Arrest of Mexican Teachers Union's Leader Could Shake Up Political Establishment

PHOTO: In this photo from 2006, Mexican teachers union head Elba Esther Gordillo arrives at a meeting with education workers in Mexico City.

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP Photo

On Tuesday, Mexican authorities at Toluca International airport arrested Elba Esther Gordillo, the controversial president of Mexico's influential national teachers' union.

Gordillo, one of Mexico's most powerful and polarizing women, is accused by the Attorney General's Office (PGR) of allegedly embezzling nearly $200 million in funds from her union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE).

"The resources of unions belong to their members, not to their leaders," Mexico's president Enrique Peña Nieto said in a televised statement about the arrest the following day. "They must be used to benefit the workers."

According to the PGR, Gordillo, known in Mexico as "The Teacher" ("La Maestra"), misappropriated millions of dollars in union fees to pay for an extravagant lifestyle that included private jet flights to mansions in California, numerous plastic surgeries, and at least $3 million in luxury items from Neiman Marcus, a department store that is now notorious in Mexico thanks to the scandal.

The 68-year-old woman with a surgically puffed face and perfectly arched eyebrows supposedly received the money through three people, who, according to Jesús Murillo Karam, Mexico's Attorney General, redirected the funds to settle credit card debts and to savings accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. (Gordillo, the granddaughter of a rich liquor producer from Chiapas, has said that her money is the product of a well-invested family fortune.)

"It's worth mentioning that Elba Esther Gordillo Morales declared earnings from 2009 to 2012 for 1,100,000 pesos ($88,000)," Karam said in a statement on Wednesday. "A number that is much lower than those operations and deposits cited for those same years."

Gordillo's excesses and alleged crimes have been detailed over the years by the Mexican press. She has furnished journalists, politicians, members of her constituency and union leaders with gifts that range from computers to Hummers. She's also been accused of ordering the death a dissident teacher. Yet, what surprises most political observers is that the government went after her at all.

Indeed, many commentators have voiced their doubts and concerns about the true motivations behind Gordillo's arrest.

"I hope [her arrest wasn't motivated] by merely political reasons, and that this wasn't just a stunt to seek legitimacy," Javier Tello, a political analyst said during an exchange with Leo Zuckerman in Foro TV on Tuesday.

Alberto Aziz, a professor and political researcher who writes for El Universal, shared a similar concern. "In effect, if the same criteria were applied elsewhere," he told Univision, "the government could find many other cases of politicians, union leaders, and businessmen who have committed similar crimes, so we'll have to wait and see what happens with this case."

In broad terms, the general suspicion surrounding Gordillo's detention is directly related to the troubled past of La Maestra and the PRI politcal party, and to the future of Peña Nieto's government.

For more than three decades Gordillo, a woman who was abused by her grandfather growing up and who had to start working as a teacher when she was merely 15 years old, has been a major player in Mexican politics.

The modest daughter of a traffic cop and a cleaning woman, Gordillo has led the SNTE, the largest syndicate in Latin America with more than one million members, since 1989. Back then, Carlos Salinas, Mexico's incoming president forced a regime change within the union that replaced Carlos Jonguitud, the union´s leader at the time, with La Maestra.

Gordillo, who had become a congresswoman under the protection of Jonguitud, accepted Salinas' appointment and started cultivating a relationship with PRI, largely based on questionable electoral favors (she has been referred to "Jimmy Hoffa in a dress") and on auspicious policies towards teachers. According to the OECD, 91.7 percent of Mexico's education budget is spent on teachers' salaries. In the past few years, several of these policies have been blamed for hampering Mexico's relatively poor education system.

"She was a leader that found a comfortable place in PRI's system first, and then an even better place with PAN's governments," Aziz told Univision. "PAN treated her like an ally, instead of treating her as part of a political machinery, and they gave her new privileges. When she had problems, she broke with them and created a new party [Partido Nueva Alianza], which allowed her to take advantage of the union's electoral force. This led her to win many allies among governors, senators, and representatives."

Gordillo's close ties to power contributed to her image as an "untouchable," one that Peña Nieto's administration has been quick to dismiss, according to Denise Dresser, a political analyst and professor the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México.

"Enrique Peña Nieto is worried to convey the image of a reformist PRI, of a different kind of PRI… and this is an extraordinary gesture," she said Tuesday on the television news show Es la hora de Opinar.

Yet, according to several commentators, the government's decision to arrest Gordillo doesn't seem to be motivated by purely democratic reasons. Particularly since on the day of her arrest she was set to attend the national meeting of the SNTE, where union leaders were going to discuss how to oppose a law that Peña Nieto signed on Monday. The law mandates a census of the nation's teachers and opens the way towards replacing those that fare poorly in standardized reviews.

"From that perspective, yes, it was a political act, and it resembles a quinazo [a Mexican political expression that refers to Carlos Salinas' arrest of the leader of Pemex's union in 1989 in what was an effort to cement his government's legitimacy]," Ricardo Raphael, an author and journalist who wrote a book about Gordillo called "Los socios de Elba Esther," told Radio Trece.

The arrest could also fulfill another job, according to various analysts. By striking a supposed "untouchable," Peña Nieto could be sending a message to other politicians and union leaders. At the very least, the actions taken against Gordillo could force powerful individuals like Carlos Romero Deschamps, the president of Pemex's union, to think twice before leading an overt opposition to coming reforms in their respective sectors.

Peña Nieto has avoided giving fodder to any of these analyses. In his statement on Wednesday, he reiterated his respect for the law and his intention to respect whatever decision the judicial branch reaches.

"Right now, there is a positive perception about the arrest," Aziz said. "Other interpretations say that this act strengthens Peña Nieto to embark on other reforms, concretely on Pemex's reform. We'll have to wait and see what happens."

Manuel Rueda contributed reporting from Mexico.

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