Mexican Teachers Boss Accused of Theft; Steps Down

Juan Diaz de la Torre, until recently the head of the Mexican teachers union Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Educacion (SNTE), may have done the impossible by creating nostalgia for his predecessor, Elba Esther Gordillo Morales. Late in October, a group of member teachers filed a criminal complaint against de la Torre, accusing him of embezzling millions of pesos. “There are thousands of teachers in the country who are in the dark because they don’t know what their money is being used for,” said spokesman Venancio Morales Zuniga. The SNTE countered with its own suit, claiming the charge is “totally false and devoid of reality.” But with pressure on him growing, de la Torre stepped down a month later. The main beneficiary of all this – perish the thought – may be Ms. Gordillo, released from house arrest in August. Her supporters, regrettably, include teachers.

Established in 1943, SNTE has a legacy of corruption on a scale virtually unrivaled by any union in the world, never mind in Mexico. A group of teachers want to change that. And they are focusing on the union’s retirement fund, which now manages about 20 billion pesos (US$1 billion) in assets. They have issues with how the funds are being spent. “No teacher knows the fate of that money,” said Mr. Morales. “That’s why we’re asking for accountability in front of the authorities. Juan Diaz de la Torre is a usurper.” But de la Torre actually looks like a beacon of integrity and transparency compared to the person he replaced, Esther Gordillo, who, aided by her vast network of family and friends, almost unquestionably for years had ripped off the union by more than $150 million.

Union Corruption Update twice has covered the twisted saga of Esther Gordillo, first in 2008 and again in 2013. The latter article was prompted by the February 26, 2013 arrest of Ms. Gordillo, then 68, when she stepped off her private jet at Toluca Airport near Mexico City. Authorities, ready for her arrival, whisked her and two unnamed associates from the scene, placing them in confinement to await charges of looting the roughly 1.4 million-member union. Many of her countrymen seemed relieved that the woman known as “La Maestra” (“The Teacher”) finally was getting her just deserts. Since assuming control over the union in 1989, Gordillo had built a virtually untouchable patronage racket that hired loyalists for no-show teachers’ jobs; controlled school personnel policies; bribed politicians; and fired those who asked too many questions. Ms. Gordillo and her clique ruled mainly by fear. And having cultivated support and protection from political leaders, SNTE had no fear of standing accountable before the public.

With about $60 million a year rolling in from dues, subsidies and other sources, the union served as an open cash register for the Gordillo gang. La Maestra herself built a personal net worth of around $300 million, a figure possibly even higher in light of the secrecy of her financial transfers. Ms. Gordillo and her inner circle routinely moved union funds to secret accounts in Liechtenstein, Switzerland and elsewhere. In one case, SNTE officials transferred $1 million in union funds to a Swiss bank account held by a company 99 percent-owned by Gordillo’s mother, and then applied the money to the purchase of a home in the San Diego, Calif. suburb of La Jolla. That was on top of the union funds used to buy a palatial home on Coronado Island near San Diego, plus as many as 10 pricey residential properties in Mexico City’s Lomas de Chapultepec and Polanco neighborhoods. Ms. Gordillo and her cronies also allegedly used union funds to buy, among other things, a fleet of Hummers, a yacht, a private jet, and millions of dollars of merchandise at Neiman-Marcus and other upper-end retailers. Gordillo even got plastic surgery, courtesy of dues-paying members. SNTE also cost taxpayers a bundle, reportedly diverting $186 million in Mexican Education Ministry subsidies earmarked for computer purchases into personal accounts.

Mercifully, the edifice collapsed following the presidential election in 2012 of Enrique Pena Nieto. Investigative journalists, possibly risking their lives, had managed to expose some of SNTE’s inner workings. Popular calls for cracking down on corruption were growing too loud for the new president and the General Congress to ignore. In 2013, the government enacted a reform law that created a merit-based system for teacher hiring and promotion, and that authorized an education census. It was the day after passage, in fact, that Ms. Gordillo was arrested at Toluca Airport. She was transported to Santa Martha Acatitla Prison, and then transferred to one of her private residences and placed under indefinite house arrest. She would be charged with stealing the equivalent of US$156.8 million from the union. Mrs. Gordillo would remain in custody for five and a half years, though with immunity from search and seizure by federal agents. For her, the wait was worth it. She would be acquitted three times of tax fraud, and then, this August 7, a judge dismissed all remaining charges for supposed lack of evidence and ordered her released. Coincidentally or not, her clean bill of health came only hours before Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was officially declared the winner in the 2018 Mexican presidential election (balloting had taken place on July 1). Esther Gordillo, in other words, was one lucky woman.

In the years of La Maestra’s absence, someone had to run the union. That task fell upon Juan Diaz de la Torre. Unfortunately, he, too, had an accountability problem. Several weeks ago, on October 22, a group of SNTE teachers filed a complaint with the federal Attorney General’s Office accusing him of diverting millions of pesos in union revenues during his tenure. “We are demanding that all this be clarified…because we presume embezzlement,” said spokesman Venancio Morales, citing missing pension funds. The union promptly countersued, accusing several union members, including Morales, of defamation. The SNTE dissenters insisted they had documentation. Whether that claim was true or not, the pressure for Juan de la Torre to resign was growing, especially with Left-populist President-Elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (“AMLO”) about to be inaugurated. On November 22, de la Torre stepped down. The union quickly named SNTE General Counsel Alfonso Cepeda Salas as interim president.

What does the future hold in store for SNTE? President Obrador, sworn in on December 1, stated several times during this year’s campaign that he plans to reverse the education reforms of 2013. His election was a clear signal for Elba Esther Gordillo to reenter the scene. In a November video aired on a popular radio show, Gordillo expressed her intent to run for SNTE president when the union holds its next election. If inarticulately, she invoked noble-sounding platitudes. “To achieve unity once again and the necessary strength,” she said, “we are taking the President-elect’s word. We have to build new leadership, stemming from free, inclusive, secret and universal votes from each and every union worker.” Gordillo added that the union needs to find strength lest the union lose its path, “even if my rights are being violated.” The latter comment was almost surreal. This woman clearly believes, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that she had done nothing illegal.

Could it be that the complaint against Juan Diaz de la Torre, underneath it all, is a coup by Gordillo supporters within the union who want her back at the helm? Don’t doubt that possibility for a minute. Despite her well-documented looting of SNTE funds, many members are intensely loyal to her. It may be more than a coincidence that the complaint came just a couple months after Gordillo’s release and the election of AMLO as El Presidente. In Mexico, the rationalizations for corruption, like corruption itself, run deep.