Mexican teachers' union leader behind bars on charges of embezzling $200M


Elba Esther Gordillo waves during the National Police Day ceremony in Mexico City, on June 2, 2012. Gordillo was arrested Feb. 26 on allegations of embezzling union funds for personal use.


Alfredo Estrella

Elba Esther Gordillo, the larger-than-life head of Mexico's powerful teachers' union accused of embezzling $200 million, remained behind bars on Wednesday after a judge decided against granting her bail due to the seriousness of the allegations, La Jornada reported.

Gordillo, who has been described as Mexico's most powerful woman, allegedly used union funds for personal expenses including plastic surgery, shopping sprees and property in California. 

The 68-year-old was apprehended on Tuesday at the airport in Toluca, west of Mexico City.

Her court appearance on Wednesday was broadcast live on Cable TV, which the LA Times noted was unusual in Mexico and underscored the gravity of the charges against the woman who until a week ago was considered politically untouchable. 

Gordillo's arrest has dominated Mexican media and dinner table conversations for the past 24 hours. Her extravagent lifestyle was common knowledge in Mexico and many people see her arrest as politically motivated.

Former presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador accused President Enrique Pena Nieto's government of trying to achieve legitimacy by arresting the union boss, USA Today reported.

Attorney General Jose Murillo Karam said Gordillo, who is viewed as one of the key obstacles to education reform in Mexico, is accused of siphoning off millions of pesos of union money into private accounts, Reuters reported.

"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 told reporters.

"Under this government nobody is above the law."

He said the Finance Ministry's financial analysis unit detected unusual activity, including multiple operations worth 2 billion pesos ($153.8 million) from accounts belonging to the National Union of Education Workers, which has about 1.4 million members.

Authorities allege the money was used to pay for plastic surgery, artwork, and property. A shopping spree at a department store in the United States reportedly totalled $3 million, AFP reported.

Gordillo's arrest came a day after the Mexican government signed a broad education reform into law.

Gordillo is known nationwide simply as “La Maestra,” “The Teacher,” a nickname coined to describe her control over politicians and her untouchable air, the New York Times reported.

Known for her luxurious lifestyle, Gordillo has been union leader since 1989 and was re-elected in October without a single dissenting vote.


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