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Big Mexican Copper Mine Lures 1 Bidder : Minerals: Only $468 million is offered for the historic mine near the Arizona border, about half the expected price.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The lone bidder for Mexico’s largest copper mine has offered $468 million for the government-owned Cananea mine near the Arizona border--little more than half the price the mine had been expected to bring when it was put up for sale two years ago.

Nearly a century old, Cananea provides about 3% of the world’s copper. It exports 40% of the 150,000 tons a year produced by its smelter to Japan, South Korea, the United States, Canada and Western Europe. The smelter is accused of contributing to pollution in the desert region.

The sale would end two years of upheaval--including a bankruptcy, layoff of one-third of the mine’s 3,800 workers, troop occupation of the mine and a failed deal to sell the company for $910 million last year.

Officially, the results of Monday’s auction are expected to be announced next week. However, according to the judge in charge of the auction, the mine will probably be sold by default to a partnership of the Mexican engineering firm ICA and two foreign companies--German and Canadian mining concerns.

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The partners’ offer was above the $450-million minimum price, and the required $45-million bond was posted.

None of the partners would discuss the distribution of the ownership. Mexican law limits foreigners to 49% ownership of mines, meaning that the combined stake of Frankfurt-based Metallgesellschaft AG and Vancouver-based Teck Corp. must be less than half the total.

Bernardo Quintana, chairman of ICA, is said to have a personal stake in Cuprifera Cananea, the name of the partnership, in addition to the ownership interest held by his engineering firm.

According to government officials, the partnership is buying only the mine and smelter, not the entire mining company, which has debts of $650 million. In last year’s abortive auction, the entire company was up for bid. The second-highest bid was said to be lower than the current offer.

The previous deal was based on a leveraged buyout--using the assets of the company to secure the loan--and the financiers backed out when the LBO market fell apart last year.

Besides the purchase price, Cuprifera Cananea’s offer includes a commitment to invest at least $100 million in training and equipment, including pollution-control equipment.

Despite the nearly 100 years it has been mined, Cananea still has an estimated 1.7 billion tons of ore reserves and could continue providing copper for the next 60 years, according to a report released last year by Nacional Financiera, the Mexican development bank.

Cananea is an important name in Mexican history. In 1906, Mexican officials supported the use of the Texas Rangers to quell a strike at the mine, one of the events considered to have provoked the Revolution of 1910.

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Mexican historians drew parallels between that famous strike and the government’s decision last summer to send in the troops to stop a strike that ensued after the bankruptcy was announced.


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