By Kent Paterson
Was last week’s historic detention of long-time Mexican union leader and political broker Elba Esther “La Maestra” Gordillo a long overdue act of justice and a renewed commitment to the rule of law? Was it the climax of lingering conflicts between Gordillo and leaders of her former PRI party, including members of the new administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto? Or was it a heavy-handed attempt, executed in old authoritarian style but wrapped up in legalese and media wizadry, at squashing the burgeoning teacher revolt against the nation’s new education reform law?
Whatever the motives behind the stunning February 26 arrest of Gordillo, who ran the huge National Union of Education Workers (SNTE) like a personal fiefdom for 23 years, the severity and details of the criminal charges against a key player in Mexican politics were repeatedly flashed in the media all week long.
Televisa star announcer Carlos Loret de Mola and commentator Eduardo Ruiz Healy didn’t even bother to hide their glee at the detention of “La Maestra,” who was whisked to prison like a drug lord by marines and federal policemen. Gordillo was essentially jailed for what amounts to embezzlement, but accused of crimes that don’t carry the right to bail. In a surgical strike by the Peña Nieto administration, she was removed from the political scene.
For all intents and purposes, the mass media convicted Gordillo of the federal accusations of organized crime and illicit expenditures of funds. Television and cable news devoted long hours to broadcasting graphics and charts- courtesy of the federal attorney generals’ office- of the alleged money flow from the SNTE to Gordillo’s purported three million-dollar shopping spree at Nieman Marcus, plastic surgery at a California hospital and purchase of two San Diego-area homes via bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechenstein.
The Reforma News Agency ran a fashion photo gallery of Gordillo showing the disgraced union leader decked out in a pair of $1,200 shoes and variously beaming a $120,000 diamond ring and a $77,000 watch.
Gordillo’s arrest was treated as a national emergency, almost as if the nation had suffered a natural disaster or a new economic calamity. Interrupting regular programming, the President broadcast a five-minute message to the nation on the detention of the one time powerhouse within Peña Nieto’s PRI party.
Underscoring the seriousness of the affair, all the nation’s governors were summoned to Mexico City to meet with Pena Nieto. He assured them the case against Gordillo had solid legal foundations and, for good measure, threw in a pitch for the education reform law.
At stake was the Pact for Mexico, the Peña Nieto administration’s lynchpin political and economic strategy that includes controversial labor and education reforms approved by the dominant political parties. If Mexico’s young president had taken a defining political gamble, it appeared to pay off-at least in the short-term. The big political parties rallied around Peña Nieto, and even Gordillo’s old associates quickly put distance between themselves and the 68-year-old woman sitting in prison. A new union president, Juan Diaz de la Torre, was elected to replace Gordillo.
While its not yet clear how Diaz will maneuver in a context marked by pressure from the federal government to fall in line behind the reform on the one hand and rising rank-and-file rage among teachers who contend the law was rammed down their throats on the other, the new SNTE leader criticized the growth of teacher-bashing in the past few years.
“Based on my professional formation and pedagogical and educational experience, there is no country in the history of humanity that has reached its development objectives by denigrating teachers,” Diaz was quoted by the Reforma news agency. “What they are doing is a crime.”
Serious questions linger about the timing, method and implications of Gordillo’s arrest. Staunchly opposed to the education law that was fast-tracked through Congress right before last Christmas, Gordillo was arrested at precisely the moment teacher protests against the law were spreading. Educators oppose a new evaluation system they contend will erode job security, as well as measures in the law that could encourage privatization.
On February 25, President Peña Nieto signed the education reform into law and held a ceremony attended by political leaders and Education Secretary Emilio Chuayfett where no representative of the SNTE was present. Chuayfett blasted criticisms of the law as based in “ignorance” or “bad faith,” insisting the new law would neither weaken the rights of teachers nor result in privatization. The next day, La Maestra was detained in a military operation after returning from San Diego.
Federal Attorney General Jesus Murillo insisted to the press that the case against Gordillo was based on an investigation opened last December, but SNTE dissident leader Artemio Cruz was quoted as saying multiple corruption complaints along the lines of the current government allegations had been filed against Gordillo with federal legal and labor authorities during the past three presidential administrations but to no avail.
Writing in the Guerrero daily El Sur, columnist Humberto Mussachio gave little credibility to the money laundering charge against Gordillo. In light of the substantial Mexican investment abroad, Mussachio wrote that “there might not be any union leader, businessman or public functionary free of suspicion.” Mussachio also cautioned against new government interference in union finances and the selection of labor leaders.
“Even though we don’t agree with (Gordillo), this is a media show and a political persecution,” Elizabeth Rendon, spokeswoman for the Zihuatanejo branch of the Guerrero State Coordinator of Education Workers (CETEG), a large dissident force within the SNTE, told FNS. “(Gordillo’s) corruption has been known for a long time. It was an opportune moment for the government. We’re not confident it is really an act of justice as opposed to a political persecution.”
Rendon added, “This is a distraction to try to divert attention away from the reform.”
In Guerrero, CETEG members walked off the job this week to protest the education law. Union members have since occupied state government offices, tussled with local lawmakers, reached out to parents and conducted street campaigns to press their cause. In Zihuatanejo, hundreds of teachers have occupied the downtown plaza, where they pass the day listening to speakers, playing lottery and talking to fellow strikers.
Similar protests were held this past week in Michoacan, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Chiapas, among other states. Rendon said 70 percent of the schools and at least 670 teachers in the small city of Zihuatnejo alone are participating in the strike.
The union activist reiterated concerns that the section of the law allowing individual schools autonomy in fundraising will increase costs for parents, who already pay enrollment and other fees despite the Constitutional right to a free primary education, as well as permit private businesses power and influence in cash-strapped schools.
“(Government) is giving responsibility for the maintenance of the school to the parents while the state is shirking its responsibility,” Rendon asserted.
In comments to FNS, two local veteran teachers lambasted the law as really a labor reform aimed at the employment rights of teachers that does not contain genuine provisions for pedagogical reform, curricular improvement or better teacher quality.
A 38-year classroom veteran who once served as Zihuatanejo’s municipal director of education, Nohemi Ibarra said her math classes have 40 students in each section. Giving individual attention to the students is “very difficult,” Ibarra acknowledged. Ibarra and special education professional Jose Eleazar said typical conditions in local schools include overcrowded classes, students from dysfunctional families, an absence of computers, a lack of new paint, and no air conditioning in a hot, tropical environment.
“The Secretariat of Education tells us to send information digitally but they don’t give us telephones and the Internet,” Eleazar said. “Of 250 schools in Zihuatanejo, 80 percent are in bad condition,” Ibarra estimated. She criticized the education reform for putting more of the burden of repairing infrastructure on the individual school.
“The State wants parents to raise funds for these necessities,” Ibarra maintained. “If you want a new room, pay for it. We aren’t in agreement with this..we want the State to play its role.”
Ibarra and Eleazar said they favor reforms that would cut class size, help teachers obtain higher education degrees and ensure adequate government support for the educational infrastructure.
If Gordillo’s arrest was calculated in Mexico City as neccesary to eliminate teacher opposition to the education reform law, the wager fell short. Regardless of Gordillo’s legal troubles, Rendon and other protest leaders vow to crank up their movement. Although the law is now on the books, authorities at the state level will have the power to interpret and apply its provisions, according to Rendon. To ensure teacher job security as well as free public education, the striking teachers are “seeking a dialogue with the state government,” she stressed.
Teacher activists have called for a 48-hour national strike on March 4 and 5, and are mobilizing for a massive march against the education reform law in Mexico City next week. Meanwhile, the government’s case against Gordillo goes forward. The former union leader has filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission charging the Pena Nieto administration with mistreatment and holding her incommunicado.
Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico