Mexico's "most powerful woman" busted for siphoning off union funds

Education workers' group head used money for shopping sprees, plastic surgery

Elba Esther Gordillo gestures as she arrives at a meeting in Mexico City in 2006.
Elba Esther Gordillo gestures as she arrives at a meeting in Mexico City in 2006.DARIO LÓPEZ-MILLS (AP)

Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, who for nearly a quarter of century has been considered one of the most powerful women in Mexico, was arrested on Tuesday night after she was charged with skimming off money from the nation's largest teachers union, which she headed. The authorities announced that she had allegedly used the funds to pay for homes in the United States, shopping sprees and plastic surgery.

The sudden fall from power of the 68-year-old Gordillo, who was popularly known as "la maestra" (the teacher), came as a surprise for the entire country, which traditionally viewed the president of the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) as one of Mexico's "untouchables."

Gordillo was arrested after she arrived from San Diego, California at the Toluca international airport, in the capital of Mexico state, by dozens of navy officers and other law enforcement officials. A heavily guarded convoy of about six vehicles took her directly to the Santa Martha Acatitla prison, where she spent the night.

This is a deep and serious dispute about public education," Gordillo said

At a hastily arranged press conference, Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam explained that from 2008 to 2011 the SNTE head diverted about $200 million in union funds to pay for homes in California, shopping sprees at Neiman Marcus, trips on private jets, art objects, and plastic surgery. Three other people were detained in connection with the alleged embezzlement scheme at SNTE, which is Latin America's largest teachers union.

"Nobody is above the law," said Karam. "We have before us a case where it is clearly evident that the money of the education workers was illegally diverted to benefit certain people, among them Elba Esther Gordillo."

Gordillo's arrest - which just months ago was unthinkable - came one day after President Enrique Peña Nieto announced sweeping reforms to Mexico's archaic, tightly controlled education system, a task that had been impossible for past presidents because of the union's strong resistance. As part of the reforms, public teachers will no longer have the privilege to name the person who will fill their positions when they retire. A uniform system will be introduced for hiring instructors, who for decades have been given jobs depending on their SNTE connections. Also for the first time, the government will take a census of how many teachers are actually on the public payroll. This, along with the actual number of students and schools, has been a guarded secret known only to the powerful SNTE.

In one of her last interviews before her arrest, Gordillo vowed to fight Peña Nieto's reforms and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). "I care about the teachers. This is a deep and serious dispute about public education," she told a television interviewer last week.

The inquiry began in December when Banco Santander alerted authorities to billions of pesos in transfers. Deputy Attorney General Alfredo Castillo said money ended up in accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

Known as a maker of presidents because of her 1.5-million-strong union, Gordillo was kicked out of the PRI in 2006 when she began supporting other party candidates.

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