A judge on Monday ordered Mexico’s most powerful union leader to stand trial on charges of embezzling 2 billion pesos (US$157.2 million) from the teachers’ union she led for almost a quarter-century.
The decision means Judge Alejandro Caballero Vertiz found that prosecutors presented sufficient evidence to try union leader Elba Esther Gordillo and three assistants who allegedly channeled union funds into private bank accounts.
Vertiz also ordered her to remain in jail ahead of her trial.
“The evidence analyzed is sufficient, at this judicial stage, to indicate that the criminal organization ... presumably transferred funds from several accounts of the National Education Workers’ Union into their own accounts,” according to a statement released by the Federal Judiciary Council.
Gordillo was arrested last week and charged with embezzlement and organized crime, because the money was allegedly channeled through a network of accounts.
Prosecutors say she illegally used union funds to pay for purchases at Neiman Marcus department stores, US plastic surgery bills and a home near San Diego.
The charges of her lavish lifestyle rankled sensibilities in a country where teachers are poorly paid and schools chronically underperform.
If found guilty, Gordillo could face 30 years in prison. In the past, government prosecutors have had a notoriously hard time winning convictions in organized crime cases and other politically high-profile cases. The judge’s decision on Monday marked a partial reversal of that trend, though defense lawyers have claimed Gordillo is innocent and the government’s case is weak.
Gordillo started out as a school teacher, then rose to become one of Mexico’s most flamboyant and powerful political operators, displaying her opulence openly with designer clothes and bags.
For years, the 68-year-old union leader beat back attacks from dissidents, political foes and journalists who have seen her as a symbol of Mexico’s corrupt, old-style politics.
However, last Tuesday Gordillo was detained as she landed at the Toluca airport near Mexico City on a private plane from San Diego and whisked away by authorities.
Her support was considered key in giving former Mexican presidents Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon, both of the conservative National Action Party, presidential victories in the elections of 2000 and 2006 respectively, which unseated the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), where Gordillo began her career, but which she later abandoned. The PRI held the presidency without interruption from 1929 to 2000.
The case brought by the administration of Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, who recovered the presidency for the PRI in last year’s elections, contrasts with the attitude of his predecessors. The two previous National Action Party presidents tolerated Gordillo and even formed alliances with her.
Gordillo’s arrest was widely seen as a warning to the shadowy business interests, monopolies and corrupt union leaders who have long wielded power almost as great as the government’s in Mexico’s national affairs.
Additional reporting by Reuters