Head of Mexican union detained

Mexican authorities have arrested the powerful head of the main teachers' union, Elba Esther Gordillo, on fraud and embezzlement charges. Photograph: Imelda Medina/Reuters.

Mexican authorities have arrested the powerful head of the main teachers' union, Elba Esther Gordillo, on fraud and embezzlement charges. Photograph: Imelda Medina/Reuters.

Wed, Feb 27, 2013, 00:00

Mexican authorities have arrested the powerful head of the main teachers' union on fraud and embezzlement charges.

The move strikes out at a high-profile opponent of the new government's reform efforts and seeking to assert president Enrique Pena Nieto's authority.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo said Elba Esther Gordillo was arrested on suspicion of embezzling $200 million of union funds, laying out the case against her just a day after Mr Pena Nieto signed into law a major education reform that Ms Gordillo opposed.

Ms Gordillo is accused of using intermediaries to move money to bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, then back to the United States, in order to buy property in San Diego and pay for works of art and plastic surgery.

"Clearly, we're facing a case in which the money of education workers has been misused illegally for the benefit of various people, including Elba Esther Gordillo," Mr Murillo said. "Under this government nobody is above the law."

Ms Gordillo (68) is known as the "The Teacher" in Mexico. She has led her union for more than two decades and was long a prominent member of Mr Pena Nieto's centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

She also became a symbol of alleged corruption in the country, drawing widespread criticism for her expensive clothes and lavish lifestyle.

Mr Murillo said she used union money to pay bills of $3 million at luxury US department store Neiman Marcus. Detailing the charges against her, Mr Murillo said she had declared income of just 1.1 million pesos ($86,000) between 2009 and 2012.

He said other people involved in the suspected fraud included Ms Gordillo's dead mother, the 99 per cent owner of one of the companies used to move funds.

Ms Gordillo was detained at Toluca airport near the capital last night along with three other people.

Her arrest mirrors the removal of her predecessor Carlos Jonguitud 24-years ago by then-president Carlos Salinas, who took office pledging ambitious reforms, similar to the changes Pena Nieto has vowed since taking office on December 1st.

Mr Salinas also ordered the dramatic 1989 arrest of Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, known as "La Quina," who led the union at Mexico's state-run oil giant Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex.

Hernandez was sentenced to 35 years in prison after soldiers raided his home, where they said they found about 200 Uzi submachine guns and 30,000 cartridges. However, critics say the weaponry was planted to frame Hernandez and he was eventually released in 1997.

Ms Gordillo has held a firm grip over the teachers' union, whose 1.3 million members make it one of the most powerful in Latin America.

She has long been viewed as an impediment to education reform in Mexico, and one of Mr Pena Nieto's first acts in office was to push for a major revamp of the education system.

Ms Gordillo's union fought against Mr Pena Nieto's new education law, which aims to limit union control over hiring and teaching standards in a bid to improve school standards.

Reuters