Jailed Mexican union boss finds little support

Jailed teachers union boss finds little support in Mexico as new government flexes muscles

Associated Press
Jailed Mexican union boss finds little support
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In this photo released by Mexico's federal court system, the head of Mexico's powerful teachers' union, Elba Esther Gordillo, stands behind bars as she appears for a hearing at a federal prison in Mexico City, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013. Gordillo was charged with embezzling 2 billion pesos (about $160 million) from union funds, as well as organized crime. The judge in the case said a decision about whether the evidence is sufficient to merit a trial would be taken in three to six days. (AP Photo/Juzgado Sexto de Distrito en Procesos Penales Federales)

MEXICO CITY (AP) -- Jailed union boss Elba Esther Gordillo is finding little support in Mexico as political players scurry to distance themselves from her and yield to President Enrique Pena Nieto's decision to arrest her in the most dramatic move since he took office.

After 12 years in which rival-party presidents stumbled, the decision to arrest Gordillo for allegedly embezzling union funds appeared to mark a return to the old days of Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, when powerful presidents presided over highly orchestrated and well-oiled political machinations.

By Thursday, the 1.5 million-member teachers union that Gordillo ruled for nearly a quarter century, had quickly elected one of her former lieutenants to replace her. And the National Alliance Party she helped create said it was now independent and autonomous, and wouldn't comment on the legal proceedings against her.

The well-prepared case presented by Pena Nieto's attorney general alleging Gordillo spent about $160 million in union funds on plastic surgery, luxury shopping and homes in California was a contrast with former President Felipe Calderon, who saw judges toss out his biggest legal cases against shadowy political figures.

Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam showed reporters extensive charts detailing how Gordillo's aides allegedly channeled union money into offshore account, and then used the funds to pay her bills at the Neiman Marcus department store and plastic surgery clinics.

Previous governments have had a notoriously hard time proving this kind of organized-crime charges against Gordillo. While it remains to be seen whether federal prosecutors will win a conviction, even her former friend, former foreign affairs secretary Jorge Castaneda, wrote in a column Thursday that charges against a woman he described as "the goddess of Mexican unionism" will probably hold up.

Pena Nieto appeared on national television late Wednesday to say that he had nothing against teachers and was really defending them against corrupt leaders who misused their money. On Thursday, the government flooded the airwaves with slick commercials showing an attentive teacher leading well-dressed students through idyllic fields and mountains, under a slogan that roughly translates as "Moving Mexico Forward."

It all contrasts sharply with Calderon's troubled conservative National Action Party administration, which governed for the six years that ended Dec. 1 and whose attempts to reach out to the public to justify his offensives against drug cartels sometimes ended with angry mothers of dead teens shouting at him.

Calderon's attempts to prosecute gambling magnate Jorge Hank Rhon on weapons possession charges went down to a humiliating defeat, as did the mass arrest of mayors supposedly linked to drug cartels in 2009.

Despite clear public examples of Gordillo's flamboyant lifestyle, Calderon's former finance secretary, Ernesto Cordero, told local media Thursday that Calderon's administration never had any evidence to charge her, an explanation few Mexicans believe. Calderon is widely believed to have relied on Gordillo's support to win the presidency.

Vicente Fox, the National Action president who first unseated the PRI from the presidency in 2000, also didn't go after figures like Gordillo.

Fox's former spokesman, political consultant Ruben Aguilar, said Fox didn't want to risk violence and social upheaval by going after power structures the PRI had built up over its seven-decade rule from 1929 to 2000.

"Fox's historic mission was to guarantee political transition in peace," Aguilar said. "It would have been stupid to go around persecuting everybody and putting at risk social peace."

Ironically, it has taken the return of the PRI, which was known for its close ties to corrupt union leaders and oversaw the installation of Gordillo atop the teachers union in 1989, to attack what many Mexicans consider one of the country's worst cases of corruption.

"You hear the phrase, 'Now we have a real president.' That implies the idea of courage in taking on powerful people who had the National Action governments terrified," said political analyst Jesus Silva-Herzog. "I think it could become worrisome, this nostalgia for the strong man."

It's not clear, however, whether Pena Nieto can return to the imperial-president role. He has floundered in his first three months in office on his prime campaign pledge to reduce the violence associated with the war on drug cartels, presenting only vague proposals so far.

And times have changed since the PRI lost power in 2000.

Mexicans are much less deferential these days. Local newspapers and blogs, for examples, have field days ridiculing Pena Nieto every time he stumbles over his words in a public speech, something he does frequently as he misstates a date or the name of a government agency.

His press office scrupulously scrubs transcripts of his speeches to correct such mistakes, suggesting they may want to return to the era when the president simply did not make mistakes. But those days may be over.

"I don' think they'll be able to play the same movie again," said Silva Herzog. "The government may want to hit the 'play' button again, but I don't think the script can be the same."

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