THEY called her “The Teacher”, but she now sits in a women’s prison in Mexico City, accused of embezzling millions from her teachers’ union to pay for property, private planes, bodyguards, plastic surgery and an extravagant lifestyle.
Elba Esther Gordillo, 68, leader of Mexico’s 1.5 million-member National Union of Education Workers, was arrested late on Tuesday afternoon as she landed at Toluca Airport near Mexico City on a private flight from San Diego.
The fall of one of the country’s most divisive characters comes with the return to power of Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which previously ruled for 71 years and once helped Gordillo consolidate her power. She was arrested the day after president Enrique Pena Nieto signed into law a comprehensive education reform designed to dismantle a system she controlled.
Union members had been marching in the streets against the reform in recent weeks, and the fiery Gordillo, who rose from school teacher to a maker of presidents, vowed to keep fighting.
“I want to die with the epitaph: ‘Here lies a warrior. She died like a warrior’,” Gordillo said in a speech on her 68th birthday earlier this month.
Gordillo displayed her opulence openly with designer clothes and bags, bodyguards, expensive cars and properties including a penthouse apartment in Mexico City’s exclusive Polanco district. She has been widely lampooned for her many plastic surgeries and depicted in political cartoons as ghoulish.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s teachers are poorly paid and the public education system has long been criticised.
The investigation started in December, just after Mr Nieto took office, when Santander Bank alerted authorities to bank transfers in billions of pesos.
At a news conference following the arrest, assistant attorney general Alfredo Castillo displayed a series of charts that resembled battle plans, with dozens of arrows detailing the alleged flow of illicit transfers from teachers’ union accounts to the personal accounts of three union workers who were not authorised to deal with finances.
Some funds ended up in bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Castillo said in one case $1 million (£661,000) to was transferred to a Swiss account for a company owned by Gordillo’s mother. The funds were then used to buy a million-dollar house in San Diego.
In a television interview last week about education reform, the interviewer told Gordillo that she was the most hated woman in Mexico.
“There is no one more loved by their people than I,” Gordillo replied. “I care about the teachers. This is a deep and serious dispute about public education.”
The reforms create a system of uniform standards for employing teachers and promotion based on merit instead of union connections. It also allows for the first census of Mexico’s education system, which Gordillo’s union has largely controlled for decades, allegedly padding the payroll with thousands of phantom teachers.
So great is the union’s control that no one knows exactly how many schools, teachers or students exist in Mexico.
Gordillo, was born into poverty in the south of the country and started working as a teacher at 15. Widowed at 18, she moved to Mexico City, befriended the union leader of the day and began her ascent through the organisation’s ranks.
Gordillo was a heavyweight of Mexican politics and at one point led the PRI in the lower house of Congress.
Political analyst Raymundo Riva Palacio said Gordillo is an experienced political fighter who may have lost the keen sense of political calculation that kept her in power. He said: “She lost clarity. Having so much to lose on the issue on which they finally got her,w the money, she calculated badly.”