World Politics Review

Elba Esther Gordillo, the leader of the most powerful teachers union in Mexico, was arrested earlier this week on suspicion of embezzling millions in union funds for personal expenses, including paying for private property and plastic surgery.  

The arrest of the Gordillo, known throughout Mexico simply as “La Maestra,” or “The Teacher” and previously seen as being above the law, came a day after Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a sweeping educational reform that the union she led had opposed.

Duncan Wood, director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said that while a great deal of attention has focused on the arrest’s likely impact on education in Mexico, it is only one part of a larger story about the exercise of power. “It’s not just about education,” he said. “It’s about so much more than that.”

Calling the arrest “a direct attack against the vested interests in Mexico,” Wood explained that it was part of an effort by Peña Nieto’s ruling party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party or PRI, to “impose the authority of the state on the public sector.” He added: “That is something that most Mexicans fully agree with.” The move may also be intended to signal to international investors that the Mexican government has the strength to enforce the country’s laws.  

“The teachers union is the target because it’s an easy target, but it’s also a very ambitious target, which shows that the government really does have the political will to do these things, whereas previous governments have not,” Wood said.

While the previous government had been building a case against Gordillo for her alleged corruption, it had lacked the political support to take action, he added.