In the low-lit banquet room of an upscale hotel in Mexico City, hundreds of wealthy men and women gathered Thursday morning, all prepared to spend some money. Mexico’s Asset Administration and Disposal Service holds an annual auction, but the thousands of decommissioned goods up for grabs – ranging from electric drills to Swarovski crystals – suggested this year’s was a special occasion.
The escalating drug war, and resultant rise in high-profile arrests and seizures, meant more narco-bling was on the block than ever before. Local media dubbed it the “narco auction” and ran photos of wares such as a 12-karat diamond ring and a diamond-studded Rolex watch.
The bidding started shortly after 10.00. Participants flashed white, numbered paddles, and women in slinky black dresses roamed the room, pointing out bidders to the auctioneer.
There were 590 “lots” for sale, and the majority contained the rather humdrum products of routine customs seizures, or loads that had been abandoned. Only a small portion actually came from raids on the properties of drug lords. But given the lavish – and notoriously awful – tastes of Mexico’s underworld barons, those products obviously (and literally) outshined the rest.
At least that’s what the bidders seemed to believe. The government wouldn’t identify the provenance of certain items, so a buyer wouldn’t know whether the gold bracelet he was bringing home had started off in a narco-mansion (for security purposes, government officials withheld the identity of buyers and forbade cash payments.) Even the asset agency itself, an arm of the finance ministry, doesn’t have access to criminal records associated with the goods, according to director Sergio Hidalgo. “Unfortunately and fortunately,” he says, “I can’t identify their origins.”
But it was pretty obvious that the special edition white-gold Corum watch featuring a Day of the Dead skeleton and valued at $8,000 had once belonged to a man with money to burn on eccentricities.
Likewise, it wasn’t your average Mexican who could lay down $50,000 on a Land Rover, either. But not everyone was there merely to indulge themselves. There were 424 registered bidders, and many were looking for cheap cars and bulk merchandise – sensible things, relatively speaking.
“I’m here to buy toys,” said Andres Tejera, a wholesaler from Cuernavaca. “At least this shows that the country is changing,” he said. “Ten years ago, the officials would have just kept the stuff for themselves.”
He had a friend sitting beside him, a paunchy colleague from the wholesale world, who smiled and nodded. He was busy bidding on a watch. So far that day, he had bought 10.