Get IOL's cool new iPad app...
Mexico City - Mexico arrested the head of the main teachers' union on fraud and embezzlement charges on Tuesday, striking 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 millions of dollars of union funds for private use, just a day after Pena Nieto signed a major overhaul of Mexican education into law.
Prosecutors accuse her of using intermediaries to move money to bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, then back to the United States, where it was used to buy property for Gordillo in San Diego, 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,” Murillo said. “Under this government nobody is above the law.”
Gordillo, known as the “The Teacher” in Mexico, is known for her expensive clothes and lavish lifestyle. Critics have for years accused her of corruption.
She was detained at Toluca airport near the capital on Tuesday evening with three other people.
The 68-year-old 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 Pena Nieto's first acts in office was to push for a major revamp of the education system.
Gordillo's union fought against Pena Nieto's new education law, which aims to limit union control over hiring and teaching standards in a bid to improve school standards.
Pena Nieto also plans major changes to the Mexican tax system and state oil giant Pemex, a company with its own powerful union that has been accused of corruption.
Gordillo's 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 1.
Like Salinas, Pena Nieto belongs to the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century and returned to power in 2012 after 12 years on the sidelines.
The blow to Gordillo harks back to the days when the PRI governed under a strong presidency that brooked no dissent.
Gordillo, was born into poverty in the south of the country and started working as a teacher at 15.
Widowed at 18, she moved to Mexico City, befriended the union leader of the day and began her ascent through the organisation's ranks. After Salinas became president in 1988, teachers' protests broke out over wages, and he turned to Gordillo to bring order, naming her union boss.
Gordillo was a heavyweight of Mexican politics and at one point led the PRI in the lower house of Congress. She quickly thwarted government efforts to decentralise education, give parents a bigger role and weaken the union.
But she fell out with PRI leaders ahead of the 2006 presidential election and founded the small New Alliance Party. - Reuters