E. EDUARDO CASTILLO
MEXICO CITY (AP) -- The arrest of Mexico's most powerful union leader echoes the hardball tactics of Mexico's once-imperial presidency while pushing forward an education reform that Enrique Pena Nieto has made a centerpiece of his new administration.
Elba Esther Gordillo, known for flashing her Hermes handbags and heels, stood behind bars Wednesday in a grim prison in eastern Mexico City as a judge read off charges of embezzlement and organized crime. The arrest sidelined a woman who had tried to mobilize teachers to block a schools shake-up designed to end her control over hiring and firing of teachers across the country.
It also sent a message to other union bosses and business magnates: Don't get in the way of Pena Nieto, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party has newly returned to the power it held for seven straight decades, when incoming presidents often crushed those who challenged them.
"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 presidential power, said Jose Antonio Crespo, an analyst at the Center for Economic Studies. "Let's hope this doesn't stop and that it becomes something more systematic, for which there is a burning need."
Crespo was referring to the business magnates and union bosses who have built fortunes and political power by dominating whole sectors of the economy. Like Gordillo, their resistance could be an obstacle to Pena Nieto's pledges to modernize and open up Mexico's economy.
But the tough message of Tuesday's arrest may have been enough.
Gordillo, whose 1.5 million-member National Union of Education Workers organized protests against Pena Nieto's education reform signed into law this week, was pulled off a plane arriving from San Diego late Tuesday and taken to Mexico City's women's prison.
It was a dizzying fall from power for a woman often credited with swinging a presidential election and who maintained properties worth millions of dollars in Southern California, where she spent much of her time.
Gordillo, 68, was charged with embezzling 2 billion pesos (about $160 million) from the union she has led for nearly a quarter century. The judge in the case said he would rule in three to six days on whether the evidence is sufficient to merit a trial.
If found guilty, Gordillo could face 30 years in prison.
Asked if he had other cases planned, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told the Televisa news network, "I don't have evidence as clear as in this case."
Still, analysts said other powerful figures will surely take notice.
"I think there will be more willingness to negotiate and accept" reforms "rather than engage in confrontation," said Crespo.
Pena Nieto went on television Tuesday night to say the case was strictly based on enforcing the rule of law.
"This investigation has to be pursued to the very end but always adhering to the rule of law," he said, without referring to Gordillo by name.
The president also spoke directly to the millions of teachers in the two-minute national broadcast, saying his government will support them and respect the union's autonomy.
"My government will continue to be your ally and will continue to work to improve the conditions in which you carry the high mission of educating tomorrow's citizens," he said.
With education reform now enacted, Pena Nieto is also proposing to open the state oil company to more private investment, a move that could awaken opposition from the oil workers union. The administration is also proposing measures to bring more competition in the highly concentrated television and telecom sectors, steps that business magnates have long tried to stymie with court appeals.
There is a sense that "this is a message to all the other corrupt leaders," said Humberto Castillo, a 55-year-old retired teacher from Mexico State, who was reading a newspaper story about Gordillo's arrest while he waited for his daughter to come out of a job interview. "I thought she was untouchable."
For many, Gordillo stood as a symbol of the powers that dominate Mexico. She was a favorite of newspaper cartoonists because of her immediately recognizable face and designer clothes and accessories. Prosecutors said she spent nearly $3 million in purchases at Neiman Marcus department stores using union funds, as well as $17,000 in U.S. plastic surgery bills and $1 million to buy a home near San Diego.
It was unclear if the arrest would force Gordillo out of her union leadership position. Mexican mining union boss Napoleon Gomez Urrutia has continued to hold his post more than four years after he moved to Canada amid accusations that he misappropriated $55 million in union funds.
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