Winning a lottery prize of close to $1 million should have been a positive, life-changing event for a kindergarten and its community in Chiapas, Mexico. It was anything but.
In September 2020, the value of Mexico’s presidential plane was sold off in a nationwide raffle, a long-term and controversial plan devised by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. The 100 winners, each taking home prizes of 20 million Mexican pesos ($940,000), were publicly announced, including hospitals and schools.
One of the winners was the José María Morelos y Pavón kindergarten in El Nacimiento, an Indigenous community in the southern state of Chiapas. The school, in a poor part of Mexico, intended to use part of the money to build a new roof and donate 14 million pesos ($660,000) to help the local community.
Their win soon turned to a nightmare. On November 21, Mexican media reported that at least 28 families whose children went to the kindergarten had been forced to flee, due to a criminal group trying to claim the money.
“We won 20 million pesos but the paramilitary gang, the Petules, said the money was for them to buy weapons and we didn’t agree,” Melesio López Gómez, a representative for the families, told the press.
Another community member, Marcelo Santiz López, said that he was shot by a member of the gang and that the Petules had stolen the credit card for the bank account on which the money was kept, as well as a large sum of cash.
During a protest by the families in San Cristóbal de las Casas, López Gómez confirmed that they left their lands in October after months of death threats and attacks. This caused them to also reportedly lose over 250 heads of cattle, as well as harvests of beans and corn on which the community is dependent.
The community filed reports with the Attorney General’s Office of Chiapas and prosecutors for Indigenous affairs in the city of Ocosingo but has allegedly received no response.
InSight Crime Analysis
In a country where extortion has grown to rampant proportions during the COVID-19 pandemic, publicly announcing the identities of these vulnerable raffle winners was predictably going to backfire.
Such disclosures are admittedly required by law to ensure the transparency of state-sponsored lottery proceedings and to avoid fraud. Numerous other private lotteries, though, protect the anonymity of their winners.
But the sale of the presidential plane, and subsequent raffle, received so much coverage and criticism that it would predictably attract the attention of criminal groups.
Schools have repeatedly been targeted by criminal groups in Mexico for extortion payments, robberies or for child recruitment.
The Petules are well-known around Ocosingo, the municipality where the school is based. The group was founded in the 1990s as a paramilitary unit to resist the spread of socialist organizations, such as the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional – EZLN), according to a profile by La Silla Rota.
Since then, they have been linked to extortion, homicide, illegal land grabs, drug trafficking and human trafficking.
Such a defenseless target as a kindergarten publicly obtaining a large windfall in their very backyard must have seemed like Christmas came early for the Petules.