Since before the 2006 election of President Felipe Calderon, Elba Esther Gordillo has been someone who could wag a finger and move Mexico’s most powerful politicians into line. These include former President Calderon himself. Gordillo is head of the Mexican teachers union, the largest union in Latin America at 1.4 million members. Historically a member of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), her decision to endorse Calderon swayed the election in favor of his National Action Party (PAN).
But oh, how things have changed. Today, the PRI is back in office, and Elba is in prison. On February 26, President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a law requiring stricter teacher evaluations. The next day, Elba was arrested for allegedly embezzling about $160 million from the teachers’ union account. While the timing is conspicuous, the charges seem to have some legs. Peña Nieto has also used public opinion to strengthen his endorsement of the law – think tank analyst José Antonio Crespo calls Elba “one of the most hated people in the country.” With her lifestyle, Ms. Gordillo is a wonderful Imelda Marcos-like throwback to the past. She reports income of $45,000 per year (a public school teacher with 10 years of experience generally makes around $14,000). And yet, she is known for wearing designer clothes, traveling by private jet, and plastic surgery jobs – rather curious.
Elba has lasted because she has done well for herself and her union members. Teachers are mostly tenured for life, and can grossly buy or sell their positions within the union. Naturally, this is degrading to Mexico’s kids. As I detailed in a 2011 post, Mexico has ranked “statistically significantly below the OECD average in reading, math, and science. The Economist points out that the education budget is 22 percent of public non-capital funding, the highest percentage in the OECD, but 80 percent goes to teacher salaries, well above the OECD average. Many false names and deceased teachers are being paid.
So what does it mean to have La Maestra, a wealthy and powerful union head, in prison? The political message in Mexico City is formidable – Peña Nieto wants to reform the telecom and energy sectors, and will either need to face down his opponents or undermine them. In telecom the opponent is Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man, whose companies control 70 percent of Mexico’s mobile phone subscriptions and 70 percent of land lines. In petroleum, it’s Carlos Romero Deschamps, head of the petroleum workers’ union, whose family has also received press for basking in luxury. Mr. Slim’s wealth and influence on Mexican government is well known, and Mr. Romero is a PRI Senator with plenty of followers. Both could be considerable opponents to reform if they choose to be, but Peña Nieto can harness public opinion to press them. Peña Nieto is taking the risk of alienating traditional PRI support bases, but he is following through on a key need for Mexico’s economy. However, as he acts, the ball is also in his opponents’ court to act.
 Luhnow, David and Juan Montes. “Mexico Sends Hint with Union Arrest” The Wall Street Journal. February 28, 2013.
 “Schooling the Whole Family” The Economist. May 12, 2011.
 Casey, Nicholas and Anthony Harrup. “Mexico Goes after its Monopolies” The Wall Street Journal. March 12, 2013.
 “’The Teacher’ in Detention” The Economist. March 2, 2013.