Mexico: Peña Nieto sends a message, jails union boss

Mexican federal agents arrested Elba Esther Gordillo Morales, president of the 1.5 million-member National Education Workers Union (SNTE), on Feb. 26 in the airport at Toluca, the capital of México state, on corruption charges. According to Attorney General Jesús Murillo Kara, Gordillo used millions of dollars from union funds to buy properties in California, to shop at the Neiman Marcus department store and to pay for plastic surgery. The arrest came one day after President Enrique Peña Nieto signed into law a series of "educational reforms" that include regular teacher assessments and measures that would limit the union's power. Gordillo opposed the new law and didn't attend the signing ceremony.

Starting off as a schoolteacher in the impoverished southeastern state of Chiapas, Gordillo eventually became one of the most powerful figures in Mexico's political class. In 1989 then-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1988-1994) put her in charge of the SNTE, the country's largest union. From 2002 to 2005 she was general secretary of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which dominated Mexican politics from 1929 to 2000 and regained the presidency with Peña Nieto's election last year. In 2005 she formed her own small group, the New Alliance Party (PANAL), which gained political traction by maneuvering between the PRI and the center-right National Action Party (PAN), then the governing party.

In November 2012 PANAL legislators voted with the PRI and the PAN to pass a series of "labor reforms" that limited workers' rights, but they helped quash a proposal that would have diluted the power of union heads. (La Jornada, Mexico, Feb. 26, Feb. 26; BBC News, Feb. 28)

Observers have assumed for years that Gordillo was appropriating union funds; there are also accusations that she ordered illegal detentions of dissident union members and was involved in the murder of teacher Misael Núñez Acosta on Jan. 30, 1981, in Ecatepec, México state. An editorial in the left-leaning daily La Jornada dismissed any idea that by arresting Gordillo the government was showing its "political will to secure justice and combat impunity," given its failure to prosecute people suspected of corruption in other unions and many businesses. The move against the apparently invulnerable Gordillo was more likely a "warning and a message…to the entire political class," the editors wrote, that Peña Nieto "could do the same against any other representative of the power elite who might question the presidential designs." (LJ, Feb. 27)

The SNTE's National Executive Committee responded to Gordillo's arrest with a Feb. 26-28 emergency meeting in Guadalajara, Jalisco, which quickly moved Juan Díaz de la Torre, the general secretary, into the presidency. On the afternoon of Feb. 28 word went out to the union's 55 local sections to "calm down" any protests planned against the educational reform. Union leaders said they recognized that "it's a new scenario, and everything is on hold." As for a possible strike, they denied that there would be any "suspension of academic activities. As the leadership we never proposed that." (LJ, March 2)

Leaders of the main dissident SNTE caucus, the National Education Workers Coordinating Committee (CNTE), held a press conference on March 2 in the offices of the Mexico City local, Section 9, to denounce what they called the government's "imposition" of Díaz de la Torre, a person "extremely close to Gordillo Morales" who is "at least an accomplice in the corruption." The group, which includes the militant Section 22 from the southern state of Oaxaca, demanded union democracy. They said the government's educational reform was a step towards privatization, and they called for a real reform that would be "be constructed with the participation of the principal actors: teachers, parents, pupils, researchers and society as a whole." (SNTE Section 22 website, March 2)

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, March 3.