Mexico arrests powerful teachers union boss on corruption charges

Elba Esther Gordillo is widely blamed for an educational system that has kept Mexican children scoring lower on standardized tests than most other countries of its size or importance.

Imelda Medina/Reuters/File
Elba Esther Gordillo, leader of Mexico's teacher's union, attends an event in Puebla in this 2011 file photo. Mexico on Tuesday arrested Gordillo, the powerful head of the country's teachers' union, on corruption charges.

Mexican authorities Tuesday announced the arrest on corruption charges of Elba Esther Gordillo, the mighty head of the national teachers’ union, striking a blow against one of the country’s most despised, but also most powerful political figures.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam accused Gordillo and her top aides of misusing more than 2.6 billion pesos – the equivalent of slightly more than $200 million – in union money.

Some of the money was wired to accounts in Switzerland, he said, while other funds were used on plastic surgery. Some $2.1 million was spent at the Neiman Marcus store in San Diego, Calif.

Authorities arrested Gordillo when she arrived near Mexico City on private jet from San Diego. Gordillo maintains a $1.6 million home in La Jolla, a San Diego suburb. Among the questionable expenditures that caught the attention of investigators, Murillo Karam said, were hangar rental and aircraft maintenance in San Diego.

Her detention marked a singular strike against the chief of a union that was once a pillar of support for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and comes at a crucial early stage as President Enrique Pena Nieto, a PRI member who took office Dec. 1, seeks to enhance his public support.

Opinion polls often rank Gordillo as the least popular of major political figures in Mexico. While not holding elected office currently, she has been both a senator and deputy in Congress. She's widely blamed for an educational system that has kept Mexican children scoring lower on standardized tests than most other countries of its size or importance.

Gordillo, who holds the lofty title of “president for life” of the 1.5 million-member teachers’ union, abandoned her unconditional support of the PRI in the last decade, when the PRI was out of power, and became a political broker, delivering votes to the parties and candidates of her choice.

With the PRI back in control of the presidency under Pena Nieto, however, the new administration has moved quickly on educational issues. Just Monday, Pena Nieto signed into law the most sweeping educational reform in seven decades. The law centralizes the hiring, evaluating, promoting, and retaining teachers, taking such power away from the union.

Under Gordillo, who’s been in her position for 24 years, the union controlled the hiring of teachers. In some parts of Mexico, teachers’ jobs have been bought and sold, and the union rakes off money from salaries of phantom teachers.

Often called simply La Maestra, or The Teacher, Gordillo rose from humble origins in rural Chiapas state. She became the mistress of the then-boss of the union, Carlos Jonguitud Barrios, and was named to head the union in 1989 by then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

In a curious turn of history, Gordillo’s arrest harkened back to the early days of Salinas de Gortari’s own presidency. Seeking to boost his popular support, Salinas ordered the arrest in early 1989 of Mexico’s then most powerful labor leader, Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, who headed the oil workers union.

Known by his nickname as “La Quina,” Hernandez Galicia was so powerful he could use vulgar language against presidents and practically remove members of the Cabinet. He presided over the largest and wealthiest union in Latin America for a quarter of a century.

Murillo Karam said the investigation against Gordillo began when the financial intelligence unit of the Finance Secretariat detected irregularities in two of the 80 bank accounts linked to the union.

He said auditors later traced movements from those accounts to accounts in Switzerland and Lichtenstein listed under a shell company once controlled by Gordillo’s deceased mother. Some of the money was sent from Europe to pay bills at plastic surgery clinics and art galleries, he said.

Murillo Karam said auditors had traced “only 10 percent” of the money that may have been siphoned off from union accounts.

Three other union officials were arrested in addition to Gordillo, he said.

Gordillo spent lavishly on her top underlings in the union. In 2006, she is believed to have taken 125 of them and their children on a seven-day Pacific cruise from Hawaii. In 2008, she bought 59 Hummers to give her aides, only to raffle them off when the media brought the purchase to light.

In December, Gordillo planned to take scores of union leaders on an all-expenses paid cruise to the Caribbean from Miami, but cancelled at the last minute when Pena Nieto’s supporters pushed approval of the educational reform through Congress.

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