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Powerful Union Leader “La Maestra” Arrested in Mexico

Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, leader of the National Education Workers’ Union (SNTE) and a controversial figure on the Mexican political scene, was arrested on Tuesday, February 26, 2013, on charges of money laundering.

For more than twenty years, Gordillo, or La Maestra [The Teacher], has led the SNTE, perhaps the largest labor union in Latin America. La Maestra also founded the minority political party Nueva Alianza, which during last year's electoral process nominated Gabriel Quadri de la Torre as a presidential candidate.

Gordillo has been charged with the federal offense of “transactions involving illegally obtained resources” – colloquially known as “money laundering” – which carries a sentence of five to fifteen years in prison, plus a fine. Her arrest was ordered by the court and carried out in the State of Mexico when Gordillo arrived at the airport in a private plane coming from the United States.

This offense is taken seriously under Mexican penal law, and consequently the defendant will not be released on bail for the duration of the trial. It is possible that the commission will charge Gordillo with other crimes, including tax fraud, or that it might investigate and try her as a member of a criminal organization, which would mean a harsher sentence.

After she was taken into custody, Gordillo was sent to the Santa Martha Acatitla Social Rehabilitation Center [es] in Mexico City.

Her arrest has drawn mixed reactions among Mexicans, some celebratory and others skeptical.

Journalist Carlos Puig [es] described the power wielded by La Maestra since she took over the SNTE as follows:

Elba Esther Gordillo, imagen de Wikimedia Commons bajo licencia Creative Commons  (CC-BY-NC-ND)

Elba Esther Gordillo, image from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons license (CC-BY-NC-ND)

En 24 años la señora Gordillo creció, acumuló dinero y poder. Entendió que su fuerza dependía en buena manera de lo que consiguiera para sus agremiados y fue generosa: privilegios, cuidados, salarios, plazas. Allá adentro la adoraban. La hicieron lideresa para siempre y para todo. Se enfrentó a su partido con furia y cuando se hartó formó otro. Se aprovechó de los bisoños panistas y logró posiciones en el gobierno y una intervención directa en la elaboración de la política educativa.

Empezó a lucir sus riquezas, era público que vivía por temporadas en la zona más lujosa de San Diego; presumió sus gustos caros, la afición por los vuelos privados. Desestimó los sondeos que le decían que era un personaje poco querido. Que las encuestas la ponían en los últimos lugares de popularidad asociada con corrupción, cinismo.

Como había visto a Salinas, vio a Zedillo utilizar la fuerza del gobierno y la utilización de la PGR para borrar adversarios políticos pero no aprendió.

Ella se creyó inmune. Creyó que seguía tratando con panistas, tal vez. Y estiró y estiró la liga hasta que la rompió.

In 24 years Ms. Gordillo flourished, accumulating money and power. She understood that her strength depended on how happy she kept her members, and she was generous: privileges, attention, salaries, positions. They loved her in there. They made her their leader forever and of everything. She furiously faced down her party, and when she got sick of it, she created another. She took advantage of the naive PAN and wrangled government positions and direct involvement in educational policy.

She began to reveal her wealth; it was public knowledge that she lived seasonally in the most affluent neighborhood of San Diego; she showed off her expensive taste, her fondness for private planes. She disregarded the polls that said she was an unpopular figure. The popularity rankings that placed her toward the bottom and associated her with corruption, cynicism.

As she had seen with Salinas, she saw Zedillo use the force of the government and the Attorney General to remove political adversaries, but she didn't learn.

She thought she was immune. She thought she was still dealing with the PAN, perhaps. And the rubber band stretched and stretched until it snapped.

Meanwhile, one of Gordillo's main detractors, journalist Carlos Loret de Mola [es] described her thus:

La persona que más daño le ha hecho a la educación en México, la dirigente sindical que robó dinero de los maestros para enriquecerse, la mujer que quitó dinero de las aulas de los niños para beneficiarse personalmente, está tras las rejas.  Le llamarán “El Quinazo” del presidente Enrique Peña Nieto.

The person who has done the most damage to education in Mexico, the union leader who stole money from teachers so that she could prosper, the woman who took money from children's classrooms for her own benefit, is behind bars. They will call her President Enrique Peña Nieto's “El Quinazo”.

The event known as El Quinazo refers to the arrest of another union leader, Joaquín Hernández Galicia, “La Quina”, at the start of President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's term in 1989.

Two-time presidential candidate (and vehement antagonist of the current administration), Andrés Manuel López Obrador (@lopezobrador_) [es], said about Gordillo's arrest:

@lopezobrador: En busca de legitimidad el corrupto de EPN [Enrique Peña Nieto] recurre al quinazo contra su exsocia. Es afianzar el salinismo como política. Son otros tiempos.

@lopezobrador: In search of legitimacy the corrupt government of EPN [Enrique Peña Nieto] resorts to the quinazo against his ex-associate. It's reinforcing Salinism as a policy. These are different times.

Along the same lines, Twitter user Claudia Flores Glz (@taller2006) [es] said:

@taller2006: Al final lo de la maestra #Elba es sólo un ajuste de cuentas, como se acostumbra en México.

@taller2006: In the end the story of la maestra #Elba is just a settling of accounts, business as usual for Mexico.

Professor Ciro Murayama (@ciromurayama) [es] took the opportunity to make fun of the fact that one of the country's leading journalists had left to report on the events in Rome:

@ciromurayama: López Dóriga, con su olfato periodístico, nos informa desde Roma lo que ocurrió en Toluca.

@ciromurayama: López Dóriga, with his nose for news, reports from Rome what happened in Toluca.

User Esteban Salinas (@probusmex) [es] noted a central element in this type of crime: money.

@probusmex: Bueno al fin detuvieron a Gordillo, espero que no pase lo que pasa siempre y se pierdan mágicamente esos miles de millones. Que los regrese!

@probusmex: Well they finally arrested Gordillo, I hope that what always happens is not going to happen and they magically lose those billions. Hope they come back!

Someone calling himself Engaña Bobos (@luigif49) [es] pointed out that there are other union leaders who should share La Maestra's fate:

@luigif49: Que bueno que Elba Esther Gordillo pague por ser tan RATA, pero ¿cuando caé Romero Deschamps, Martín Esparza y tantos igual de ladrones?.

@luigif49: It's great that Elba Esther Gordillo is paying for being such a THIEF, but when will Romero Deschamps, Martín Esparza and other equally bad thieves fall?

Fernando Iglesias (@ELFERKING) [es] took the opportunity to express his happiness over Gordillo's arrest:

@ELFERKING: Detenciones como la de Elba Esther Gordillo me dan esperanza y me hace muy feliz, gente abusiva y ratera como ella y Deschamps deben pagar

@ELFERKING: Arrests like Elba Esther Gordillo's give me hope and make me very happy, abusive and thieving people like her and Deschamps should pay

Dr. Miguel Carbonell (@MiguelCarbonell) [es], researcher and opinion leader on legal issues in the country, wrote:

@MiguelCarbonell: Al ser un proceso por delincuencia organizada los plazos se duplican. El juez tiene 6 días para dictar auto de formal prisión.

@MiguelCarbonell: Because the trial is for organized crime the deadlines are doubled. The judge has 6 days to issue a detention order.

Similarly, Carbonell noted about the detention center in which Gordillo was held:

@MiguelCarbonell: En el penal de Santa Martha Acatitla no se duerme con tanto comodidad como en San Diego, California. Ni modo. #Gordillo

@MiguelCarbonell: In Santa Martha Acatitla prison they don't sleep as comfortably as in San Diego, California. No way. #Gordillo

The news of the arrest of someone like Gordillo has an important impact in a society like Mexico, which for decades has been seriously abused by the political class and the powers that be, like the SNTE and other unions. Reactions will surely continue to emerge over the next days, but the trial of La Maestra is just beginning.

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