Sixteen immaculately dressed children walked onstage Tuesday in Mexico’s National Lottery building, a few yelling the day’s winning numbers in a distinct staccato.
The Shouting Children of the National Lottery are a tradition in Mexico. But this was a lottery like nothing the country has ever seen – the short story behind it involves nearly a decade’s worth of allegations of corruption, a $218 million plane, a politician who tries and fails to sell that plane, and of course, the novel coronavirus.
The longer story? Let’s dive in.
“Not even Obama” had a plane like this one
In 2012, Mexico’s then-President Felipe Calderón decided it was time to upgrade his ride. He initiated the purchase of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, a luxurious, new jet compared to the older 757 model that had previously served as the presidential plane.
But by the time the plane arrived, Calderón had left office. It fell to his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, to inspect the jet’s custom trappings: Outfitted for only 80 passengers, the plane has wide leather seats, a conference room, and a presidential suite with a king-size bed and a private shower.
Peña Nieto used the jet for his last few years in office and it became a favorite target of then-candidate, now-president Andrés Manuel López Obrador during his 2018 campaign.
“Not even Obama has a plane like this one,” López Obrador has said, calling it a symbol of government excess and corruption, in a country struggling with poverty. He promised to sell the plane and return the money to the people.
How do we get rid of this thing?
López Obrador, who flies commercial, tried to stay true to his word. When he took office on December 1, 2018, his administration got right to work trying to find a buyer for the plane.
Turns out, there is not much of a market for a second-hand, custom-designed airplane with a price tag of more than $200 million. It would cost millions more to retrofit for commercial use.
The government says it has fielded multiple offers for the plane since the beginning of 2019, but none of those agreements worked out. López Obrador has said his administration can’t sell the plane for less than it is worth.
The plane remains unsold, parked in a hangar in Mexico City.
At the beginning of 2020, López Obrador’s administration came up with a new idea for the airplane: a raffle.
Buy a ticket, and if you win, you – yes you, Average Citizen of Mexico! – would become the proud owner of a custom wide-body 787.
But the Mexican public quickly responded with several questions:
- Where would the winner park the airplane?
- Who would pilot it?
- Who would maintain it?
- Where would it be flown?
- And crucially, who would pay for all of these things?
At the time, López Obrador offered part of a solution. “We would offer the winner of the plane a service of maintenance for two years or one year,” he said this January.
Government estimates put yearly maintenance costs at around $1.7 million.
“It sounds like a joke, right,” Mexico City resident Bryan Diaz told the AFP in January.
His sentiment was widely shared among Mexicans and the plane raffle soon became a running joke in the country. The hashtag #SiMeGanoElAvion, or #IfIWonThePlane, went viral with people sharing memes and jokes about the raffle prize.
It quickly forced the President to change course. But if selling the plane was the original goal, it was soon lost.
The Raffle – minus the plane
López Obrador decided that the raffle would go on – but the prize would no longer be the plane.
Instead, it would be a “symbolic” cash prize divided among 100 winners. Each winner would receive 20 million pesos, the equivalent of about $1 million, depending on the exchange rate.
At the time, the government hoped roughly 6 million tickets would be sold at 500 pesos each, about $25. The money raised would be used to pay the winners their money, and any excess funds would be used to donate medical equipment to the public health system – and also help maintain the plane ahead of any eventual sale.
That plan, of course, requires people to actually buy the raffle tickets. And 500 pesos is steep in a country where government statistics show the average household only earned 16,500 pesos per month in 2018, about $825.
That’s likely part of the reason ticket sales weren’t great. An original plan to hold the raffle drawing in May was delayed due to lack of sales.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which hit Mexico hard. More than 675,000 cases and 71,000 deaths have been registered.
The raffle’s purpose shifted again: Now, López Obrador’s administration touts the excess raffle proceeds as supporting the government’s battle against the pandemic. But it’s unlikely to go far.