Stay Updated on Developing Stories

The strange story of Mexico's presidential plane lottery

(CNN) 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.

People watch the raffle from an outdoor screen at Loteria Nacional Building on September 15, 2020 in Mexico City, Mexico.

"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.

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

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.

The Raffle

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.

The President of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, left, shows his ticket for the raffle of the presidential plane next to the general director of the National Lottery, Ernesto Prieto Ortega, on March 3, 2020.

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.

View of lottery tickets depicting the luxurious presidential plane in Mexico City, on March 10, 2020.

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.

The final math

As of September 11, the government said it had sold just under 4.2 million tickets valued at a total of around $105 million. The final amount will likely be marginally higher since tickets were sold through to September 15.

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

But if the money was spread equally throughout the 951 public health facilities treating the country's Covid-19 patients, each facility would receive little more than $5,000 each.

Or they could get lucky. The federal government has also effectively entered its public hospitals into the raffle, purchasing and distributing about 1,000 tickets to each facility -- or about 1 million tickets worth about $25 million in total. Should any hospital come up with a winning ticket, it will be allowed to use the $1 million in winnings to buy medical equipment.

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

For months, critics have accused the Mexican government of not adequately supplying hospitals with protective equipment or medical supplies through the entire pandemic, something the government has told CNN it denies.

They have not failed to notice that announcing that hospitals now might win more cash is not the same as drawing up a budget that adequately meets public health needs. In critics' eyes, the raffle is a public relations distraction.

So who wins?

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

Winners of this contest -- concocted to rid the presidency of an albatross airplane and transformed into a campaign claiming to raise funds to battle Covid-19 -- will be announced in the coming days.

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

CNN's Natalie Gallón and Karol Suárez contributed to this report