Police helicopters are clattering overhead outside our window in Mexico City this morning as the town buzzes with a frenzy of marvel, speculation and no small dose of schadenfreude over the stunning news that union leader Elba Esther Gordillo was arrested on charges of embezzlement to the tune of over US$150 million. The helicopters may just be chasing some bank robber, but it adds to the sensational atmosphere surrounding one of the most eye-popping political hits in decades here.
Gordillo, the longtime head of the 1.5-million member National Education Workers Union (SNTE) is charged with systematically diverting funds from union coffers into personal accounts overseas: that part is no surprise to anyone. Since her rise to the top of the SNTE through an internal coup in 1989, Gordillo’s ruthless wielding of power, ostentatious flaunting of personal wealth and untouchability despite endless allegations of corruption, influence peddling and even murder have made her a symbol of all that is putrid in the Mexican political system. In a nation renowned worldwide for corrupt politicians, her sheer venality towers above most others. And to make horror perfect, the fact that Gordillo ran the nation’s massive public education system untrammeled like a medieval lord – sending millions to Swiss bank accounts while children went without schooling in much of the country – made her and the SNTE perhaps the single greatest impediment to the country’s development (see one of our past posts on this topic here).
The part that comes as a surprise is that new President Enrique Peña Nieto is truly going all-in and throwing Gordillo in the slammer in a preemptive move against the SNTE’s imminent campaign of disruption in opposition to education reform. The education reform, the first of its kind in decades, was signed into law this past Monday and is seen as an attempt to weaken the vice-grip of the SNTE over the entire education system. The reform calls for wild-eyed innovations such as teacher evaluations and merit-based hiring that are unacceptable to the union, which operates an entrenched system of hereditary positions and the buying and selling of teaching salaries, which in many cases do not require the ‘teacher’ to go anywhere near a classroom.
The move could be a risky one for Peña, particularly considering the Mexican judiciary’s newfound enthusiasm for releasing detainees based on procedural irregularities. But Mr. Peña, although youthful, is no innocent schoolboy when it comes to the dark side of Mexican politics. Going after the likes of Gordillo is like grabbing a crocodile by the tail, and whoever does so better be sure they are not fannying about once the thrashing starts. We cannot help but imagine that the secret planning sessions between Peña and top henchmen Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, Jesús Murillo Karam and Emilio Chuayffet to set up the sting were held with the gravity of those called by Hua Guofeng to bring down the Gang of Four in 1976. The government knows well that if Gordillo is released, her wrath will make the Sixth Seal look like a morning with Barney the Dinosaur, so we can only presume they will use their extroadinary powers to prevail upon the judiciary to see things their way. Failing that, we’ll have quite the pig’s breakfast on our hands.
The move we are anxious to see now is the response by the SNTE. At this moment the remaining union leadership is surely locked in frantic debate over what to do next. The union and its followers were poised to launch a nationwide campaign of protests and disruption in opposition to the education reform. They now face a high stakes choice: Throw all their resources into a furious defense of Gordillo, including a nationwide strike that would close public schools indefinitely (something that surely would warm the heart of former presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador), or make the strategic determination that Gordillo’s day is done and effectively abandon her to save what they can of their own instutional influence (while of course sending up smokescreens of hyperbolic protestation). Unless Gordillo is released soon, we’re betting on the latter.
So let’s bust out the popcorn and see what happens next. And may the schoolchildren of Mexico win, for once.