Behind bars ... Elba Esther Gordillo Photo: AP
LOS ANGELES: Mexico has arrested the leader of its powerful teachers' union on suspicion of embezzling $200 million ($195 million) and using it to pay for luxurious homes in America, private planes, shopping sprees, works of art and plastic surgery.
Elba Esther Gordillo, 68, known as La Maestra, or The Teacher, is alleged to have funnelled union money to bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, buying two homes in San Diego, spending $US3 million at the expensive US department store Neiman Marcus and having cosmetic procedures worth at least $US17,000.
Ms Gordillo was born into poverty in the south of Mexico and started working as a teacher at 15, before being widowed at 18
A $US1million transfer to a Swiss account, for a company registered to Gordillo's mother, allegedly went towards a property on Coronado Island off San Diego, which is one of the most affluent places to live in America. It is home to sports stars, politicians and actors, and former residents have included Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.
Property on Coronado Island ... it is one of the most affluent places to live in the US. Photo: AP
Ms Gordillo has been a towering and flamboyant figure in Mexican politics for two decades as head of the 1.5million-member National Union of Education Workers, the largest labour union in Latin America. She also became a symbol of alleged corruption, living in a penthouse in Mexico City, wearing designer clothes and being ferried around in expensive cars with bodyguards. She was once photographed carrying a $US5500 purse and wearing $US1200 shoes, and has been accused of amassing 10 homes.
She was arrested as Enrique Pena Nieto, the newly elected Mexican president, sought to force through reform which would break the union's grip over the education system. The union controls appointments and the curriculum and has allegedly been padding the public payroll with thousands of phantom teachers.
Ms Gordillo was detained at an airport just outside Mexico City along with several other union officials after she arrived on a private plane from San Diego.
Outspoken ... Elba Esther Gordillo. Photo: Reuters
Jesus Murillo, Mexico's attorney general, said: "Clearly, we're facing a case in which the money of education workers has been misused illegally for the benefit of various people. Under this government nobody is above the law."
Ms Gordillo was born into poverty in the south of Mexico and started working as a teacher at 15, before being widowed at 18. She was formerly a prominent member of Mr Pena Nieto's centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) but was expelled in 2006. She formed her own New Alliance Party and was considered key in securing victory for Felipe Calderon in the election that year.
Mr Murillo denied that the arrest was politically motivated, adding: "This was a very clear investigation and we will have more of them."
Luxury living ... a boat and jet ski sit tied to a private dock behind the home, right, owned by the family of Elba Esther Gordillo. Photo: AP
In a television interview last week, Ms Gordillo said: "There is no one more loved by their people than I. I care about the teachers."
The Daily Telegraph, London