Though the writing has been on the wall for Elba Esther Gordillo, I’m not sure anyone expected it to go down like this. The longtime (and famously corrupt) leader of the teachers union has been arrested at the Toluca airport on charges of embezzling untold sums from the union. The charges were brought after the government discovered irregularities to the tune of 2.6 billion pesos. In statements, the government revealed that investigations had discovered that from 2008-2012 funds had been diverted to make payments for shopping trips, plastic surgery, art gallery purchases, and the acquisition of property abroad.
If the charges are unsurprising, the rapidity of Elba Esther’s descent is striking, and ineluctably reminiscent of Carlos Salinas’s arrest of Joaquín Hernández Galicia, “La Quina”, the head of the PEMEX workers’ union in early 1989. That move was a personal settling of scores and a political statement of authority; it was hardly the inauguration of a new era of rectitude. Peña Nieto has made much noise about anti-corruption plans, but the motivations for this new quinazo are probably more personal and political than they are puritanical. Elba Esther stood in the way of Peña Nieto’s education reform, there was a longstanding prickly relationship, and, quite simply, Elba Esther no longer had the power she once held. Like Al Capone and tax evasion, embezzlement was merely the means to an end.
What’s next for the SNTE? It is fairly likely that Peña Nieto’s government intervenes in an old-school priísta cooptation of the union, ensuring that the educational reform moves forward. The worst case scenario involves extreme infighting and factionalism, and there is certainly grassroots activism that–if upsized to the national union–could prove very problematic for the government. To wit, the militant teachers’ union in Oaxaca, which led massive protests there in 2006 and has continued to protest annually, is actually dissident from Elba Esther’s wing of the SNTE. There is thus no reason to believe that the union will now return to democracy, nor that the government will allow it to do so.