Selling Drug Traffickers’ Spoils, Mexico Tries To Do Good With Bad

By Jorge Valencia
Published: Tuesday, July 30, 2019 - 5:05am
Updated: Tuesday, July 30, 2019 - 8:29am

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A jewelry auction on Sunday, July 28, held in Mexico’s former presidential estate.
Jorge Valencia/KJZZ
A jewelry auction on July 28, 2019, held in Mexico’s former presidential estate. The Institute for Returning What Was Stolen to the People raised about $540,000.

A bracelet in the shape of two embracing crocodiles made of white gold and 1,331 diamonds. A quill in white gold dotted with 10 emeralds, 104 rubies and 80 diamonds. A watch with a strap of rose gold, a case dotted with diamonds, and a dial adorned with four marijuana leaves and more diamonds.

The Mexican government seized these and more than 2,000 pieces of jewelry and this weekend put them up for auction in what President Andrés Manuel López Obrador hopes will be an effort to show transparency and a commitment to the country’s most resource-strapped communities.

It was the third such auction held this year by what López Obrador renamed the Institute for Returning What Was Stolen to the People. The auction raised about $540,000 and the two previous ones about $2.2 million, and the proceeds were set aside for infrastructure projects in poor communities in the states of Guerrero, Michoacan and Oaxaca, the institute reported.  

“We’re talking about the most forgotten, most poor municipalities in our country,” López Obrador said in a recent news conference.

While many curious onlookers at the auction Sunday praised the government, others showed skepticism. Irma Susana Gutierrez, a teacher visiting from Guadalajara, said she felt slighted because none of the auction funds go to her home state. To her, the auctions are designed to do good under a form of populism that only pleases the vision of one leader, she said.

Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador presented checks to the mayors of two towns from the southeastern state of Guerrero.
Presidencia de la Republica, Mexico
Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador presented government auction proceeds this month to Zeferino Villanueva Galinda (center right), mayor of the town of Metlantónoc in the southeastern state of Guerrero. Edith Lopez Rivera (right), mayor of the t

“They're lulling us to sleep with crumbs, she said. “We have to wake up.”

The president’s close involvement with the auctions could also prove problematic, said Cecilia Farfan Mendez, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. The president, under a law approved by the country’s legislature last week, heads a panel that decides the communities where auction proceeds go. Under a previous bureaucratic process, the moneys would be used for a variety of government projects.

"If you're talking about reducing corruption and reducing exposure to risk, I don't think this is the best way to go about it,” Farfan Mendez said.

Not everyone was critical. Many visitors to the former presidential estate, where the auction was held, looked on, and according to the institute, thousands walked through a gallery where many of the jewelry was on exhibit in cases. Among them, Roberto Valencia, a salesman from southern Mexico City, and his teenage son said they visited as a way to pass a summer day.

“I think it’s good,” Valencia said. “Sell everything you can and do something good with it.”

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