If Mexico wants to launch anti-corruption crusade, there are plenty of officials to go after

Elba Esther Gordillo, president for life of Mexico's teachers union, smiles during an interview in Mexico City, July 13, 2011. Gordillo's wealth and influence as a union boss underscore how the old Mexico of corrupt power and privilege that reigned in the 20th century still endures.
Elba Esther Gordillo, president for life of Mexico's teachers union, smiles during an interview in Mexico City, July 13, 2011. Gordillo's wealth and influence as a union boss underscore how the old Mexico of corrupt power and privilege that reigned in the 20th century still endures. MCT

The daughter of the boss of Mexico’s powerful oil workers union made a youthful indiscretion when she went to Europe last year: She posted photos of her lavish odyssey on Facebook.

The images showed Paulina Romero Deschamps touring French chateaus, staying with her three pet English bulldogs in five-star hotels, and living it up like the daughter of a sultan. She noted her fondness for Hermes calfskin Birkin handbags (price tag: $12,000) and praised the rare Spanish Vega Sicilia wines, which can cost nearly $1,000 a bottle.

Romero’s father, Carlos Romero Deschamps, is indeed a sultan of sorts. As head of the 142,000-member state oil workers union since 1996, he controls the purse strings of an important union – and tells its members how to vote. His daughter’s trip sparked a media furor when the photos hit a Mexico City newspaper in May. Paulina’s Facebook page went silent.

Union bosses like Romero are suddenly in the news in Mexico. Last week, authorities arrested Elba Esther Gordillo, head of the national teachers union, and charged her with corruption and organized crime. Mexico’s attorney general accused her of using $200 million in union funds for shopping trips, facelifts and real estate sprees in California. Mexico’s new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, told a national television audience that his 3-month-old government would not abide by the misuse of union funds.

“The resources of the unions belong to their members, not their leaders. They must be used for the benefit of the workers,” he said.

But analysts here say they don’t see Gordillo’s arrest as the onset of a campaign against graft. Instead, they say Gordillo’s arrest may be nothing more than Pena Nieto targeting a political foe. They note that Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI, has shown a remarkably high tolerance for corruption. Late last year, for example, a PRI governor allegedly walked out of office with tens of millions of dollars, and the party took no action against him.

“Elba Esther Gordillo did not fall because of corruption, rather because she did not accept the educational reform,” Carmelo Teran Montero, a retired army general, wrote in an essay for the Center for Analysis and Military Opinion, a think tank in Mexico City. He was referring to a bill passed the day before Gordillo’s arrest that removed the authority for hiring and firing teachers from the union and gave it to the government.

Prior to his election July 1, Pena Nieto said his party is no longer the vehicle for corruption and authoritarianism that it was when it ruled Mexico for 71 uninterrupted years, before being ousted in 2000. He has pledged to install an anti-corruption commission and promised zero tolerance for graft.

Yet Pena Nieto would only have to look inside own party for more examples of the malfeasance for which prosecutors accuse Gordillo, analysts said.

Romero would be at the top of the list. As union boss, Romero had a salary of $1,924 a month. But his tastes were a match for Gordillo’s, whose alleged transgressions included spending $2.1 million at the Neiman-Marcus in San Diego.

On that paltry salary, Romero bought and maintains a British-built Sunseeker Portofino 47 yacht, registered in the Cayman Islands but docked near his $1.4 million waterfront condominium in Cancun. The yacht bears the name Indomable, or The Indomitable One.

Since taking control of the oil workers union, Romero’s grown children have demonstrated their own ability to come into vast resources.

Romero’s son and daughter-in-law, Jose Carlos Romero Duran and Maria Fernanda Ocejo, own two spacious condos on Miami Beach’s “millionaires row” worth a combined $7 million. One of the units, at 5959 Collins Avenue, has soaring views from the 30th floor.

In the parking lot is a red Ferrari Enzo, a sports car worth more than $1 million, a gift from his father. Tabasco Hoy, a newspaper in the oil-rich state of the same name, last month published a report saying that it spotted two other cars in the dedicated parking spots for the couple’s Florida condos: a Porsche Carrera 911 and a Lamborghini Aventador LP700-4, a 700-horsepower “hypercar” that pops 0-60 miles per hour in 2.9 seconds.

Romero’s union was created and sponsored by the PRI during its rule last century, and it did yeoman’s work to back the party. In 2000, Romero was linked to a scandal in which electoral authorities found that his union funneled nearly $100 million to the losing campaign of PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida – the first time a PRI candidate had lost. Still, Romero made the list of PRI candidates for the last Senate elections July 1 and handily won a six-year term.

Other top PRI elected officials, including the party’s former secretary general, face corruption accusations.

Among them is Andres Granier, who left the governorship of Tabasco state in December amid reports that his administration had borrowed and not accounted for 1.9 billion pesos (about $148 million). The state congress last week asked the federal comptroller to audit the books of Granier’s final year in office.

Granier’s children are also under the magnifying glass. Authorities have frozen an account of daughter Mariana to investigate the provenance of 14 million pesos (slightly more than $1 million). Records show a son, Fabian, bought a condo in Miami’s North Bay Village in 2011, and 10 more condos in Cancun’s Emerald Tower.

So far, Humberto Moreira, a secretary general of the PRI for nine months in 2011, has gotten off the hook for the messy financial problems of his home state, Coahuila, where he was governor from 2005-2011.

Moreira, a former high school teacher, saddled the state with a whopping additional $3 billion of debt, and the federal attorney general later issued arrest warrants for five former state officials, including the tax chief and treasurer, in a corruption probe.

Last month, U.S. prosecutors tracked down $2.2 million in a Bermuda bank account controlled by the fugitive former treasurer, Hector Javier Villarreal.

Prosecutors have told Mexican media they don’t have enough evidence to indict Moreira, who left Mexico in January to spend a year in Madrid to get a master’s degree in history. Aides said he won a scholarship from the national teachers union to pay for his studies.

Related stories from McClatchy DC