaraguan billionaire Carlos Pellas in 2010.
In his two decades running Grupo Promerica, Ortiz has expanded it to nine countries in Central America and the Caribbean with $11 billion in assets and a book value of $1 billion. He also maintains a stake in El Nuevo Diario, after bailing out the newspaper in 2011, and has interests in real estate and agriculture.
More recently, he’s been looking to provide banking services along a future $50 billion interoceanic canal in Nicaragua proposed by Hong Kong billionaire Wang Jing.
Atala’s business reaches from Guatemala to Panama and has $4.2 billion in assets. The Atalas also share control of retailer Colonia with the Faraj family and own real estate developer Proyectos & Servicios Inmobiliarios.
After a coup in 2009, Atala headed a local business council that lobbied against the return of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. Poverty and violence spiked in one of Latin America’s youngest nations following the coup.
The rise in poverty and murder rates in the country have led to an exodus. Honduran child immigrants trying to enter the U.S. almost tripled last year to 18,244, making it the country of origin with the highest number of minors entering the U.S. illegally, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Atala, a former investment minister, has had some outside help in building his fortune. The World Bank’s International Finance Corp. made a $70 million investment in 2011 that it said would create jobs by expanding access to credit for small businesses.
“Camilo was smart to sell shares to the World Bank,” said Jaime Rosenthal, a fellow Honduran who heads Grupo Continental. “Ficohsa is now growing in credit cards, which is one of the most profitable segments of financial markets in Honduras.”
The IFC scrutinized Ficohsa’s lending practices in an August 2014 ombudsman’s report that found the institution didn’t fully understand the bank’s risky operating environment and clients. Those clients include Corporacion Dinant, an African palm oil company linked to drug trafficking that was accused of using violence in forced land evictions of farmers.
Dinant denies any wrongdoing. Spokesman Roger Pineda said in an e-mailed response that the company is cooperating with investigators and has taken away its security staff’s weapons in a bid to stabilize the situation.
The IFC has since said it failed in implementing its own social and environmental policies. Ficohsa says it’s working to improve its environmental and social risk-mitigation policies.
At the Indura resort, Atala hosted Guatemalan and Honduran heads of state and a U.S. State Department envoy in his role as Vice-President of the Latin American Business Council International. They discussed plans for a $1 billion annual U.S. aid package to fight the causes of child migration.
Honduras will add thousands of police under the program and, along with Guatemala and El Salvador, expand centers for at-risk youth in crime-ridden neighborhoods. Atala, who was a minister of investment from 2002 to 2006 under President Ricardo Maduro, said the initiative will add to the economy’s momentum by boosting investment.
“The economy is growing about 3 percent, but we need to be growing more like 5 percent,” he said. “We see opportunity. To grow like that, we need to be investing more.”
The International Monetary Fund says Honduras’s growth will accelerate to 3.3 percent in 2015 from 3.1 percent in 2014, with inflation slowing. Its poverty rate fell to 64.5 percent in 2013, the first drop since 2009. The homicide rate has eased since it was the world’s highest in 2012.
The family’s charity also is involved, donating to programs that support education. Fundacion Ficohsa has helped to reduce pre-school dropout rates, and is planning a professional financial education center.
Ortiz’s family foundation funds a breast cancer hospital in the billionaire’s hometown of Leon and owns Central America’s biggest modern art collection, part of which he has on display in Leon.
Ortiz is now looking to acquire some of Citigroup’s Central American assets, according to two people familiar with the matter who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak on the matter. He said he’s open to acquisitions and declined to comment further on the talks.
Citigroup, based in New York, has been selling overseas assets as it looks to restructure following the financial crisis. Ficohsa’s purchase of Citigroup’s assets in Nicaragua is still awaiting regulatory approval.
Both billionaires said they’ve been refusing suitors who want to buy their banks, declining to name them.
“There have been proposals from very serious people, but I’ve never had the intention to sell,” Ortiz said in a March 26 phone interview. “We’re staying in the struggle.”