Updated at: 02/27/2013 6:08 PM
By E. EDUARDO CASTILLO
(AP) MEXICO CITY - Elba Esther Gordillo started out as a school teacher, then rose to become one of Mexico’s most flamboyant and powerful political operators, displaying her opulence openly with designer clothes and bags.
For years, the 68-year-old union leader beat back attacks from dissidents, political foes and journalists who have seen her as a symbol of Mexico’s corrupt, old-style politics. Rivals long accused her of corruption, misuse of union funds and even a murder.
But prosecutors had never brought a charge against her until Tuesday, when she was arrested and accused of embezzling $160 million in union funds to pay for everything from a house in San Diego, California, and plastic surgery procedures to her Neiman Marcus bill.
Gordillo was detained as she landed at the Toluca airport near Mexico City on a private plane from San Diego and whisked away by authorities.
Born in the impoverished southern state of Chiapas, Gordillo was just 15 years old when she joined the National Education Workers Union, then considered a sort of electoral army for the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico for 71 years. She followed the path of most Mexican politicians, rising through a series of union, party and government posts. She was a senator for the PRI and also served in Mexico’s lower house.
When a strike by dissident teachers led President Carlos Salinas to oust the old boss of the teacher’s union in 1989, the job fell to Gordillo, who was widely seen as a reformer.
The union post made her one of the most powerful figures in the PRI at a moment when democratic reforms were starting to erode the party’s hold on power, as well as its unquestioning subservience to Mexico’s president.
Even before the PRI lost the 2000 election to the National Action Party’s Vicente Fox, Gordillo began hedging her bets. She was the guiding force behind the creation of the New Alliance Party, which was based on members of the teacher’s union and was once headed by one of her daughters.
She participated in a high-profile discussion group that included prominent social activists and opponents of the government, including Fox, and her friendship with him infuriated some PRI officials, who managed to prevent her from becoming leader of the party in 2005. She was expelled from the party a year later for supporting other parties’ candidates and for founding the New Alliance.
The new party, along with the vast spread of the teacher’s union itself, has given Gordillo special leverage. Because it is large enough to swing votes from one large party to another, rivals have negotiated for its backing. Her support was considered key in giving both Fox and Felipe Calderon the presidency, as well as blocking her rival, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, from reaching Mexico’s highest office.
She maintained close ties to Calderon and was seen as the force behind the humiliating firing of Education Secretary Josefina Vazquez Mota in 2009. Officials said the firing was revenge for Vazquez Mota mocking Gordillo after it was widely reported that the union leader was going to offer Hummers to subordinates. In the middle of the Hummer controversy, Vazquez Mota jokingly offered a toy Hummer to one of her advisers at a private dinner and Gordillo heard of the incident and became enraged.
Witnesses recall seeing Vazquez Mota’s legs trembling so much she had to sit down as Calderon announced her resignation.
Critics accused Gordillo of amassing more than a dozen properties worth millions of dollars. The newspaper Reforma once published a story analyzing one of her outfits and reported she was carrying a $5,500 purse and wearing $1,200 shoes.
She has acknowledged some of the wealth, saying part was inherited and part she earned through her job that paid her about $6,000 (80,000 pesos) a month.
A company that Mexican prosecutors said was registered to her dead mother’s estate owns two multimillion-dollar houses in Coronado, a wealthy peninsular enclave across the bay from downtown San Diego. The properties sit across the street from each other in a gated community that caters to retirees and people with second homes.
One is a modern structure with six bedrooms and a three-car garage. It was purchased in 1991 for $1.15 million and is currently assessed at $4.72 million. A boat was docked behind the house Wednesday.
Coronado police visited the home Tuesday night after a newspaper reporter called to report that the front door was wide open, police spokeswoman Lea Corbin said. No one was inside, and police closed the door.
The company linked to the late mother’s estate, Comercializadora TTS SA de CV, also owns a house across the street that was purchased in 2010 and is currently assessed at $4.08 million.
Lothar Kramer, 85, has lived next door to the six-bedroom home since 1985 and said he rarely saw anyone there and didn’t know who owned it.
Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Mexico City and Elliot Spagat in San Diego, California, contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)