MEXICO CITY – The arrest of Mexico's most powerful union leader echoes the hardball tactics of Mexico's once-imperial presidency while pushing forward an education reform that Enrique Pena Nieto has made a centerpiece of his new administration.
Elba Esther Gordillo, known for flashing her Hermes handbags and heels, stood behind bars Wednesday in a grim prison in eastern Mexico City as a judge read off charges of embezzlement and organized crime. The arrest sidelined a woman who had tried to mobilize teachers to block a schools shake-up designed to end her control over hiring and firing of teachers across the country.
It also sent a message to other union bosses and business magnates: Don't get in the way of Pena Nieto, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party has newly returned to the power it held for seven straight decades, when incoming presidents often crushed those who challenged them.
"This is an old tactic, let's hope that it doesn't just stop there, as it did in the past, when a single case was enough to calm things down and add legitimacy" to presidential power, said Jose Antonio Crespo, an analyst at the Center for Economic Studies. "Let's hope this doesn't stop and that it becomes something more systematic, for which there is a burning need."
Crespo was referring to the business magnates and union bosses who have built fortunes and political power by dominating whole sectors of the economy. Like Gordillo, their resistance could be an obstacle to Pena Nieto's pledges to modernize and open up Mexico's economy.
But the tough message of Tuesday's arrest may have been enough.
Gordillo, whose 1.5 million-member National Union of Education Workers organized protests against Pena Nieto's education reform signed into law this week, was pulled off a plane arriving from San Diego late Tuesday and taken to Mexico City's women's prison.
It was a dizzying fall from power for a woman often credited with swinging a presidential election and who maintained properties worth millions of dollars in Southern California.
Gordillo, 68, was charged with embezzling 2 billion pesos (about $160 million) from the union she has led for nearly a quarter century. The judge in the case said he would rule in three to six days on whether the evidence is sufficient to merit a trial.
If found guilty, Gordillo could face 30 years in prison.
As in past cases, officials denied any political motive. Asked if he had other cases planned, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told the Televisa news network, "I don't have evidence as clear as in this case."
Still, analysts said other powerful figures will surely take notice.
"I think there will be more willingness to negotiate and accept" reforms "rather than engage in confrontation," said Crespo.
With education reform now enacted, Pena Nieto is also proposing to open the state oil company to more private investment, a move that could awaken opposition from the oil workers union. The administration is also proposing measures to bring more competition in the highly concentrated television and telecom sectors, steps that business magnates have long tried to stymie with court appeals.
There is a sense that "this is a message to all the other corrupt leaders," said Humberto Castillo, a 55-year-old retired teacher from Mexico State, who was reading a newspaper story about Gordillo's arrest while he waited for his daughter to come out of a job interview. "I thought she was untouchable."
For many, Gordillo stood as a symbol of the powers that dominate Mexico. She was a favorite of newspaper cartoonists because of her immediately recognizable face and designer clothes and accessories. Prosecutors said she spent nearly $3 million in purchases at Neiman Marcus department stores using union funds, as well as $17,000 in U.S. plastic surgery bills and $1 million to buy a home in San Diego.
It was unclear if the arrest would force Gordillo out of her union leadership position. Mexican mining union boss Napoleon Gomez Urrutia has continued to hold his post more than four years after he moved to Canada amid accusations that he misappropriated $55 million in union funds.
Many Mexicans immediately began suggesting prosecution of other union leaders. Opposition parties mentioned the boss of the oil workers union, Carlos Romero Deschamps, who, according to Mexican news media, gave his son a $2 million Ferrari and whose daughter posted Facebook photos of her trips to Europe aboard private jets and yachts.
Romero Deschamps' immunity from prosecution as a legislator – a status he still enjoys – helped keep him from going to jail in a scandal over his union's illegal $61.3 million campaign donation to the PRI in 2000.
But if Deschamps stayed within the womb of the PRI while under fire, Gordillo was unusually defiant, allying at times with the new non-PRI presidents, helping create a new political party and finally bolting from the PRI, where she had long been an influential figure. Many credited her party with pulling enough votes to swing the narrow 2006 election to National Action Party's Felipe Calderon.
Sergio Aguayo, a political analyst at the elite Colegio de Mexico, said Gordillo "wasn't just a shadow power, but one that wanted to be a political power."
"In Pena Nieto's vision of Mexico, no one can be above the president," Aguayo said. "It's the same old imperial presidency."
Gordillo's combativeness may have led her to miscalculate Pena Nieto's willingness to reinstate the old tradition of unquestioned presidential authority.
"She underestimated him," columnist and political analyst Raymundo Riva Palacio said of Pena Nieto.
The PRI, which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000, spent 12 years out of power before returning to the presidency with Pena Nieto's 2012 election victory.
Gordillo's arrest recalled the 1989 detention of once-feared oil union boss Joaquin Hernandez Galicia. He had criticized the presidential candidacy of Carlos Salinas and threatened a strike if Salinas privatized any part of the government oil monopoly.
On Jan. 10, 1989, about a month after Salinas took office, soldiers used a bazooka to blow down the door of Hernandez's home in the Gulf Coast city of Ciudad Madero.
He was freed from prison after Salinas left office.
Salinas' sweep of old, uncooperative union bosses also led to opening the way for a new, up-and-coming leader in the teachers union, Gordillo, who was at first seen as a reformer.
Gordillo's arrest alone is far from enough to help Pena Nieto improve Mexico's schools. So great is the union's control over hiring that even the government acknowledges it's not sure how many schools, teachers or students exist in Mexico.
The Mexican education system has been persistently one of the worst performers among the world's developed economies, with few signs of improvement. Nearly every Mexican 4-year-old is in pre-school, but only 47 percent are expected to graduate high school. In the U.S., the number is closer to 80 percent.
In a television interview last week about education reform, the interviewer told Gordillo that she was the most hated woman in Mexico.
"There is no one more loved by their people than I," Gordillo answered. "I care about the teachers. This is a deep and serious dispute about public education."