Powerful Leader of Mexican Teachers' Union Is Arrested

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Correction Appended

The leader of Mexico's powerful teachers' union, the largest labor syndicate in Latin America, has been arrested on accusations that she embezzled millions of dollars in union funds for personal expenses, including California residences, cosmetic surgery and artwork, the country's attorney general announced Tuesday night.

The arrest of the union boss, Elba Esther Gordillo, a bombastic figure viewed as a kingmaker among politicians for her ability to deliver votes and suppress enemies, stunned a nation accustomed to seeing powerful figures escape scrutiny despite whispers of their spending habits.

"She was this mixture of political patron, incredibly powerful union boss and very, very wildly 'entrepreneurial,' " said Gabriel Guerra, a political analyst in Mexico City.

Ms. Gordillo was arrested a day after President Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law sweeping changes in education law, designed to break the union's grip on hiring and the administration of schools, and a day before the union planned to meet on a strategy to fight the changes. The timing of the arrest is sure to raise questions; Mexican presidents have been known to use the power of federal prosecutors to go after rivals, only for the cases to fall apart eventually.

In 1989, an oil union leader was arrested on weapons charges after running afoul of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari early in his term, and was released several years later after Mr. de Gortari left office.

In the current case, the prosecutor, Jesús Murillo Karam, said in a televised statement that the arrest had stemmed from the suspicious transfer of $200 million from the National Union of Education Workers, which has 1.5 million members, into the private accounts of three individuals. He said Ms. Gordillo had then used the accounts, in American and Swiss banks, to pay for credit cards; two houses in Coronado, Calif., near San Diego; unspecified art; plastic surgery; and other personal expenses.

He said that the transactions occurred between 2008 and 2012, including the transfer of about $2.1 million to an account at a Neiman Marcus department store in San Diego between March 2009 and January 2012, and that as many as 80 union accounts were being examined for irregularities.

Union leaders were calling an emergency meeting Tuesday night.

Ms. Gordillo is known nationwide simply as "La Maestra," "The Teacher," a nickname befitting her control of politicians and the untouchable air about her.

Her support for Mr. Peña Nieto's predecessor, Felipe Calderón, in the 2006 election was considered pivotal to his razor-close victory.

She has been president of the union since 1989 and was re-elected in October without a single dissenting vote. That feat stirred commentary in a nation that threw off one-party rule in 2000 -- the party that put Ms. Gordillo in power -- and has had three successive democratic presidential elections.

The party that had anointed her, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, is also the new president's, and he has vowed to show Mexico it is not the old autocratic and corrupt one. Ms. Gordillo was tossed out of the party in 2006 but formed her own. She still wielded influence, though she has clashed with Mr. Peña Nieto, who took office on Dec. 1 and made the changes in education law a priority.

"This is a woman who was able to successfully confront three successive presidents and to essentially block any attempt at reform, albeit cosmetic, in the education sector," Mr. Guerra said. "This goes beyond education reform. This goes toward re-establishing the rule of the state."

Karla Zabludovsky contributed reporting from Mexico City.

Correction: February 27, 2013, Wednesday

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to the criminal case against an oil union leader in 1989. He was arrested on weapons charges, not corruption charges.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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