MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s most powerful woman was charged in a massive embezzlement scheme Wednesday, standing grim-faced behind bars live on national television in what many called a clear message that the new government is asserting its authority.
The country watched rapt as the national teachers union head, Elba Esther Gordillo, heard the charges against her read by a judge in a grim prison in eastern Mexico City. It was a dizzying fall from power for a woman who traveled on private jets and maintained properties worth millions of dollars in Southern California.
Gordillo was charged with embezzling about $160 million in union funds, as well as organized crime. The judge said a decision about whether evidence is sufficient for a trial would be made in three to six days.
If found guilty, Gordillo could face 30 years in prison.
She was arrested Tuesday afternoon as she returned from San Diego for a meeting of leaders of the 1.5 million-member National Union of Education Workers she has led for nearly a quarter-century. She was heading the union’s fight with President Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration over the country’s most sweeping education overhaul in more than 70 years.
The president signed the changes into law the previous day.
“This is a case that has absolutely no political motivation,” Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam told the Televisa network.
But most Mexicans scoffed at the idea that prosecutors had just found out that Gordillo — known for her designer clothes, luxury cars, and plastic surgery — might be corrupt. Many saw it as a shot across the bow of potential foes by the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ran the country for seven decades, was thrown out of power in 2006, and won back the presidency last year.
The message: Do not commit Gordillo’s mistake of publicly opposing the president’s reform efforts.
“The message is that, if this can happen to Elba Esther, it can happen to anyone,” former mayor Manuel Camacho Solis of Mexico City told MVS Radio. Prosecutors detected nearly $3 million in purchases at Neiman Marcus stores using union funds, $17,000 in US plastic surgery bills, and purchase of a million-dollar San Diego home.
The arrest sparked calls for prosecutors to bring similar cases against other union leaders known for lavish spending. The main opposition parties named the leader of the country’s oil workers union, accused of giving his son a $2 million Ferrari, a report that has never been confirmed or denied.
The arrest of Gordillo sidelines a powerful opponent of the PRI even as the administration takes on a figure many blame for the dire state of the Mexican education system. Gordillo was a PRI leader for decades before splitting from the party, which was accused of corruption and authoritarian practices during its decades in power.
“This can be something very good for the country, but also for the government and for the PRI,” said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching in Mexico City. “It cleans up the image of the PRI, as if to say, ‘Yes, we will be a different PRI, we’re moving forward, not backward.’ ”
Pena Nieto is also proposing changes that would open the state-owned oil company to more private investment, a move that could awaken similar opposition from that union.
But teacher union members had been the only ones marching against reform in recent weeks, and the fiery Gordillo vowed to keep fighting.
“I want to die with the epitaph: Here lies a warrior. She died like a warrior,” Gordillo said in a speech on her 68th birthday this month.