Arrest of Mexico teacher union boss Elba Esther Gordillo seen as a warning to foes of reform

Elba Esther Gordillo, president for life of Mexico's teachers union
Elba Esther Gordillo, president for life of Mexico's teachers union MCT

By jailing Mexico’s most powerful woman, President Enrique Pena Nieto removed a potential political obstacle and fired a warning shot at other union leaders not to get in the way of the ruling party.

Mexico’s political world still rippled Wednesday from the imprisonment of Elba Esther Gordillo, the 68-year-old “president for life” of the 1.5 million-member national teachers’ union, the largest such union in the hemisphere.

Gordillo’s arrest Tuesday on corruption charges heartened Mexicans who widely envied her opulent lifestyle, feared her power as a political kingmaker, loathed her stranglehold on the struggling public schools and referred to her by her nickname, La Maestra, or The Teacher.

“Elba, the Teacher, was toppled,” wrote a columnist for the newspaper Tabasco Hoy, Leobardo Perez Marin. “Nothing is impossible!”

Gordillo, who’s ruled the powerful teachers’ union for nearly a quarter century, was the mightiest of the union bosses opposed to education, financial and energy reforms that Pena Nieto proposed when he took over the presidency Dec. 1.

Her detention in the Santa Martha Acatitla women’s prison may galvanize support for the government as it implements reforms, enacted Monday, that give it the ability to hire and fire teachers from the union and set minimum standards for classrooms.

But some analysts and education reformers saw the arrest as more about sweeping away opponents of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party – known as the PRI, for its Spanish initials – than about changing education.

Lying low after Gordillo’s arrest was Carlos Romero Deschamps, the head of the powerful oil workers union. Romero, a senator, opposes Pena Nieto’s campaign to open up Petroleos Mexicanos, the mammoth state oil firm, to foreign investment. News reports this week showed photos of the red Ferrari Enzo, a rare sports car worth in excess of $1million, that Romero offered to his grown son as a gift.

Even as she awaits trial, Gordillo retains political power. Her party holds two Senate seats and 10 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Her daughter and grandson are legislators.

But the Pena Nieto government made clear Wednesday its determination to destroy Gordillo, charging her formally not only with corruption-related money laundering but also with belonging to an organized criminal group, an apparent effort to portray her activities as racketeering.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam appeared on national television Tuesday night to accuse Gordillo and three top aides of misusing more than $200 million in union funds, including for shopping trips at Neiman Marcus in San Diego, real estate and artwork abroad, and plastic surgery,

Like many union leaders, Gordillo was a former pillar in the PRI, which ruled Mexico without interruption from 1929 to 2000. She served as the secretary general of the party for three years until 2005.

Even as Gordillo amassed extensive foreign real-estate holdings, sported expensive jewelry and designer clothing, and jetted about in private aircraft, politicians eagerly courted her to seek the million-plus votes of her constituents.

Once out of power, PRI politicians began to distance themselves from Gordillo, who formed her own New Alliance Party in 2005 and seemed to strike a deal before the 2006 presidential election that helped a center-right candidate, Felipe Calderon, win the presidency.

The National Action Party (PAN) of Calderon, who’s taken up a fellowship at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “should be concerned by the arrest” of Gordillo, Duncan Wood, the head of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, wrote in an analysis.

Calderon did nothing to limit Gordillo despite her ostentatious display of wealth at the expense of the dues-paying union members.

“This fact not only discredited the PAN in the eyes of the public, but it also made the party prey to accusations of failing to take on the nation’s vested interests,” Wood wrote.

Gordillo has plenty of dirt on politicians across the political spectrum, and some analysts worried that her eventual successor in the teachers’ union would follow in her footsteps.

“Let’s see if they create another little monster,” said Carlos Loret de Mola, a popular television news anchor and activist for educational reform.

“The great risk is that the PRI recovers control of the union leadership and uses it again for electoral purposes as it has done in the past,” said Monica Tapia, a political analyst who’s a founder of the Citizens’ Coalition for Education. “It’s a good moment for the teachers’ union to democratize. But the Gordian knot is that the union controls the teachers’ jobs. . . . Teachers live under the yoke of their leaders.”

She said she didn’t anticipate the Pena Nieto government getting control of the union – and the hiring and firing of teachers – for another year or two.

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