MEXICO CITY (AP) — A judge on Monday ordered Mexico's most powerful union leader to stand trial on charges of embezzling 2 billion pesos (about $160 million) from the teachers' union she led for almost a quarter-century.
The decision means Judge Alejandro Caballero Vertiz found that prosecutors presented sufficient evidence to try union leader Elba Esther Gordillo and three alleged assistants who purportedly channeled union funds into private bank accounts.
"The evidence analyzed is sufficient, at this judicial stage, to indicate that the criminal organization ... presumably transferred funds from several accounts of the National Education Workers' Union into their own accounts," according to a statement released by the Federal Judiciary Council.
Gordillo was arrested last week and charged with embezzlement and organized crime because the money was allegedly channeled through a network of accounts.
Prosecutors say she illegally used union funds to pay for purchases at Neiman Marcus department stores, U.S. plastic surgery bills and a home near San Diego.
The charges of her lavish lifestyle rankled sensibilities in a country where teachers are poorly paid and schools chronically underperform.
If found guilty, Gordillo could face 30 years in prison. In the past, government prosecutors have had a notoriously hard time winning convictions in organized crime cases and other politically high-profile cases. The judge's decision Monday marked a partial reversal of that trend, though defense lawyers have claimed Gordillo is innocent and the government's case is weak.
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.
But last Tuesday, 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.
Her support was considered key in giving Vicente Fox and Felipe Calderon, both of the conservative National Action Party, presidential victories in the elections of 2000 and 2006, which unseated the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, where Gordillo began her career but which she later abandoned. The PRI held the presidency without interruption from 1929 to 2000.
The case brought by the administration of President Enrique Pena Nieto, who recovered the presidency for the PRI in 2012 elections, contrasts with the attitude of his predecessors. The two previous National Action Party presidents tolerated Gordillo and even formed alliances with her.
Gordillo's arrest was widely seen as a warning to the shadowy business interests, monopolies and corrupt union leaders who have long wielded power almost as great as the government's in Mexico's national affairs.
On Sunday, Pena Nieto told a PRI party conference that "there are no untouchable interests" in Mexico.
Gordillo's 1.5-million member union had mounted protests against Pena Nieto's first big initiative, an education reform that will evaluate and test teachers and cut down on the union's power in hiring and firing teachers.
With education reform now enacted, Pena Nieto is also proposing to open the state oil company to more private investment, a move that could awaken opposition from the oil workers union.
The administration is also proposing measures to bring more competition in the highly concentrated television and telecom sectors, steps that business magnates have long tried to stymie with court appeals.
The Gordillo case may be a warning that directly confronting the president's reform plans may not be a good idea.
A company that Mexican prosecutors said was registered to the estate of Gordillo's dead mother's 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.