Since 2003 the boringly named Asset Administration and Disposal Service, or SAE, has sold off cars and houses seized by Mexico’s government mainly from smugglers and tax-dodgers. The sae used to split the proceeds among the police, the judiciary and the health service. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s president since December 1st last year, has jazzed things up. He now refers to the SAE as the “Institute for the Return of Stolen Goods to the People”. In June he promised 25.7m pesos ($1.3m) from an auction of ill-gotten goods to two poor indigenous villages in the southern state of Oaxaca. At a televised news conference, the president gave giant cheques to their mayors.
The episode sums up much about the presidency of Mr López Obrador, who is often known as amlo. It shows his dedication to fighting graft, his flair for political theatre, his indifference to institutions and his belief in the virtue of ordinary people, among whom he counts himself. “To look like they were fighting corruption,” past governments “created so many rules,” he said at the cheque handover. The two lucky villages will be able to spend the cash as they like, without oversight. Mexicans “are an honest people,” says the president.
“Corruption occurs from above, not from the bottom up.” His folksy way of fighting corruption is working for him. At a time when citizens across Latin America are rebelling against their leaders (see Bello), amlo has an approval rating of nearly 60%
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