By Navarro, Carlos
SourceMex Economic News & Analysis on Mexico
In a dramatic but low-risk move, President Enrique Pena Nieto's administration arrested powerful politician and teachers union leader Elba Esther Gordillo Morales on charges of corruption and racketeering. Gordillo, who has led the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion, (SNTE) since 1989, has been accused of embezzling more than 2 billion pesos (US$156 million) in union funds.
The Procuraduria General de la Republica (PGR) said Gordillo spent more than US$2 million in SNTE funds for spending sprees at a Neiman Marcus department store in California, US$17,000 for plastic surgery, US$1 million for a home in La Jolla, California, and an unknown amount for a private jet. In addition, she rewarded SNTE officers for their loyalty with Hummer vehicles.
The Pena Nieto administration said the arrest of Gordillo, who was detained in the Toluca airport as she descended from her aircraft, is part of an effort to root out corruption and graft. "We are trying to meet our commitment to combat corruption, which was one of the president's promises," Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said shortly after the arrest.
Pena Nieto later took to the airwaves to explain the decision. "[The law] applies to everyone equally, and no one can be above the law," the president said in a nationally televised address in which he did not mention Gordillo's name.
Move compared to similar maneuver by ex-President Salinas
But the arrest of Gordillo, known to many as la maestra, is reminiscent of a similar action taken by ex-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) in the early days of his administration. During the recent presidential campaign, rumors surfaced that Salinas was one of the powerbrokers behind Pena Nieto's campaign (SourceMex, Dec. 7, 2011, and May 23, 2012).
Just weeks after assuming the presidency on Dec. 1, 1998, Salinas ordered the arrest of Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, the powerful leader of the petroleum workers union (Sindicato de Trabajadores Petroleros de la Republica Mexicana, STPRM). In 1992, Hernandez Galicia--known most commonly by his nickname of La Quina--was sentenced to 35 years in prison (SourceMex, Sept. 16, 1992).
Hernandez Galicia, who clashed with President Miguel de la Madrid (1982-1988) and several of his predecessors, openly supported center-left candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas in the 1988 election against Salinas.
Salinas viewed La Quina as a potential obstacle to implementing free-market reforms that would allow some private participation in the state-run oil company PEMEX (SourceMex, Feb. 6 1991, May 5, 1993, and Oct. 27, 1993).
Some observers said there is a strong similarity between Salinas' maneuver to remove Hernandez Galicia as an obstacle to his proposed PEMEX reforms and Pena Nieto's move to take Gordillo out of the equation as recently approved reforms to the educational system are implemented (SourceMex, Dec. 12, 2012).
"Little more than a month after Carlos Salinas de Gortari took office, he ordered the arrest of petroleum workers leader Joaquin Hernandez Galicia, also known as La Quina," said Sopitas.com.
"And just over 20 years later, with the PRI back in power, history repeats itself."
The irony in Gordillo's arrest is that it was Salinas who originally maneuvered to have her ascend to the leadership of the SNTE to replace then SNTE leader Carlos Jongitud Barrios, who fell out of favor with the president.
While Gordillo's arrest could represent a significant move in the Pena Nieto administration's effort to address corruption, some analysts say the proof will come if and when the administration follows up with other actions. "This is an old tactic, let's hope that it doesn't just stop there, as it did in the past, when a single case was enough to calm things down and add legitimacy [to the presidency]," said Jose Antonio Crespo, an analyst at the Centro de Investigacion y Docencia Economicas (CIDE). …