02/27/13 — On Tuesday, February 26th, Mexican authorities arrested Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, one of Mexico’s most prominent political figures. Known in Mexican politics as “The Teacher” (La Maestra), Gordillo is charged with the embezzlement of union funds from the National Syndicate of Education Workers (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación, SNTE), which she has headed or controlled indirectly since 1989.
The head of the Federal Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República, PGR), Jesús Murillo Karam, reported that Gordillo was taken into custody at the Toluca International Airport while en route to her $1.7 million home in San Diego, California. Instead, she was taken to the Santa Martha Acatitla women’s prison facility in the Iztapalapa district of Mexico City.
Gordillo is alleged to have diverted millions of dollars to her personal accounts through various mechanisms. The total amount of funds embezzled reportedly exceeded $150 million, which allegedly supported a lavish lifestyle for the union boss. In following the money trail, Mexican investigators said that they worked with retailer Neiman Marcus to identify $3 million in transactions on her store credit card between 2009 and 2012, which were paid directly with union funds. Gordillo’s allegedly corrupt use of union dues also included payments for real estate, plastic surgery, and art galleries. According to authorities, a company in which Gordillo’s mother controls 99% of all shares was responsible for making regular transfers of $2 million to a Swiss bank account attributed to the union leader. At the time of her arrest, authorities reportedly had only reviewed two of the SNTE’s 80 financial accounts.
Founded in 1943, the SNTE’s membership totals over 1.4 million strong, which makes it the largest labor union in Mexico and one of the largest teachers unions in the world. As head of the union for over two decades, at age 68, Gordillo has been an important political broker in Mexico. She was the Secretary General of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI), but she was passed over for the slot of party chairperson, stepped down as secretary general, and was ousted from the party in 2006. Later, she formed a minor party, the New Alliance Party (Partido Nueva Alianza, PANAL), which currently holds 10 seats in the Mexican Congress. Gordillo’s support for National Action Party candidate Felipe Calderón is widely believed to have secured his victory in the hotly contested 2006 presidential election.
Gordillo rose to the head of the SNTE in 1989 when the union’s previous leader, Carlos Jonguitud Barrios, was ousted by President Carlos Salinas (1988-1994). In January 1989, Salinas had arrested another major labor leader, Joaquín “La Quina” Hernández Galicia, the head of the oil workers’ union (Sindicato de Trabajadores Petroleros de la República Mexicana, STPRM). The arrest of Gordillo bears a striking resemblance to that Salinas-era labor crackdown, or “Quinazo,” as Mexican political analyst José Antonio Crespo noted in an article for El Universal.
Some analysts see the move to put Gordillo behind bars as a means to stifle political opposition to the education reforms recently passed by President Enrique Peña Nieto. Under tremendous pressure from the Peña Nieto administration, Gordillo reluctantly supported the initiative, but she was critical of Education Secretary Emilio Chauyfett and could have created problems for the implementation of much-needed efforts to improve Mexico’s education system.
BBC News, “Mexico union leader Elba Esther Gordillo arrested,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-21597680
El Universal, “La primera noche de Elba en la carcel,” http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/notas/906417.html
El Universal, “Decline la tienda Neiman Marcus hacer comentarios,” http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/notas/906424.html
Univisión, “Detienen a Elba Esther Gordillo por desvío de recursos,” http://noticias.univision.com/mexico/noticias/article/2013-02-26/detienen-a-elba-esther-gordillo#ixzz2M8mUnHCC
José Antonio Crespo, “El Albazo de Peña,” February 27, 2013, http://www.eluniversalmas.com.mx/editoriales/2013/02/63238.php