News outlets in Mexico this week have been overrun by the sudden announcement of the arrest and detention of Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, known simply as ‘La Maestra’ and dubbed by many as the most powerful woman in Mexico.
Gordillo was the head of the powerful SNTE teachers union in Mexico—which is in fact the most powerful union in Latin America, with 1.7 million members and billions of dollars in income. The union is said to have the power to make or break government’s, having put their weight behind Felipe Calderón in the hotly contested 2006 election which he won by a narrow margin.
La Maestra is currently in prison in Mexico City and she stands accused of fraud and embezzling USD$200 million from union funds. She is reported to own at least eight properties in Mexico City and several more in San Diego, in addition to having expensive tastes in shopping and plastic surgery.
The case against her is based on the premise that she could not afford such a lavish lifestyle on her official income from the union. If found guilty she faces 20 to 40 years in prison, with additional time added for her abuses of power as a public servant. Already aged 68, this would effectively be a life sentence for Gordillo.
The previous governments of Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderón knew much of the same information that is currently being used to charge Gordillo, so why didn’t they act sooner? There have been years of ‘apparent complicity‘ on the part of the state.
On the surface of it, it seems that the PRI-led government is starting to root out the corruption that has so severely tarnished politics in Mexico. On the other hand, the timing of the arrest could not have been more obvious.
Gordillo was arrested just one day after the government enacted new education reforms, of which La Maestra had been a vocal critic. Gordillo had called for peaceful but persistent protest nationwide in response to government plans to overhaul the education system.
While some have called the arrest political vengeance, other teachers’ unions who opposed the absolute power of Gordillo have called it “an act of justice.” The SNTE for their part have been quick to distance themselves from Gordillo, clearly indicating that she will face these charges without their backing.
New union head Juan Díaz de la Torre was also quick to endorse the government’s plans for educational reform. De la Torre revealed to colleagues that the government has threatened to investigate other union officials who do not tow the party line.
There is no doubt that the education system in Mexico desperately needs some work – in what other country can teaching positions/ qualifications be bought and sold, or passed along to family members? The Mexican government spends one-fifth of their budget on education, yet their schooling system ranks lowest in the OECD with less than half of all students graduating from high school.
However, many people are worried that these events signal a clear return to the past and is yet another example of a PRI government silencing their critics. Perhaps the move is actually more about building a veneer of public trust while they quietly get on with privatising education.
It is still too early to tell, but one thing is clear: this saga has more twists and complicated subtext than a telenovela. It will take some time to figure out who the true villains are and whose interests they are really serving.