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Campaign puts Mexico teachers union leader back in spotlight

Elba Esther Gordillo is courted by nearly every political party because of the 1.5 million votes she controls. She says her true cause is Mexico, but scandal dogs her.

July 31, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Elba Esther Gordillo, pictured in 2006, is president for life of Mexico's teachers union.
Elba Esther Gordillo, pictured in 2006, is president for life of Mexico's… (Dario Lopez-Mills, Associated…)

Reporting from Mexico City — The most powerful woman in Mexico carries $5,000 Hermes purses and can make or break a presidency.

She's head of the nation's principal teachers union, the largest syndicate in Latin America, and once gave Hummers as gifts to loyal teachers.

Elba Esther Gordillo commands the patronage of more than 1.5 million teachers, and in election years, that means more than 1.5 million votes. Almost every political party courts her.

Yet scandal has forever dogged her, including accusations of illegal self-enrichment and even murder. No charges ever stuck, making her seem untouchable. Her union reportedly takes in millions in government money while she, once a humble teacher from Mexico's poorest south, lives much of the time in luxurious properties in Southern California.

Gordillo's critics say her extravagances during 22 years as union president might not be so bothersome if the state of education in Mexico were not so abysmal.

Although her union has worked successfully to improve salaries and working conditions for teachers (they get out of teaching class the last Friday of each month), it has failed to improve the quality of education.

Last year, slightly more than half of high school students flunked the math portion of standardized tests, while more than a third flunked Spanish. Mexican students scored the lowest reading levels of developed countries in the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Meanwhile, in 2010, 75% of teachers-in-training failed the exam that would have placed them in a job, and last year only 1% of working teachers passed a test that would have raised their salaries.

Add to that: Many schools don't have running water, and a 2008 inspection found 33,000 schools nationwide were in need of serious repairs.

Gordillo is in the spotlight again because Mexico is in the throes of campaign fever, with a presidential election coming up next year. Her support was considered decisive in the 2006 narrow victory of Felipe Calderon and his conservative National Action Party; and today, she appears prepared to cast her lot, and her many votes, with the clear front-runner, the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

"I would have to say I have many adversaries," Gordillo told a radio interviewer this month when asked about the constant barrage of criticism that flies her way. "My behavior makes a lot of people uncomfortable. … Believe it or not, my true cause is the nation."

Gordillo, with her fondness for designer frocks, extreme jewelry and, apparently, abundant plastic surgery, was in fact a product of the PRI's old-style, autocratic type of rule, which lasted seven decades until 2000 and is poised now to return. The party controlled just about everything, including unions. Then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari anointed Gordillo in 1989 as president of the National Syndicate of Education Workers, or SNTE, after she'd spent years as a tireless and fiercely loyal climber in the party and the union.

In 2007, at a closed-door meeting protected by private guards, the union leadership purportedly made Gordillo "president for life." A dissident group of unionized teachers has been threatening ever since to denounce her to the International Labor Organization for abuse of office.

Many in Mexico see her as a symbol of the corruption and monopolistic concentration of power that have long plagued the country and undermined its efforts to modernize and become more democratic. She is widely feared, and no administration has proved itself willing to take her on.

Gordillo recently acknowledged that she made a deal with Calderon in which he agreed to give plum government jobs to her friends and family in exchange for her turning out the vote in his 2006 election. She said her goal was to improve the quality of education.

"She is the Mexican politicians' most important muse," social commentator Guadalupe Loaeza said.

Gordillo, 66, calls herself and is widely known as La Maestra, The Teacher. In public speeches, however, she sometimes sounds more like a failing student than a polished educator, fumbling words and syntax.

Although she can be charming, some associates call her manner imperious. She swats away allegations of feathering her bed with stolen state money, of nepotism, and of murder. In that case, a teacher who was her rival in the union was killed in the 1980s. The death was investigated and Gordillo was never charged, but suspicions lingered.

In the latest scandal to hit Gordillo, a one-time ally, Miguel Angel Yunes, alleged that in 2007 she attempted to extort about $2 million a month from the state social security agency that he headed at the time. Yunes said Gordillo wanted the money to help finance her own small political party, which is led by one of Gordillo's daughters.

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