Head Of Mexico's Teachers Union Behind Bars

The powerful head of Mexico's teacher's union is in jail charged with embezzling about $160 million in union funds. Prosecutors claim some of the money went to plastic surgery, real estate in the U.S. and other luxury expenses.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Here's a signal that the newly elected president of Mexico may be ready to start cleaning house. The longtime boss of Mexico's teachers union is in jail on charges of embezzling more than $160 million in union funds. Prosecutors say the money went to maintain a luxurious lifestyle, as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: There aren't many people more despised in Mexico than the head of the powerful teachers union. Elba Esther Gordillo, known as The Teacher, has long been accused of using the union's large coffers for personal gain. It's not surprising that outside a Mexico City elementary school, this is probably the cleanest opinion of her I can put on the radio.

DANIEL ORTEGA: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Daniel Ortega says Esther always looked like a powerful, despotic person who abused power. He's glad she's in jail. Former foreign minister Jorge Castaneda says Mexico's new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, made a smart move by arresting her.

JORGE CASTANEDA: He seems willing, finally, somebody, to go against the powers that be in this country, in a country where the power is concentrated in extraordinarily few hands.

KAHN: However, of all of Mexico's entrenched powers, Esther Gordillo is probably the easiest mark to go after. She represents some of Mexico's most poorly paid workers, yet openly flaunts her love of designer clothes, and the press loved to demonize her. But, oh, how the devil kept wearing Prada and Chanel and Louis Vuitton. According to the attorney general's office, she allegedly used union funds to pay a $2 million Neiman Marcus bill.

She recently moved money from a Swiss bank account to buy a million-dollar home in San Diego, and she spent tens of thousands of dollars on plastic surgery. Yesterday, Esther appeared in court, but declined to make a plea. Standing behind bars and dressed in a prison-issued beige T-shirt, the most power woman in Mexico looked anything but, and much different than just a few weeks ago when she openly challenged President Pena in his push to reform the country's flagging education system.

ELBA ESTHER GORDILLO: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: At her 68th birthday party, thrown by union faithful, Esther said she would not be intimidated and would fight reforms she says threaten teacher's jobs.

GORDILLO: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: On my tombstone, she said, I want written: Here lies a warrior. She died as a warrior. Pena Nieto seemed to take her up on the threat. He signed the sweeping reform bill, then arrested her the next day. The bill takes straight aim meant most of the power Esther spent decades maintaining, including a new credentialing and hiring process that eliminates the long-standing practice of selling or inheriting tenured teacher positions.

There is much speculation whether Pena Nieto will now go after other powerful union leaders also suspected of corruption. In a press conference, the attorney general would only say the administration is committed to upholding the law, and no one is above it. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

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