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Mexico teachers union boss arrested for corruption

Elba Esther Gordillo waves to photographers during the National Police Day ceremony in Mexico City, on June 2, 2012
Elba Esther Gordillo -- the head of Mexico's powerful teachers union and an influential political figure -- waves to photographers during the National Police Day ceremony in Mexico City, on June 2, 2012. Gordillo has been arrested for allegedly embezzling

Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of Mexico's powerful teachers union and an influential political figure, has been arrested for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars for personal use, including plastic surgery and shopping sprees, authorities said.

Attorney General Jose Murillo Karam said Gordillo was arrested Tuesday at the airport of Toluca, some 60 kilometers west of the capital, and was poised to appear before a judge.

Speaking to reporters, Murillo Karam said the Finance Ministry's financial analysis unit detected unusual activity that led to the discovery of multiple operations worth some 2 billion pesos (about $156 million) from accounts belonging to the National Union of Education Workers (SNTE).

Authorities uncovered a complicated network of transfers, with authorities discovering the money went towards plastic surgery, shopping at luxury stores in the United States -- including $3 million at one department store alone -- as well as the acquisition of property and even artwork.

In addition, $2 million dollars of union money made it into accounts in Switzerland and Liechtenstein.

Gordillo, 68, has headed the union, which has some 1.4 million members and is among the largest in Latin America, with an iron fist since 1989. Known for her luxurious lifestyle, she was secretary general of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) -- which regained power last December -- from 2002 to 2005.

With the strength of the union behind her, she went on to form the New Alliance Party after her split with the PRI.

Gordillo's contribution to Felipe Calderon's tight presidential victory in 2006 made her a privileged partner of the former government with a strong influence over Mexican education matters.

With the swearing in of President Enrique Pena Nieto last December, marking the return to power of the PRI after a 12-year absence, Gordillo found herself at odds with Education Minister Emilio Chuayffet.

Gordillo's arrest, along with three others, comes a day after the enactment of education reform in this country of nearly 112 million where 64 percent of children complete elementary school.

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