The strange story of the presidential plane raffle in Mexico

(CNN) –– Sixteen immaculately dressed children took the east stage at the National Lottery of Mexico building. It was the day of the presidential plane raffle. And some were yelling the winning numbers of the day in a staccato different.

The screaming children of the National Lottery are a tradition in Mexico. But the draw in question had never been seen in the country. The short story behind it involves nearly a decade of corruption allegations. Also a 218 million dollar plane and a politician trying to sell it without success. And, of course, the coronavirus.

The complete history? Here we tell you.

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Several people watch the raffle through an outdoor screen at the National Lottery building on September 15, 2020, in Mexico City.

“Not even Obama” had a plane like that

In 2012, then-Mexican President Felipe Calderón decided it was time to upgrade his plane. So the purchase of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner began, a new and luxurious aircraft compared to the older model 757 that served as a presidential plane.

But when the plane arrived, Calderón had already left office. It fell to his successor, Enrique Peña Nieto, to inspect the aircraft’s custom trim: Equipped for just 80 passengers, the plane has wide leather seats, a conference room, and a presidential suite with a king-size bed and a private shower.

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Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador speaks during a press conference, with the presidential plane in the background on July 27, 2020.

Peña Nieto used the jet during his last years as president and became the favorite bank of then-candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, now president, during his 2018 campaign.

“Not even Obama has a plane like this,” said López Obrador, calling it a symbol of excess and government corruption, in a country that fights against poverty. He promised to sell the plane and return the money to the people.

How do we get rid of the presidential plane now?

López Obrador, who travels in commercial flightsHe tried to keep his word. When he took office on December 1, 2018, his government got down to business trying to find a buyer for the plane.

However, it turns out that there is no large market for a second-hand, custom-designed aircraft priced over $ 200 million. Modification for commercial use would cost millions more.

The government said it submitted multiple offers for the plane since early 2019, but none of those deals worked. López Obrador has pointed out that his administration cannot sell the plane for less than it is worth.

The plane remains unsold, parked in a hangar in Mexico City.

La rifa

In early 2020, the López Obrador government came up with a new idea for the plane: raffle it.

Buy a ticket, and if you win – yes, you average citizen of Mexico! – you would become the proud owner of a custom 787 widebody.

  • But the Mexican public quickly responded with several questions:
  • Where would the winner park the plane?
  • Who would pilot it?
  • Who would keep it?
  • Where would I fly to?
  • And most importantly, who would pay for all these things?
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The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, left, shows his ticket for the presidential plane raffle with the general director of the National Lottery, Ernesto Prieto Ortega, on March 3, 2020.

At that time, López Obrador proposed part of a solution. “We would offer the winner of the plane a maintenance service for two years or a year,” he said last January.

Government estimates indicate that the annual maintenance costs for the presidential plane being raffled would be close to $ 1.7 million.

“Sounds like a joke, doesn’t it?” Mexico City resident Bryan Díaz told AFP in January.

His sentiment was widely shared among Mexicans and the raffle for the presidential plane soon became a joke that ran across the country. The hashtag #SiMeGanoElAvion, or #IfIWonThePlane, went viral and people shared memes and jokes about the raffle prize.

They will buy medical equipment with the money from the plane raffle 0:56

Quickly, this forced the president to change course. But if selling the plane was the original goal, it was soon lost.

The raffle … without the presidential plane

López Obrador decided that the raffle would continue, but the prize would no longer be the plane.

Instead, a “token” cash prize would be awarded divided among 100 winners. Each winner would receive 20 million pesos, the equivalent of around 1 million dollars, depending on the exchange rate.

At that time, the government expected to sell approximately 6 million tickets at 500 pesos each, about $ 25. The money raised would be used to pay the winners, and the surplus funds would go toward donating medical equipment to the public health system, and would also help maintain the plane before any eventual sale.

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Raffle tickets showing the luxurious presidential plane in Mexico City, March 10, 2020.

That plan, of course, needed people to buy the raffle tickets. And 500 pesos is a high price in a country where government statistics show that the average household only earned 16,500 pesos per month in 2018, about 825 dollars.

That was probably one of the reasons why the sale of the raffle tickets for the presidential plane was not so wide. The original plan to hold the giveaway 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 recorded.

They can’t sell all the presidential plane tickets 2:46

The purpose of the raffle changed again. Now the López Obrador administration touts surplus raffle proceeds as a resource to support the government’s battle against the pandemic. But it is unlikely to get very far.

The final math

As of September 11, the government said it had sold just under 4.2 million tickets valued at a total of about $ 105 million. The final amount is likely to be slightly higher, as tickets were sold until September 15.

Of the earnings announced so far, the government will owe roughly 95%, or about $ 100 million, to the 100 winning tickets this Tuesday. That leaves about $ 5 million remaining, which the government plans to donate to the public health system.

But if the money were distributed evenly among the 951 public health facilities that treat COVID-19 patients in the country, each facility would receive just over $ 5,000.

Or they might be lucky. The federal government has also effectively included its public hospitals in the raffle, purchasing and distributing around 1,000 tickets for each facility. Which is around 1 million tickets with a total value of roughly $ 25 million. If any hospital wins a winning ticket, they will be allowed to use the million dollars in winnings to buy medical equipment.

Also, if no one claims a winning number, that sum will also be donated to hospitals. But it is a game of chance.

For months, critics have accused the Mexican government of failing to adequately provide hospitals with protective equipment or medical supplies throughout the pandemic, something the administration has denied to CNN.
Critics have also not failed to point out that announcing that hospitals could now make more money is not the same as developing a budget that adequately meets public health needs. In their eyes, the raffle is a public relations distraction.

AMLO, between criticism of the press and the presidential plane 2:19

So who wins the presidential plane raffle?

All of this culminated in a 2.5-hour performance by the screaming children of the National Lottery, as they read sets of numbers.

The contest was created to rid the presidency of an aircraft and was transformed into a campaign that aims to raise funds to combat covid-19. The winners of the presidential plane raffle will be announced in the coming days.

For the sake of the public health system in Mexico, many hope that the winners will include public hospitals.

Natalie Gallón and Karol Suárez, both from CNN, contributed to this report.

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