MEXICO CITY -- The daughter of the boss of Mexico’s powerful oil workers union made a youthful indiscretion when she went to Europe last year: She posted photos of her lavish odyssey on Facebook.
The images showed Paulina Romero Deschamps touring French chateaus, staying with her three pet English bulldogs in five-star hotels, and living it up like the daughter of a sultan. She noted her fondness for Hermes calfskin Birkin handbags (price tag: $12,000) and praised the rare Spanish Vega Sicilia wines, which can cost nearly $1,000 a bottle.
Romero’s father, Carlos Romero Deschamps, is indeed a sultan of sorts. As head of the 142,000-member state oil workers union since 1996, he controls the purse strings of an important union – and tells its members how to vote. His daughter’s trip sparked a media furor when the photos hit a Mexico City newspaper in May. Paulina’s Facebook page went silent.
Union bosses like Romero are suddenly in the news in Mexico. Last week, authorities arrested Elba Esther Gordillo, head of the national teachers union, and charged her with corruption and organized crime. Mexico’s attorney general accused her of using $200 million in union funds for shopping trips, facelifts and real estate sprees in California. Mexico’s new president, Enrique Pena Nieto, told a national television audience that his 3-month-old government would not abide by the misuse of union funds.
“The resources of the unions belong to their members, not their leaders. They must be used for the benefit of the workers,” he said.
But analysts here say they don’t see Gordillo’s arrest as the onset of a campaign against graft. Instead, they say Gordillo’s arrest may be nothing more than Pena Nieto targeting a political foe. They note that Pena Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish initials as the PRI, has shown a remarkably high tolerance for corruption. Late last year, for example, a PRI governor allegedly walked out of office with tens of millions of dollars, and the party took no action against him.
“Elba Esther Gordillo did not fall because of corruption, rather because she did not accept the educational reform,” Carmelo Teran Montero, a retired army general, wrote in an essay for the Center for Analysis and Military Opinion, a think tank in Mexico City. He was referring to a bill passed the day before Gordillo’s arrest that removed the authority for hiring and firing teachers from the union and gave it to the government.
Prior to his election July 1, Pena Nieto said his party is no longer the vehicle for corruption and authoritarianism that it was when it ruled Mexico for 71 uninterrupted years, before being ousted in 2000. He has pledged to install an anti-corruption commission and promised zero tolerance for graft.
Yet Pena Nieto would only have to look inside own party for more examples of the malfeasance for which prosecutors accuse Gordillo, analysts said.
Romero would be at the top of the list. As union boss, Romero had a salary of $1,924 a month. But his tastes were a match for Gordillo’s, whose alleged transgressions included spending $2.1 million at the Neiman-Marcus in San Diego.
On that paltry salary, Romero bought and maintains a British-built Sunseeker Portofino 47 yacht, registered in the Cayman Islands but docked near his $1.4 million waterfront condominium in Cancun. The yacht bears the name Indomable, or The Indomitable One.