The fall of the most powerful woman in Mexico

By Antonio De Jesús Aguado

Luxury, power and controversy surrounded Elba Esther Gordillo, leader of the largest workers’ union in Latin America and named the most powerful woman in Mexico in 2012 by Forbes Magazine. Nevertheless, that title did not help her to sidestep Mexican laws, and Gordillo was arrested on February 26 for embezzling more than 2 billion pesos from the SNTE, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Educación (Teachers’ Union), the union she headed and that represents more than 1.5 million teachers.

Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, known as “The Teacher,” was born in Comitán, Chiapas on February 6, 1945, and according to the SNTE website she is a social and political fighter and one of the most outstanding women in the field of education, politics and public life in Mexico. She was a federal legislator for three different terms representing the PRI (Revolutionary Institutional Party) and senator once. She has been a member of the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educación since 1960 and has headed the organization since 1990. Although the SNTE website states that she has promoted the most significant policies and changes in the educational system since 1992, civil organizations blame her for the education crisis in Mexico because the organization that she used to lead has opposed several education reforms, including some passed after her arrest.

Gordillo was expelled from the PRI Party and in 2005 created the New Alliance Party, which in 2012 was ranked as the fourth (of eight) political forces in Mexico. In 2011 Quién Magazine, a celebrity magazine, valued an outfit worn by Gordillo at more than 100,000 pesos. In 2012, Forbes Magazine published a list of the most powerful women in the country, which was headed by “The Teacher”. On February 6, 2013, Gordillo delivered a public speech in which she said that nothing, not even threats, would intimidate her. “I was born to die, and I want to die with this epitaph: Here lies a warrior, as a warrior she died,” she said. On February 27, she was arrested in the airport at Toluca, Mexico, after an investigation begun in 2008 revealed that she has transferred approximately 2.6 billion pesos from the SNTE’s account to private accounts in the US and Switzerland to pay for credit cards, plastic surgeries, artworks and even real estate (Gordillo owns a luxury mansion in California).

Teachers speak out about the case

In a survey conducted by Atención, some teachers, both members and nonmembers of the SNTE, talked about Gordillo’s arrest.

María Gabriela Chávez, an SNTE member and principal of Leobino Zavala Secondary School, commented, “She may be corrupt, but where are all those corrupt governors from the PRI party? They have not been removed. Where are other leaders of unions such as the one from Pemex (Mexican Petroleum)? These are people who are helping the system and for that reason have not been removed, but let’s see if it is possible to clean up the country. The arrest is good as long as they can prove the embezzlement.”

Alicia Blanco Huerta, a math teacher, has worked 27 years for the system. “When I heard about the embezzlement I was mad at “The Teacher”, although I think that the arrest is a political thing. She must refund that money to the SNTE. I was angry. We are not happy about her situation; she is a partner and thanks to her the union has been maintained. We were not happy with her, but she was doing a good job. This arrest is meant to debilitate the SNTE.”

Luis Felipe Rodríguez, a member of SNTE for 12 years, said, “I am happy about her arrest. For many years she took advantage of the Union and its money. I never felt support from the Sindicato. She is powerful, but I really hope that she is judged according to law.”

Berenice Correa Bautista, a teacher in a private primary school, remarked, “For many years she enjoyed the money from the teachers and some benefits were taken away from the teachers. I know this because my parents and husband are members of the Sindicato. She was an obstacle to improving the Mexican education system. We are happy about her arrest, but we are hoping that this is not just a political circus.”

José de Jesús Lazcano, general director of the Universidad de León in San Miguel de Allende, said, “Her removal was a necessity for public education in Mexico; education was in a condition that was only benefiting her. She was in the Union for many years and not even the teachers knew her political position. I do not want to judge her, but we are hoping for better changes in education, although the new leader of the Sindicato is the one who was her personal assistant. The money that she wasted could have been used for scholarships and materials for poor students.”

As we went to press, Elba Esther Gordillo was still in prison.


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