News Column

Arrest Highlights Union's Role in Mexican Schools

Feb 28, 2013

By David Agren

The arrest of the head of Mexico's national teachers union on charges of embezzling $200 million may signal a shift in the way Mexican politicians handle the country's poor school system.

"In all developed countries, the union plays a role ... but in Mexico, it's turned into a kidnapping," says David Caldern, director of the education advocacy group Mexicanos Primeros.

Elba Esther Gordillo, 68, head of the Mexican National Educational Workers Union (SNTE) was apprehended late Tuesday at a private airport west of Mexico City and shipped to a prison in the national capital.

Attorney General Jess Murillo Karam said Gordillo had declared income of roughly $90,000 annually, but her expenses suggested she had much more money at her disposal. She is accused of spending union dues on a lavish lifestyle that included traveling on private planes, residing in suburban San Diego and shopping sprees. Gordillo paid off $900,000 in Neiman Marcus credit card debt using union money, Murillo alleged. "In this government, no one will be about or on the margins of the law," he said.

Her arrest came the day after PRI President Enrique Pea Nieto enacted an education policy that subjects teachers to testing and makes merit the basis for hiring - ending the practice in some states of teachers selling their positions like personal property.

Politicians from all sides showed little love for Gordillo after her arrest, but she has been a potent power in Mexico - someone political parties sought as an ally. Teachers often occupy positions of authority and influence in rural Mexico and are among the best political organizers in the country. "She was able to convince four Mexican presidents that she was useful for their political purposes," says Manuel Molano, adjunct-director of the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness. "Everyone gained some benefit, but the one that benefited most was Elba Esther."

Such was the union influence that it controlled the hiring and firing of teachers. Gordillo's son-in-law served as an undersecretary during the administration of previous President Felipe Caldern - whom Gordillo backed in the 2006 election.

The union has such tight control over the country's teacher rosters that the federal government does not know how many teachers the country has. Mexico's school system produces pupils with some of the lowest scores on standardized tests in the industrialized world.

Some questioned the motive of the arrest and even portrayed Gordillo as a scapegoat, whose downfall would reflect well on a president whose party has been accused of corruption. "The detention is to seek popularity, not impart justice," opposition lawmaker Ricardo Monreal said.

Former presidential candidate Andrs Manuel Lpez Obrador accused the government of trying to achieve legitimacy by arresting Gordillo.

"We demand that the authorities and the federal government investigate and get to the bottom of pending cases," the National Action Party, which governed from 2000-2012, said via Twitter.

Some observers questioned whether sending Gordillo away would change much in the education or political systems. "The fall of Elba Esther Gordillo doesn't necessarily imply the end of the (union), rather a possible change to a more docile leader," says Fernando Dworak, an independent political analyst.

(c) Copyright 2013 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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