Updated March 1, 2013 - The day after Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto inked broad education reform legislation, his government took another major step in the sphere of Mexican education by arresting the head of the country’s teachers' union. On the evening of February 26, Elba Esther Gordillo was taken into custody for embezzling some $156 million in funds from the Mexican Educational Workers Union (SNTE). In a televised statement last night, Mexican Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam gave an overview of illicit money transfers and misuse of funds, from transfers to bank accounts in Lichtenstein and Switzerland to big purchases at luxury department stores. “I want to remind everyone that this money came from the savings accounts of education workers, the union, and was used, among other things, to pay a Neiman Marcus credit card for an account that came close to $3 million.”
The detention of Gordillo—known also as “La Maestra”, or “the teacher”—is no small arrest. Labeled the country’s most powerful woman by Forbes México last year, Gordillo could be seen as the queen of the union bosses; as the head of the 1.5-million strong SNTE, she has led the largest syndicate in Latin America for 23 years. She also served as secretary-general of the now-governing Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), as well as a Mexican legislator in both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies.
Despite prior fraud allegations, Gordillo never before faced charges. Tuesday’s arrest changed that, unveiling an investigation into misallocation of funds dating back to 2008. The attorney general stated that diverted funds were used to pay for a range of items, from Gordillo’s plastic surgery bills to property in California to a private plane.
The arrest also showed that timing is everything. On Monday, Peña Nieto signed a sweeping education bill changing how teachers are hired, evaluated, and promoted in hopes of improving a long-lamented education system. The SNTE under Gordillo opposed the reform, which sought to end practices where teaching positions could be inherited, sold, or bartered, and teachers often lack proper qualifications. As a result, Mexico counts as the OECD country with the second-highest percentage of public spending on education, with resources primarily spent on teachers’ salaries. Yet of OECD countries, Mexico has the lowest graduation rate at the upper secondary level. By the evening of February 28, the SNTE selected a new leader, Juan Díaz de la Torre. In remarks, he avoided mentioning Gordillo by name, and announced the union's endorsement of the education reform.
The investigation against Gordillo dates back to December, shortly after Peña Nieto took office. As The Economist notes, Gordillo’s arrest brought back memories of the 1989 arrest of head of the oil workers’ union Joaquín Hernández Galicia during then-President Carlos Salinas de Gotari’s administration. Although sentenced to 35 years, Hernández gained release in 1997. Now, the arrest of La Maestra raised questions about whether the charges will stick—and whether other similar investigations are on the way. On AnimalPolitico’s “Palenque” forum, experts applauded the news of Gordillo’s arrest for corruption while many urged a careful, transparent legal process as well as an investigation into suspected fraud by other high-profile political players. “It sounds good,” wrote Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education’s José Carreño Figueras of Gordillo’s detention. But he noted recent and, as yet, unprosecuted scandals involving the former state governors of Chiapas and Tabasco, adding: “It would sound better if it weren’t a political case or isolated phenomenon.”