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Union boss Elba Esther Gordillo keeps a stranglehold on Mexico's schools

Elba Esther Gordillo, the 67-year-old “president for life” of the national teachers union in Mexico, rarely ventures out in public without designer outfits and handbags from Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton and Hermes.

She flaunts wealth and power, and she can walk through the gates of Los Pinos, the Mexican White House, at any time. Sitting presidents fear and court her.

Routinely ranked as the least popular of the nation’s most prominent figures, friends and enemies alike know her simply as “Elba Esther” or “The Teacher.”

Her opaque and strong-arm style and the personal fortune she’s amassed underscore how the old Mexico of corrupt power and privilege, which reigned in the 20th century, still endures in pockets even as the nation inches toward modernity.

A native of rural Chiapas state in Mexico’s far south, Gordillo rose from a humble post at a primary school in Nezahualcoyotl, a depressed suburb of Mexico City, through the ranks of the largest union in Latin America, eventually becoming the underling and mistress of the union boss. In 1989, then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari tapped her to head the teachers union, a backbone of strength for the Institutional Revolutionary Party – the PRI, in its Spanish initials – which ruled from 1929 until 2000 and is expected to regain the presidency in voting July 1.

Significantly, the PRI’s 2012 candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto, is the only one of those seeking the presidency who hasn’t pledged to dump Gordillo on taking office.

Gordillo’s raspy voice, her designer tastes and her predilection for the plastic surgeon’s scalpel have made her an easy subject for caricaturists, but as the head of the union, Gordillo displays steely calculation in keeping her foes off balance, leveraging friendly politicians into office and purging those she considers potential internal adversaries.

“She exiles you if you betray her,” said Aldo Munoz, an education researcher at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico. “She puts together teams of people who are in confrontation. She’ll send four people who hate each other to run a department.”

She also showers supporters with generosity. In 2006, the newspaper Reforma said Gordillo had taken 125 teachers and union underlings, along with their children, on a seven-day Pacific cruise aboard the Pride of Hawaii, later staying at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.

When the media revealed that she’d ordered 59 Hummers for her top aides in 2008, she announced that she’d raffle the vehicles and pay for renovations at 10 schools.

Critics speak of her in caustic and savage tones. A columnist in the newspaper El Universal, Lydia Cacho, labeled her April 23 as “one of the most pernicious cancers” in Mexico. On a Foro TV debate in February, analyst Denise Dresser responded quickly when she was asked what she wished for Gordillo: “It pains me to say it but I think the common sentiment is that she might die during her next plastic surgery.”

Gordillo remained loyal to the PRI after it was cast from power, serving as the secretary general of the party, and also as a federal deputy and senator. But when the PRI candidate trailed badly in the 2006 presidential campaign, she triggered only the second major schism to hit the party in its 83-year history. She took her support – and that of the union – to Felipe Calderon of the center-right National Action Party, trading it for promises of jobs for her family members and key allies. The betrayal allowed Calderon to squeak to victory by the narrowest margin in modern Mexican history.

Gordillo enjoys a nominal salary as a school principal, the equivalent of $2,070 a month, but her wealth goes far beyond what that wage would allow.

Journalistic investigations over the years have identified 64 Mexico City mansions, office buildings, rural ranches and overseas properties that are thought to be linked to Gordillo or her immediate family. Among them is a six-bedroom home in La Jolla, Calif., that Gordillo purchased for nearly $1.7 million, according to a March report in Mexico’s newsweekly Proceso. The home has seven baths, a three-car garage, a pool and a private dock on a river, the magazine reported.

Gordillo speaks to reporters only on rare occasions. Her office declined requests for an interview over a six-month period, saying she was too busy.

Political analysts say Gordillo’s eventual departure from the political stage won’t necessarily usher in more democratic or enlightened leadership.

“If we send Elba Esther to Jupiter, the person who takes her place will do exactly the same thing if the rules of the game stay the same,” said Jorge Javier Romero, a political scientist at the Metropolitan Autonomous University.

“It’s not her. It’s an institutional problem.”

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