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Mexican union leader accused of embezzling millions

By Catherine E. Shoichet, CNN
February 27, 2013 -- Updated 0356 GMT (1156 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elba Esther Gordillo is accused of using union funds for plastic surgery, shopping
  • She is in custody in Mexico after being arrested at the airport, the attorney general says
  • Word of the union leader's arrest sends shock waves through Mexico's political spheres
  • Gordillo has led Latin America's largest union since 1989

(CNN) -- Authorities have arrested the leader of Mexico's largest union, accusing her of embezzling millions of dollars and using some of the money to pay for plastic surgery, shop at luxury stores and buy real estate.

Elba Esther Gordillo, who has led Mexico's high-profile national teachers union for more than two decades, was in federal custody after she was arrested at an airport outside Mexico City on Tuesday, the country's attorney general told reporters.

Investigators from Mexico's treasury found that 2.6 billion pesos (more than $200 million) had been routed from union funds into private bank accounts abroad, including some managed by Gordillo, Attorney General Jesus Murillo Karam said.

Some of the money was used to pay for $17,000 in plastic surgery, more than $2 million in purchases at a Neiman Marcus department store and a house in San Diego, California, prosecutors said.

Gordillo, 68, is a powerful, well-known figure in Mexico, and news of her arrest sent shock waves through the country's political spheres.

Her arrest comes as Mexico's government enacts sweeping education reforms that have been sharply criticized by the union. She was notably absent when Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto announced the education overhaul on Monday.

Gordillo has led the union, the largest in Latin America with 1.5 million members, since 1989. She is widely known as "La Maestra," Spanish for "The Teacher."

A court issued an arrest warrant for her Sunday after "many operations within the financial system," Murillo Karam said.

"It was identified that between 2008 and 2012, resources were diverted from the accounts of education workers, obviously from the union, to accounts of individual people," Murillo Karam said.

The resources "later were withdrawn in large quantities through cashier's checks and transfers triangulated to individuals and corporations" inside Mexico and also in Switzerland and Liechtenstein, he said.

Gordillo was expelled from Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party in 2006 and helped found the New Alliance party.

CNNMexico.com could not immediately reach Gordillo's daughter, a senator for the New Alliance party, and the teacher's union had not responded to Gordillo's arrest late Tuesday.

CNN en Español's Mario Gonzalez and CNNMexico.com contributed to this report.

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