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Regenerating Mexico

The arrest of “la maestra” is a serious warning by Peña Nieto to the country’s de facto powers

The arrest of the long-time and all-powerful head of the one-and-a-half-million-member Mexican schoolteachers’ union, Elba Esther Gordillo, who is accused of siphoning off and misappropriating some 155 million euros, constitutes an emphatic stroke of authority on the part of President Enrique Peña Nieto only three months after taking office. It is also characteristic of the beginnings of several past mandates of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The act of putting “la maestra” (the schoolmarm), as she is known, behind bars, is a serious warning to other powerful interest groups who are no doubt preparing to put all the obstacles they can in the way of the new president’s plans to reform and open up Latin America’s second-largest economy, and to combat entrenched political and administrative corruption. The ambitious modernizing agenda promised by Peña Nieto before coming to power is aimed largely at a number of sacred cows in Mexico, and also includes a fiscal reform. To open up the state oil and gas monopoly Pemex to private capital, and to loosen the magnate Carlos Slim’s iron control of the telecommunications industry and of the television network Televisa, are among Peña Nieto’s objectives.

These plans were announced by a president elected with far fewer votes than was expected, and accused of being the puppet of certain de facto powers — including the sadly notorious schoolteachers’ union. The driving force behind the reform plans has been the alliance (the so-called Pact for Mexico) forged in December between the PRI, which lacks a parliamentary majority, and two of the principal opposition parties. Its first concrete measure is the new education law, which wrests control of a crucial stage of teaching from the corrupt and medieval union organization, whose practices include the sale of teaching posts, or their hereditary transfer from father to son.

Missing persons

Supposing that the president is really prepared to undertake so far-reaching a reform, it is not going to be easy for him to follow it through to the end. His good intentions may be derailed by many factors: chiefly the omnipresent, many-tentacled economic and political power that has long accumulated in the hands of monopolies and union leaders of the PRI itself. But also, as in the case of his predecessor, the conservative Felipe Calderón, his plans may be frustrated by the acute security problems that Mexico has been suffering.

In this area, Peña Nieto faces an initial challenge that cannot be postponed any longer: to explain what has become of the hundreds (at least hundreds; more likely thousands) of missing persons who disappeared at the hands of the nation’s security forces between 2006 and 2012. The determining of who is to blame for these crimes, which have so far gone unpunished, is clearly the new government’s first job.