MEXICO CITY (AP) — The head of Mexico's powerful teachers' union was arrested at an airport near Mexico City Tuesday for alleged embezzlement, with federal officials accusing her of using union funds to pay for plastic surgery, to buy a house in San Diego and even to pay her bill at Neiman Marcus.
Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said that Elba Esther Gordillo, who has led the 1.5 million-member National Union of Education Workers for 23 years, was detained in Toluca on charges that she embezzled 2 billion pesos (about $160 million) from union funds.
Gordillo, a colorful woman long seen as a kingmaker and power-behind-the-scenes in Mexican politics, was flown to the Attorney General's hangar in the Mexico City airport, where she asked to be checked by a doctor, Murillo told Milenio television.
Murillo said that Gordillo, 68, was in good health and awaiting transfer to appear before a judge. Two other people were also arrested but they were not named.
The investigation started in December after Santander Bank alerted authorities to bank transfers in billions of pesos, according to the attorney general.
"We are looking at a case in which the funds of education workers have been illegally misused, for the benefit of several people, among them Elba Esther Gordillo," Murillo said earlier at the news conference announcing her arrest.
Calls to the union's office seeking comment were not answered and Gordillo did not make a public statement.
It marks the downfall of a woman who rose from school teacher to become one of Mexico's most powerful political operators, displaying her opulence openly with designer clothes and bags, bodyguards, expensive cars and properties including a penthouse apartment in Mexico City's exclusive Polanco neighborhood. She has been widely lampooned for her many plastic surgeries and depicted in political cartoons as ghoulish.
Meanwhile, Mexico's teachers are poorly paid and public education has long been considered sub-par.
Prosecutors said they had detected nearly $3 million in purchases at Neiman Marcus using union funds, as well as $17,000 in U.S. plastic surgery bills and the purchase of a million-dollar home in San Diego.
Assistant Attorney General Alfredo Castillo displayed a series of charts at the press conference with arrows detailing the allegations of illicit transfers from teachers' union accounts to personal accounts in the names of three union workers, Nora Guadalupe Ugarte Ramirez, Isaias Gallardo Chavez and Jose Manuel Diaz Flores, as well as a real estate company.
None were authorized to deal with finances. It wasn't clear if they were among those arrested.
"Between 2008 and 2012, there was systematic embezzlement of union accounts," Murillo Karam said.
Some funds eventually ended up in bank accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. Castillo said that in one case they transferred $1 million to a Swiss account for a company owned by Gordillo's mother. Those funds were then used to buy a million-dollar house in the island of Coronado in San Diego.
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