What Elba Esther Gordillo's Arrest Means for Mexico's Other Power Players

PHOTO: In this photo from 2006, Mexican teachers union head Elba Esther Gordillo arrives at a meeting with education workers in Mexico City.

On Tuesday, Mexican authorities at Toluca International airport arrested Elba Esther Gordillo, the controversial president of Mexico's influential national teachers' union.

Gordillo, one of Mexico's most powerful and polarizing women, is accused by the Attorney General's Office (PGR) of allegedly embezzling nearly $200 million in funds from her union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación (SNTE).

"The resources of unions belong to their members, not to their leaders," Mexico's president Enrique Peña Nieto said in a televised statement about the arrest the following day. "They must be used to benefit the workers."

According to the PGR, Gordillo, known in Mexico as "The Teacher" ("La Maestra"), misappropriated millions of dollars in union fees to pay for an extravagant lifestyle that included private jet flights to mansions in California, numerous plastic surgeries, and at least $3 million in luxury items from Neiman Marcus, a department store that is now notorious in Mexico thanks to the scandal.

The 68-year-old woman with a surgically puffed face and perfectly arched eyebrows supposedly received the money through three people, who, according to Jesús Murillo Karam, Mexico's Attorney General, redirected the funds to settle credit card debts and to savings accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. (Gordillo, the granddaughter of a rich liquor producer from Chiapas, has said that her money is the product of a well-invested family fortune.)

"It's worth mentioning that Elba Esther Gordillo Morales declared earnings from 2009 to 2012 for 1,100,000 pesos ($88,000)," Karam said in a statement on Wednesday. "A number that is much lower than those operations and deposits cited for those same years."

Gordillo's excesses and alleged crimes have been detailed over the years by the Mexican press. She has furnished journalists, politicians, members of her constituency and union leaders with gifts that range from computers to Hummers. She's also been accused of ordering the death a dissident teacher. Yet, what surprises most political observers is that the government went after her at all.

Indeed, many commentators have voiced their doubts and concerns about the true motivations behind Gordillo's arrest.

"I hope [her arrest wasn't motivated] by merely political reasons, and that this wasn't just a stunt to seek legitimacy," Javier Tello, a political analyst said during an exchange with Leo Zuckerman in Foro TV on Tuesday.

Alberto Aziz, a professor and political researcher who writes for El Universal, shared a similar concern. "In effect, if the same criteria were applied elsewhere," he told Univision, "the government could find many other cases of politicians, union leaders, and businessmen who have committed similar crimes, so we'll have to wait and see what happens with this case."

In broad terms, the general suspicion surrounding Gordillo's detention is directly related to the troubled past of La Maestra and the PRI politcal party, and to the future of Peña Nieto's government.

For more than three decades Gordillo, a woman who was abused by her grandfather growing up and who had to start working as a teacher when she was merely 15 years old, has been a major player in Mexican politics.

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