Powerful Mexican Teachers’ Leader Accused of Embezzlement

Randal C. Archibold and Elisabeth Malkin, New York Times, February 28, 2013

She offered 59 brand new Hummers to regional union leaders to buy their loyalty. Mexican newspapers have closely tracked her displays of wealth, from California mansions and $5,000 Hermès bags to noticeable shifts in her looks as she went under the knife.

But the love for luxury flaunted by Elba Esther Gordillo, the most powerful woman in Mexico, might have been her undoing. She was arrested Tuesday night on suspicion of embezzling $200 million in union funds for her personal use, including plastic surgery, multimillion-dollar spending sprees at luxury department stores and those seaside mansions near San Diego.

In court papers on Wednesday, Mexican prosecutors said her web of financial subterfuge, filtered through intermediaries and American and Swiss banks, was an act of organized crime. {snip}

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Her downfall, a shock to a nation accustomed to powerful figures untouched by the law, amounted to a bold statement by the new government that could open the way to weakening the vice grip of the 1.5 million-member teachers union, the largest in Latin America. It has exerted its influence so thoroughly that the government does not even know how many teachers there are—the union does the hiring, with jobs passed among family members like heirlooms—or even how many schools it has because they, too, are essentially run by the union.

Ms. Gordillo, given to bombastic speeches in her nearly 25 years at the union’s helm, lorded over Mexico, delivering votes to politicians like former President Felipe Calderón, whom she helped elect in 2006, and thwarting efforts to clean up a system everyone agrees is broken. Mexico’s education ranks in the cellar among nations of similar size and wealth, a deficiency long cited as a prime reason the country has not developed as much as it could have.

“The action taken by the government is very symbolic, and in politics symbols matter a lot,” said Marco A. Fernández, a former Education Ministry official and political scientist at Duke University who is writing a book on Mexican education and politics. {snip}

Ms. Gordillo’s arrest came a day after President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a law that takes hiring out of the union’s control, mandates a census of schools and outlines steps toward weeding out bad teachers.

Congress must still rewrite Mexico’s education law for the changes to take effect, and analysts like Mr. Fernández noted that the union remained intact despite the arrest of the leader. It has immobilized states, and the nation’s capital, with strikes and other tactics to get its way. Before her detention, union leaders were meeting in Guadalajara to plot actions to block the law.

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Blanca Heredia, a professor at CIDE, a Mexico City research institution, found it breathtaking that, according to prosecutors, Ms. Gordillo spent $2.1 million at Neiman Marcus in San Diego in the past few years. She said the daily spending would be $3,000, three times what a well-paid teacher gets a month.

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Elba Esther Gordillo

Elba Esther Gordillo

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