MEXICO CITY — The reversal of fortune could not have been more striking. And for many Mexicans, the images, broadcast live on national television Wednesday, could not have been more unexpected.
Here, once again, was Elba Esther Gordillo, the powerful boss of Mexico’s massive, sclerotic teachers union. But instead of the image Mexicans were used to — Gordillo standing in front of adoring followers, defiantly speechifying, dressed to the nines — her famous face was now barely visible through the bars of a Mexico City jail.
The face scowled above a simple white turtleneck as a federal court official read the charges against her. They allege that she illegally diverted more than $156 million in union funds, which she used to support her famously lavish lifestyle: the plastic surgery procedures; the Neiman Marcus spending sprees; the private jets like the one she had landed in Tuesday at the Toluca airport, where she and three others were promptly arrested by federal officials.
The surprise arrest of Gordillo, 68, has many Mexicans riveted by the latest chapter in her telenovela-like life story and relieved that there will be some kind of reckoning for a flamboyant, reform-averse and seemingly untouchable leader who, to her many critics, was the embodiment of old-school Mexican corruption. At one Mexico City restaurant, a crowd broke into cheers Wednesday afternoon when images of the jailed Gordillo were rebroadcast.
At the same time, Mexicans and international onlookers are trying to interpret what the arrest means for the new political reality being forged by President Enrique Peña Nieto, who took office Dec. 1.
Peña Nieto’s attorney general, Jesus Murillo Karam, said the arrest showed that the administration was taking its law-and-order promises seriously.
“We are trying to comply with combating corruption, one of the cornerstones indicated by the president of the republic,” he said.
To others, the arrest was also a show of force by a politician who won election with only 39% of the popular vote. George Grayson, a Mexico expert at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., said the move echoed the 1989 arrest of a union boss, Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, who was posing problems for the young administration of then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, another Mexican chief executive who took power with a flimsy mandate.
“This is Peña Nieto’s message to the country, that he’s in charge and that he’s not going to play patty-cake with ... the special but shadowy interests,” Grayson said.
For Peña Nieto, Gordillo’s arrest may also hint at the kind of tactics his team will use in order to realize reforms they consider crucial to unleashing a new economic boom.
Education reform is one of the key elements of that plan, and Gordillo had loudly opposed a reform package that Peña Nieto signed into law this week. The law, among other things, stripped Gordillo of her vast powers to hire, fire and promote teachers. Many believe that the union’s grip on the education system is one reason it has performed so poorly: In a 2009 evaluation of students in 65 countries conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Mexico was in last place.
A second key reform element involves Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, the economically crucial but perennially underperforming state-run oil industry. Peña Nieto hopes to boost Pemex’s profits by opening it to foreign investment.
Grayson said that effort would be made easier if the president could count on the support of the powerful Pemex union boss, Carlos Romero Deschamps.
Romero has denied that he is in any way corrupt, but Mexican news media have reported that, like Gordillo, he has high-end tastes. This week, the newsmagazine Proceso reported that Romero had given his son a Ferrari Enzo. Last year, Peña Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, awarded Romero a discretionary seat in the Senate, possibly as a way to win his cooperation on Pemex reform.
Grayson said he suspected that Gordillo’s arrest was a message aimed at Romero for when Peña Nieto rolls out his oil industry reform plan. “If [Romero] were worrying about swallowing the toad of reform before, I think this is going to encourage him to do it,” Grayson said.
Gordillo and Romero are but two powerful bosses among dozens who are essentially legacies of the single-party patronage-based system of governance developed by the PRI, which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century.
But Gordillo has long held a special place in Mexican public life. Once a schoolteacher from the poverty-stricken state of Chiapas, she is nicknamed “La Maestra,” or “the Teacher.” She became known for her gaudy high-end apparel accessorized with $5,000 handbags. She once gave Hummers to her union underlings, and was suspected of numerous shady doings over the years, including the 1980s-era killing of a union rival. None of the suspicions were ever proved.
Meanwhile, the 1.5 million union members she controlled could make or break an election. Though she came up in the PRI system, in 2006 she backed President Felipe Calderon of the opposition National Action Party for president, helping him achieve a narrow victory.
The Mexican people, meanwhile, have focused on the smallest details of her downfall. Because she is being charged under a federal “organized crime” statute, she is ineligible for bail.
According to jail sources cited by the newspaper El Universal, Gordillo had no dinner on her first night behind bars. Rene Fujiwara, a grandson who is a legislator in the lower house of Congress, reportedly brought her a bag with personal items and a toothbrush.
Cecilia Sanchez and Daniel Hernandez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.