By Santiago Perez / Wall Street Journal
Mexico, long considered a free-market bastion in Latin America, recently carried out one of the region’s biggest government giveaways: a $1.3 billion program to hand out close to 10.5 million flat-screen television sets to the country’s poor.
The government touted the program, aimed at low-income mothers, senior citizens and other welfare recipients, as a model of social inclusion and the best way to push the country forward from analog signals into the digital age. The number of televisions given away was equal to twice the sets Mexicans normally buy in a single year.
But people with knowledge of the government’s mass purchase of the 24-inch digital TVs in 2014 and 2015 say the process was riddled with corruption in its latter stages, echoing a string of malfeasance and conflict-of-interest allegations that have rocked the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto over the past two years.
Some contracts to purchase hundreds of thousands of TVs were awarded in no-bid procedures, and a high-ranking Mexican official asked for kickbacks during the process, according to people familiar with the situation.
“It was a fraud, a whole chain of corruption,” said a person with direct knowledge of the process.