Elba Esther Gordillo, seen in 2003, heads Mexico's powerful teachers… (Eduardo Verdugo, Associated…)
MEXICO CITY — Elba Esther Gordillo, one of the most powerful women in Mexico and head of the country's huge and controversial teachers union, was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of misusing more than $200 million in union funds, Mexican officials said.
The arrest is likely to make significant political waves in Mexico. Gordillo, 68, is a longtime political power player who, with more than a million union-member votes at her command, enjoyed the ability to sway national elections. More recently, she organized the opposition to a national education reform plan that has been a key priority for Enrique Peña Nieto, the new Mexican president.
The reform, which Peña Nieto signed into law this week, stripped Gordillo of her power to hire and fire teachers, granting that power instead to the federal government.
Moreover, to many Mexicans, Gordillo has become a symbol of the lumbering, inefficient Mexican labor movement at its worst. The Mexican education system is among the worst-performing in the hemisphere. With her designer outfits and $5,000 purses, Gordillo was long suspected of illicitly enriching herself, though no allegations against her were ever proved.
At a news conference Tuesday, federal prosecutors announced that Gordillo and three other people had been arrested at the Toluca airport. Officials displayed what appeared to be a hastily designed chart that laid out the alleged shuffling of illicit funds among accounts in Mexico, Switzerland and the tiny principality of Liechtenstein in Central Europe.
The financial web, prosecutors alleged, allowed Gordillo to use union funds to pay for property abroad, as well as plastic surgery bills and shopping sprees at art galleries and Neiman Marcus, the Texas-based luxury retailer.
What the arrest means for Peña Nieto and his nascent presidency is far from clear. His supporters are likely to argue that it is a sign he is a true reformer: Gordillo was a product of the old-school boss system perfected by Peña Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Skeptics are more likely to interpret the move as an effort by Peña Nieto and the PRI leadership to centralize power, leaving little room for tolerance of rogue forces like Gordillo.
In one of her last major public appearances, at a Feb. 6 birthday celebration, Gordillo ended a speech with a flourish of defiant language, indicating that she was not likely to go gently into a new era of education reform:
"I want to die with an epitaph: 'Here lies a warrior. She died like a warrior.'"
Hernandez is a news assistant in The Times' Mexico City bureau.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson and news assistant Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.