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

The modest daughter of a traffic cop and a cleaning woman, Gordillo has led the SNTE, the largest syndicate in Latin America with more than one million members, since 1989. Back then, Carlos Salinas, Mexico's incoming president forced a regime change within the union that replaced Carlos Jonguitud, the union´s leader at the time, with La Maestra.

Gordillo, who had become a congresswoman under the protection of Jonguitud, accepted Salinas' appointment and started cultivating a relationship with PRI, largely based on questionable electoral favors (she has been referred to "Jimmy Hoffa in a dress") and on auspicious policies towards teachers. According to the OECD, 91.7 percent of Mexico's education budget is spent on teachers' salaries. In the past few years, several of these policies have been blamed for hampering Mexico's relatively poor education system.

"She was a leader that found a comfortable place in PRI's system first, and then an even better place with PAN's governments," Aziz told Univision. "PAN treated her like an ally, instead of treating her as part of a political machinery, and they gave her new privileges. When she had problems, she broke with them and created a new party [Partido Nueva Alianza], which allowed her to take advantage of the union's electoral force. This led her to win many allies among governors, senators, and representatives."

Gordillo's close ties to power contributed to her image as an "untouchable," one that Peña Nieto's administration has been quick to dismiss, according to Denise Dresser, a political analyst and professor the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México.

"Enrique Peña Nieto is worried to convey the image of a reformist PRI, of a different kind of PRI… and this is an extraordinary gesture," she said Tuesday on the television news show Es la hora de Opinar.

Yet, according to several commentators, the government's decision to arrest Gordillo doesn't seem to be motivated by purely democratic reasons. Particularly since on the day of her arrest she was set to attend the national meeting of the SNTE, where union leaders were going to discuss how to oppose a law that Peña Nieto signed on Monday. The law mandates a census of the nation's teachers and opens the way towards replacing those that fare poorly in standardized reviews.

"From that perspective, yes, it was a political act, and it resembles a quinazo [a Mexican political expression that refers to Carlos Salinas' arrest of the leader of Pemex's union in 1989 in what was an effort to cement his government's legitimacy]," Ricardo Raphael, an author and journalist who wrote a book about Gordillo called "Los socios de Elba Esther," told Radio Trece.

The arrest could also fulfill another job, according to various analysts. By striking a supposed "untouchable," Peña Nieto could be sending a message to other politicians and union leaders. At the very least, the actions taken against Gordillo could force powerful individuals like Carlos Romero Deschamps, the president of Pemex's union, to think twice before leading an overt opposition to coming reforms in their respective sectors.

Peña Nieto has avoided giving fodder to any of these analyses. In his statement on Wednesday, he reiterated his respect for the law and his intention to respect whatever decision the judicial branch reaches.

"Right now, there is a positive perception about the arrest," Aziz said. "Other interpretations say that this act strengthens Peña Nieto to embark on other reforms, concretely on Pemex's reform. We'll have to wait and see what happens."

Manuel Rueda contributed reporting from Mexico.

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