Elba Esther Gordillo – The Expert Take

shutterstock_70763086By Duncan Wood, 2/27/2012

La jugada del experto-The Expert Take in Spanish

Yesterday’s PGR arrest of Elba Esther Gordillo on charges of embezzlement marks a bold step forward by the Pena Nieto administration to establish its authority and legitimacy in the eyes of the Mexican public, and to send a message to Mexico’s most powerful unions. The arrest comes after the successful passage of an education reform bill through Congress, earning the government plaudits from international observers, who saw it as a much-needed attack on the power of the teachers union, the SNTE, but receiving a skeptical response from many national critics who believed that the government would not follow through with implementation of the new laws. This new development destroys those doubts about the seriousness of the Pena Nieto government to take on the union, and to mobilize the sovereign power of the state against vested interests.

Elba Esther Gordillo’s fall from power has been precipitous. In the early 2000s she was secretary general of the PRI party, before a dispute with PRI presidential candidate Roberto Madrazo brought about her expulsion from the party. She then formed an alliance with the PAN and helped to win the 2006 election for Felipe Calderon. After 6 years in which her power grew and grew, she looked set to repeat the experience, this time with the PRI. Only a year and half ago the PANAL party, the political branch of the SNTE, had agreed on an alliance with the PRI in preparation for the 2012 elections. That alliance promptly broke down, leading to questions about the relationship between the union leader and the PRI, and confirming that the old dispute between Gordillo and the party had not, in fact been forgiven. When the education reform passed last December, the breach appeared to have widened between the two sides. And now the state’s case against the infamous union leader appears to be a clear assertion of dominance over the SNTE.

In addition to the SNTE, the opposition PAN party should be concerned by the arrest. Elba Esther Gordillo is an attack on the historical record of the Calderon administration, which refused to confront the SNTE and Gordillo during its time in power. This fact not only discredited the PAN in the eyes of the public, but it also made the party prey to accusations of failing to take on the nation’s vested interests.

Tuesday’s arrest will not only galvanize public support behind the government for its reform agenda and help to legitimize its legislative agenda, but it is also a clear shot across the bows of other unions in Mexico. The implications of this for reforms to other areas of the economy and public sector, including energy, should not be underestimated.

Duncan Wood is the Director of the Woodrow Wilson Centers Mexico Institute.

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