Mexico arrested the head of the country’s 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 Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s authority.
Mexican Attorney General Jesus Murillo said Elba Esther Gordillo was arrested on suspicion of embezzling US$200 million of union funds, laying out the case against her just a day after Pena Nieto signed into law a major education reform that Gordillo opposed.
Gordillo is accused of using intermediaries to move money to bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, then back to the US, 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,” Murillo said. “Under this government nobody is above the law.”
Gordillo, 68, has led her union for more than two decades and was long a prominent member of 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.
Murillo said she used union money to pay bills of US$3 million at luxury US department store Neiman Marcus. Detailing the charges against her, Murillo said she had declared income of just 1.1 million pesos (US$86,000) between 2009 and last year.
Gordillo was detained at Toluca airport on Tuesday evening along with three other people.
Her arrest mirrors the removal of her predecessor Carlos Jonguitud 24 years ago by then-Mexican president Carlos Salinas, who took office pledging ambitious reforms, similar to the changes Pena Nieto has vowed.
Salinas also ordered the arrest of Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, 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. Salinas was also a member of the PRI, the party which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century and returned to power with Pena Nieto last year after 12 years on the sidelines.