By Patrick J. McDonnel / Los Angeles Times
MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s presidential plane — a luxurious Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner outfitted with flat-screen monitors, executive meeting rooms, sleeping quarters and a shower — left for California on Monday.
But Mexico’s newly inaugurated president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, was not aboard.
The aircraft, purchased by Mexico in 2012 for $218.7 million, is destined for sale, a high-profile casualty of the leftist president’s pledges to cut government spending.
“I will not enter the presidential plane,” Lopez Obrador said repeatedly during the campaign, which was marked by his pledge for a more austere governing style and an end to long-entrenched corruption.
In his fiery populist oratory, the presidential aircraft was converted from a lavish conveyance to an ostentatious symbol of excess tied to the “mafia of power” — the elite clique that the president says has ruled Mexico for decades.
“My face would fill with shame … to get into such a luxurious plane in a country with so much poverty,” Lopez Obrador said.
A day after taking office, Lopez Obrador flew commercial Sunday to the Gulf state of Veracruz, posing on the tarmac for snapshots with the captain and crew. The Mexican media ran photos of Lopez Obrador checking in at the airport like any passenger, accompanied by aides and a discreet security contingent.
“We are going to sell all the planes and helicopters that the corrupt politicians used,” he said Sunday in Xalapa, the capital of Veracruz state.
Accounts of official graft in Mexico inevitably involved episodes of crooked politicians — prominent among them former Veracruz Gov. Javier Duarte, now serving a nine-year prison term for corruption — gallivanting about on official aircraft on vacations and shopping sprees.
Mexico’s new government has announced plans to sell off a flotilla of some 60 official airplanes and 70 helicopters.
The presidential plane, named Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon after an 19th century independence leader, took off Monday on what officials said would be its final departure from Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport.
Its destination was the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, an aeronautics hub on the site of the former George Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert. There, Mexican officials said, it will be evaluated for sale.
The government Facebook page proclaimed the development with a kind of celebratory, mock-classified ad, employing breathless verbiage suited to the real estate postings of movie stars’ Hollywood mansions.
“It’s going to California and is being put on sale!” the government said, describing the “type” of plane as “presidential,” “very luxurious” and “semi-new.”
Accompanying the posting were images of the twin-engine jet in its hangar and close-ups of some of its amenities — capacious cushioned seats, a king-size bed and an expansive commode with what appeared to be a marble-topped washstand next to it.
A Mexican Air Force crew flew the jet to California.
Proceeds from the prospective sale of the presidential plane and other aircraft will go to “social development,” said Lopez Obrador, who in his inaugural address announced an expansive, New Deal-style program of infrastructure construction, job creation, pensions, grants and scholarships.
It remains unclear how much Mexico will get for the already depreciated plane, whether it will need extensive retrofitting and how long it will take to sell it — while the government pays for hangar rental in the United States. A government-commissioned assessment in 2016 that backed keeping the jet estimated that the aircraft could lose 30 percent to 60 percent of its value if sold.
Some question whether the whole exercise is more of a public relations episode than a cost-saver.
“I don’t understand,” Alejandro Hope, a columnist for El Universal newspaper, wrote in a Twitter message. “Why not leave it in its (Mexican) hanger where there is no rent?”
Sending the plane to California for evaluation and sale will “maximize the value” of the aircraft, said Mexico’s new finance minister, Carlos Urzua.
Lopez Obrador has also relinquished another perk of presidential power: Los Pinos, the presidential compound in the wooded Chapultepec parkland west of downtown. The gates of the formerly heavily guarded presidential residence were opened open to the public last weekend.
The new president has said he intends to remain at his private home in a middle-class district of the capital for now but will eventually move to an apartment in the National Palace in downtown Mexico City.
During his campaign, Lopez Obrador said the official residence at Los Pinos sent off “bad vibes” and was “haunted,” and would be turned into a public space for art exhibitions and performances.