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Mexican unionism on trial

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Resplendent in high heels and handbags from the world's priciest designers, Elba Esther Gordillo, leader of Mexico's powerful teachers' union, has never made any secret of her wealth. Mexicans have long wondered how she is able to maintain her lavish lifestyle on a public servant's salary.

On Feb. 26, federal prosecutors announced what they think is the explanation: the alleged embezzlement of $159 million of union funds. Gordillo, who likes to be known as la Maestra (the Teacher), was arrested at an airport outside Mexico City.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said Gordillo and two other union officials had spent the money on designer clothes, art, property and cosmetic surgery. Some of the funds were transferred to companies in Switzerland and Liechtenstein registered in Gordillo's mother's name before being used to buy houses in San Diego. This may not be the full extent of the swindle, prosecutors said.

La Maestra has not yet commented, though her union colleagues have come out in her defence, saying they "believe in" her.

Her arrest looks like a calculated show of strength by Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexico's new president. It came the day after he signed into law an education reform designed to pry control of schools from the hands of the union. It may also be intended to send a broader message to those who flaunt unaccountable power.

Gordillo has led the 1.5-million-member teachers' union for 23 years, spanning five presidencies. In October she was elected unopposed for another six-year term. She has held a baleful influence over education in Mexico, taking advantage of rules which delegate to the union the hiring and promotion of teachers as well as the payment of their salaries via opaque accounts.

Having been a leader in Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, after the party lost power she opportunistically switched her -- and the union's -- support to Felipe Calderon, who in 2006 won the presidency for the conservative National Action Party. She set up her own political outfit, which, though small, has sometimes tipped the balance at elections.

The government has promised that from now on, teachers' jobs will no longer be for sale or inherited. Teachers who fail assessments will face firing. The union has organized marches against the proposals. It is unclear whether Gordillo's downfall will defuse these protests.

The arrest of la Maestra mirrors the 1989 arrest, six weeks into the presidency of Carlos Salinas, of Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, head of the oil workers' union, who had failed to back Salinas' widely challenged election. That was both an exercise of presidential authority and a prelude to liberal economic reforms. Some of Pena's close aides have ties to Salinas.

Hernandez was promptly locked away. Convicting Gordillo may prove harder. Mexico is now a democracy, unlike under Salinas, and judges are more independent. In recent years, lack of evidence or procedural errors have made several big cases collapse.

Who might be next for a comeuppance? Reports have recently appeared in the Mexican press of a limited-edition Ferrari bought by Carlos Romero Deschamps, current leader of the oil workers' union, as a gift for his son. But as a newly elected PRI senator, Romero -- against whom there is no evidence of wrongdoing -- is in a stronger position than Gordillo. Whereas the government's early announcements suggested the writing was on the wall for la Maestra, since her allies were passed over for senior jobs at the education ministry, it has indicated the shakeup of the state-owned oil industry will not be as radical as some had hoped.

Even so, Gordillo's downfall may help Pena counter criticism that he is too cosy with the vested interests that flourished under the PRI's long rule prior to 2000. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left-wing runner-up in last year's election, had predicted Pena would appoint Gordillo as his education secretary.

Like Salinas' strike against Hernandez, the arrest sends a message that the government is serious about some reforms at least. That may be noted by the country's telecommunications and media barons, who face a law to introduce more competition in telephones, Internet and television.

First, though, the case against Gordillo must stick. If it falls apart, it may only embolden Mexico's other de facto powers. Salinismo in democracy, which Pena's government in some ways resembles, faces its first test.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 A17

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