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Mexican teachers union chief appears behind bars after arrest

February 27, 2013|By Daniel Hernandez
  • In this photo released by Mexico's federal court system, Elba Esther Gordillo appears for a hearing in Mexico City.
In this photo released by Mexico's federal court system, Elba Esther… (Juzgado Sexto de Distrito…)

MEXICO CITY -- Elba Esther Gordillo, Mexico's powerful teachers union leader, appeared behind bars Wednesday in an unusual public display as authorities read the charges against her.

Gordillo, 68, was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of using more than $200 million in union funds for personal gain.

Gordillo stood in a plain white turtleneck with her hair pulled back, behind a grid of black metal bars, a standard court setup in Mexico. But its live airing on cable TV was unusual because such proceedings in Mexico are rarely accessible to the public. When they have been aired, judicial reform activists have criticized them as unfairly incriminating a suspect.

Gordillo lifted her eyes toward the ceiling and sighed briefly as the charges were read. She is accused of misusing funds belonging to the National Syndicate of Education Workers, or SNTE, for real estate, designer goods, artwork and plastic surgery.

Gordillo, who is considered "president for life" of the teachers union, was arrested Tuesday as she arrived at the airport in Toluca, west of Mexico City, along with three aides.

The move shocked Mexico's political world and came as the union's general council was meeting in Guadalajara, which kept the union leadership far from Mexico City.  The council was meeting to discuss a tougher opposition to proposed education reforms aiming to break the union's stifling hold on public schooling in Mexico.

"We trust in 'La Maestra' Elba Esther Gordillo and we await justice," Juan Diaz de la Torre, the union's secretary-general, said in Guadalajara, using Gordillo's nickname, which means "the Teacher."

According to sources cited by the newspaper El Universal, Gordillo had no dinner on her first night behind bars at the Santa Martha Acatitla women's prison in Mexico City. Rene Fujiwara, a grandson who is a legislator in the lower house of Congress, reportedly brought her a bag with some personal items and a toothbrush during the night.

Gordillo was nervous during her medical examination and could not remember the phone numbers of her daughters, one of whom is a  senator, the report said.

Thanks to Gordillo's well-known taste for top-of-the-line goods, her arrest rippled into unexpected territory when the Neiman Marcus department store chain reportedly said it would fully cooperate with any investigation in Mexico. According to statements by the Mexican government, a woman linked to Gordillo allegedly bought more than $2 million worth of items at Neiman Marcus stores with illicit funds in 22 transactions from 2009 to 2012.

Mexico's attorney general's office added an "organized crime" charge against the union boss, in effect removing the possibility that she could post bail. With that, Gordillo, who was considered politically untouchable in Mexico only a week ago, remained in custody.

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