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Polemic teachers’ union leader behind bars

February 28, 2013

Elba_Esther_Gordillo

Elba Esther Gordillo, the controversial leader of Mexico’s powerful teachers’ union, was arrested on Tuesday for the alleged embezzlement of nearly two billion pesos (154 million dollars) in union funds.

In a bold move by the Enrique Peña Nieto administration – which had just signed sweeping education reforms into law, wrestling power away from the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE) – Gordillo, 68, was detained, along with three associates, upon landing in a private jet at Toluca airport on Tuesday evening.

In a press conference later that night, officials from the federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) explained that they began investigating Gordillo after being alerted to irregularities in the SNTE’s accounts by the Ministry of Finance.

They discovered that from March 2009 to January 2012, over two million dollars of union funds had been transferred to private bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein on behalf of a company owned by Gordillo’s late mother.

“We are looking at a case in which the funds of education workers have been illegally misused, for the benefit of several people, among them Elba Esther Gordillo,” Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said.

Gordillo allegedly spent over two million dollars in Neiman Marcus a luxury San Diego clothing store, while other expenses included plastic surgery, a private jet and maintaining a home in San Diego worth 1.6 million dollars.

In total, even more than two billion pesos could have been embezzled, as Murillo said auditors had traced “only 10 percent” of the money that may have been siphoned off from union accounts.

Upon arrest, Gordillo was taken to the Santa Martha Acatitla women’s prison in Mexico City. She and two other defendants appeared before a federal judge on Wednesday to be read the charges against them, which also include breaking the federal law against organized crime.

Due to the serious nature of the charges brought against her, Gordillo cannot be bailed and will remain behind bars for the foreseeable future, due to the notoriously slow nature of the Mexican justice system.

If found guilty of embezzlement, she faces a sentence of five to fifteen years in prison, plus a fine of 1,000 to 5,000 times the daily minimum wage (64.76 pesos). The charges of organized crime could bring an additional sentence of four to eight years in prison and a fine of 250 to 12,500 times the daily minimum wage.

Peña Nieto addressed the issue on national television on Wednesday night, affirming that the investigation “should continue to its logical conclusion,” because “no one can be above the law.”

In a bid to keep Mexico’s teachers on side, the president said that union resources are meant to benefit the workers, not their leaders, adding, “I reaffirm my commitment to the teachers of Mexico. My government will continue to be your ally and I will work toward improving conditions to raise the education fo the citizens of tomorrow.”

The news of Gordillo’s arrest had interrupted the SNTE national conference being held at Guadalajara’s Fiesta Americana hotel. Some sections of the union chose to back their leader, with high-ranking member Paulino Nivon declaring the arrest “a coup and an act of government aggression.”

Others, such as Juan Carlos Banderas, welcomed her arrest and called for government investigations into all of the SNTE’s leaders and “especially those in Jalisco.” Banderas even alleged that Gordillo had sent assassins to kill striking teachers in Oaxaca during the civil unrest of 2006.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, the SNTE named Juan Diaz de la Torre as Gordillo’s successor, with 268 votes in favor, one abstention and none against.

Was Gordillo’s arrest a politically motivated ‘quinazo’?

Gordillo, known simply as “La Maestra,” has been dogged by accusations of corruption throughout her career but had never faced charges until now. She has led the SNTE, Latin America’s largest trade union with around 1.5 million members, for the last 23 years and was elected unopposed to another six-year term in October.

A deeply unpopular public figure, Gordillo has long been blamed for the grave failings of Mexico’s public education system, while her extravagant lifestyle and alleged misuse of union resources has only drawn further criticism.

Frequently seen flaunting designer clothes and handbags, Gordillo clearly lived beyond the means of her not-inconsiderable salary of 1.1 million pesos per year. Among her many splurges, Gordillo is believed to have taken 125 SNTE leaders and their families on a lavish week-long Pacific cruise in 2006, while two years later she bought 59 Hummers for her aides, only to raffle them off when the media caught on to the story.

Considered by many to be the most powerful woman in the country, Gordillo exerts a powerful influence over Mexican politics. As head of the strong SNTE voting bloc, she can help turn elections  and is unafraid to shift her political allegiances.

Gordillo has a long and strained relationship with the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which regained power after a 12-year absence last year. A former supporter and secretary general of the PRI, Gordillo was expelled from the party in 2006 for supporting the campaign of National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderon.

Gordillo later formed the New Alliance Party (PANAL), having fallen out with Calderon’s Education Secretary, Josefina Vazquez Mota, who won the party nomination to succeed him in last year’s presidential election, but was defeated by Peña Nieto.

A shrewd political broker, Gordillo has always sought to back the winning candidate and ahead of the 2012 election she solicited a new alliance with the PRI. Despite her best efforts, the rekindled relationship promptly broke down, with the old dispute having never been fully resolved.

Once Peña Nieto took up office in December, his government immediately set about reducing Gordillo’s control over the public education system. On Monday he signed major education reforms into law, outlawing the controversial sale or inheritance of teaching positions that Gordillo had long permitted.

It is unclear exactly when the investigation of Gordillo’s finances began. Former Jalisco Governor Alberto Cardenas said on Wednesday that it could not have begun after the PRI took power in December and must have “started maybe a year ago, or two years ago, when the PAN was in government.”

Yet many suspect that the PRI was politically motivated to go after Gordillo and may have accelerated, if not initiated, the investigative process.

Arresting arguably the most reviled woman in Mexico is a bold and populist move which will have earned Peña Nieto much political capital, proving that he is willing to confront the vested interests that undermine Mexican society. But critics, such as Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the man Peña Nieto beat to the presidency last year, believe this was a calculated act aimed at earning the new administration greater credibility and authority.

“In search of legitimacy the corrupt Enrique Peña Nieto repeats the quinazo against his former partner. This is political Salinism,” Lopez Obrador wrote on Twitter on Tuesday night, referencing similar events that took place under President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

In 1989, in a bid to boost his popular support, the newly elected Salinas ordered the arrest of Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, the head of the powerful oil workers union and Mexico’s most influential labor leader at the time. Hernandez was commonly known as “La Quina” and the move against him became known as the “quinazo.”

Having established the quinazo as a machiavellian political practice, Salinas then fell victim to it in 1995, when his successor Ernesto Zedillo sought to consolidate his power by ordering the arrest of his brother Raul Salinas. Accused of money laundering and complicity in the murder of his brother-in-law, Raul Salinas had 74 million dollars confiscated and served ten years in prison before eventually being absolved of all charges.

Most recently, certain critics accused Calderon of a quinazo when he declared war on the nation’s drug cartels, immediately after winning an election tainted with widespread allegations of voting fraud. In their eyes, this bloody conflict started out as a bid to legitimize Calderon’s presidency.

As early as December 12 last year, following Peña Nieto’s appointment of Gordillo’s bitter enemy Emilio Chuayffet as Education Secretary and his proposal for education reforms, several Mexican journalists – including Manuel Ajenjo of Mexican daily El Economista and Jorge Zepeda Patterson of online media outlet SinEmbargo.mx – speculated that Gordillo could fall victim to the next quinazo.

Aside from winning greater popular support, Peña Nieto had the additional incentive of discrediting the administration of his predecessor, which – Vazquez Mota aside – refused to confront Gordillo during its time in power. Calderon and his closest advisors are said to have been on the verge of firing Vazquez Mota over the spat with Gordillo, before she opted to stand down in 2009.

Perhaps wisely, many other PAN politicians, such as Jalisco Governor Emilio Gonzalez, opted to appease Gordillo’s demands. Throughout his six-year term, Gonzalez paid over 12 million pesos to the SNTE, with no stipulation over how the money be used, El Informador reported on Wednesday.

Despite the complex political relationships surrounding the case, not everyone believes the arrest of Gordillo was politically motivated. La Quina himself told Spanish-language daily Milenio that “this is not a quinazo, it is an act of justice.”

Hernandez said the difference between the two cases is that he was set up, whereas there is strong evidence against Gordillo, who only claimed control of the SNTE by betraying his friend and former leader Carlos Jonguitud Barrios.

Whether politically motivated or not, this is the biggest action Peña Nieto has taken since assuming the presidency and one that many Mexicans feel should have been taken a long time ago. Few will pity Gordillo and most will hope her removal means Mexico can finally begin to build a better education system.

 Education reforms signed into law

“Professional merit must be the only way to be hired, remain and advance as a teacher,” President Enrique Peña Nieto said upon signing major education reforms into law on Monday.

For decades, Elba Esther Gordillo had controlled access to the profession, allowing teachers to sell or pass on their positions. This practice enabled thousands of people who no longer work as teachers to remain on the payroll, including, in one infamous case, Servando Gomez Martinez, a co-founder of the Familia Michoacana and Knights Templar cartels.

The new legislation will introduce a standardized process for the hiring, evaluating, promoting and retaining of teachers, as well as establishing a census to determine the exact number of schools, teachers and pupils in the country. The reforms also aim to raise the proportion of students who complete secondary school to 80 percent and the number who complete high school (preparatoria) to 40 percent.

Having been agreed upon by Mexico’s main political parties, the reforms were passed by the Chamber of Deputies in December and were later ratified by the Senate and over half of the country’s state congresses.

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