News, features, and commentary from the biggest city in the Americas, Mexico City.
By Fritz Schtickelmeyer —
Corruption, money laundering, organized crime, kidnappings, killings, threats against national security … gee, that doesn’t sound so nice, does it?
People involved in these things are just the types they used to feature on the hit Fox TV show, America’s Most Wanted.
Well these are all charges that have been made against a number of Mexico’s top union leaders over the years. So let’s just call them Mexico’s Most Wanted.
This is not a crowd you want to do business with, and you certainly don’t want to bump into any one of these individuals in a dark alley at night. (For that matter, I wouldn’t be crazy about bumping into them in the daytime either.)
The arrest of Elba Esther Gordillo, the now former head of Mexico’s public teachers’ union, the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de Educación (SNTE), serves to shine the spotlight on what is quite possibly one of the greatest jobs a human being could have — that of a Mexican union boss. (Our Editorial: The Fall of Elba Esther Gordillo.)
Putting aside those various charges mentioned above, in what other job in this country can one obtain dozens of homes, fly in a private jet, and afford to drop two million dollars at Neiman Marcus?
That cookie jar (otherwise known as the union’s bank account) that you keep dipping your hand into is — as far as you’re concerned — bottomless.
And as a bonus, don’t forget that your plastic surgery needs are provided for. (Though in some people’s case — we don’t want to mention any names, Ms. Gordillo — the surgeries seem to have gone frightfully wrong.)
Meanwhile, you enjoy such unheard of political power that the nation’s elected politicians bow before your presence, afraid to change any law that might offend Your Majesty, for fear of the repercussions from you, the all-powerful cacique who sees him or herself not as God himself, but perhaps more like God’s boss.
Great gig, no?
Well, that was — key word, was — the life of Elba Esther Gordillo. Now, her reality may be baloney sandwiches and gruel inside prison walls, and a lovely stripped uniform that most likely does not come from any fancy designer label at Neiman Marcus.
Bet she meets some great gals on the inside.
But Elba Esther Gordillo is only one of these all-powerful figures on the Mexican scene, and she’s one of the very few who have ever actually been arrested.
Up Next … Pemex?
The other most visible union poobah goes by the name of Carlos Romero Deschamps — head of an equally powerful union, the Sindicato de Trabajadores Petroleros de la República Mexicana (STPRM), which represents the employees at Pemex, the nation’s state oil company.
He represents fewer people than Ms. Gordillo did (1.5 million teachers under her command, vs. some 140,000 workers under Mr. Romero). But in sheer terms of political power — and allegations of corruption — he is on par with Gordillo.
It was under Romero Deschamps that an illegal campaign financing scheme was undertaken to support his preferred candidate for the 2000 presidential election. This scandal came to be known as “Pemexgate”. Some were punished for their involvement in this scam — but not Romero Deschamps. Why, you ask?
Well, because Mr. Romero Deschamps also happens to have a seat in Congress. Now, he enjoys a seat as a senator, while at the time of Pemexgate, he was gifted a seat as a diputado (deputy).
By the way, “gifted” is the right word. He was given his seat by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional — he did not have to run for election.
And here’s the thing — under the Mexican Constitution, legislators (the President, Governors, and members of Congress) enjoy immunity from the law.
There have been arrest warrants out for this man since 2003. But, his protection as a member of Congress shelters him from arrest.
However, in a sign that should be troubling to Mr. Romero Deschamps, Mexico’s Congress is now studying a change to the Constitution to amend this protection that has been used by Mr. Romero Deschamps (and others) to shield themselves from facing the music on some serious charges.
This comes at a time when there appears to be real movement afoot to reform Pemex, to make it more competitive, to improve productivity, and to get its financial house in order.
And much like Elba Esther Gordillo’s resistance to improving the educational system, these much-needed reforms in the energy sector are being met with resistance by Carlos Romero Deschamps.
By the way, on his meagre union salary of just 25,000 pesos per month (USD$2,000), he manages to afford a USD $1.5 million home in Cancún, a similarly-valued yacht named “El Indominable”, plus he is said to have an affinity for Audemars Piguet watches, valued between USD $50,000 and $200,000.
Oh, and did we mention his collection of luxury automobiles, and his castle in France? A report in the newspaper Tabasco Hoy last month describes his fortune as “incalculable”. Lord knows how much real estate he really has.
Again, this has been achieved by a man who officially earns just USD $2,000 per month.
Of course, I don’t want to say that this man has been dishonest in any way … though he did just recently give his son the gift of an Enzo Ferrari, valued at two million dollars. But hey — what average union wage doesn’t afford a guy gifts of that magnitude?
And it’s not like he’s picking favorites. Last year, his daughter was also discovered to be living high on the hog, enjoying a lifestyle described by some as “between luxury and opulence”, traveling the world in private jets and yachts, while enjoying thousand-dollar bottles of wine, and bags with such names as Birkin, Hermes, and Louis Vuitton … you know, cheap stuff only worth thousands of dollars.
In the wake of Gordillo’s arrest, a number of politicians are calling for an investigation into Romero Deschamps’ similarly apparently inordinate wealth. (That said, last year, a number of PRI legislators opposed an investigation into Romero Deschamps’ wealth — so let’s just hope they’ve had a change of heart.)
Now, I won’t make any specific charges against Romero Deschamps. But Pemex is a company whose revenue in 2011 amounted to USD $111 billion, and which is responsible for approximately 30 percent of the federal government’s revenues.
The point is, there’s enormous potential for vast sums of money to go to the wrong place.
And of course, I don’t want to say Romero Deschamps is alone at Pemex when it comes facing serious charges.
See, his predecessor, Joaquín Hernández Galicia (aka La Quina), was detained by the army in 1989. Charges against him included homicide, stockpiling of weapons, and threats against national security.
He was jailed along with 30 other union officials, sentenced to over 30 years in prison. He was, however, granted amnesty in 1997.
In Trouble? Just Flee to Canada
If the cases of Elba Esther Gordillo and Carlos Romero Deschamps aren’t enough, there’s always this case.
In 2006, it was discovered that USD$55 million had disappeared from the accounts of the country’s big mining union, “Los Mineros”, formally known as the Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Mineros, Metalúrigicos, Siderúrgicos y Similares de la República Mexicana (SNTMMSSRM — yikes!).
Facing the heat, with criminal prosecution for fraud and money laundering, the leader of Los Mineros, Napoleón Gómez Urrutia, fled to Vancouver, British Colombia.
It’s a pity, because the poor guy had to leave behind his “hard-earned” luxury homes in San Pedro Garza García (Monterrey), Lomas de Chapultepec (Mexico City), and that tiny little 5,000 square meter (53,820 sq. ft.) mansion (photo gallery) in Tepoztlán, just outside Cuernavaca. (FYI, that makes the home larger than one acre all by itself, while the lot itself covers about seven acres.)
Anyway, for reasons beyond my comprehension, Napo has been able to remain there in Canada legally, in exile, ever since, fighting extradition requests.
Making the situation even more ludicrous, he was able to get re-elected as union leader, and has continued to command his Mexican union from Canada!
For those of you concerned for his well-being, we can tell you that after arriving in Vancouver, Mr. Gómez Urrutia found himself a humble place to sleep — a seventh-floor suite located in pricey downtown Vancouver, at 1288 West Georgia Street.
This dump was valued at $3 million (note: this was a 2007 valuation). We can’t confirm where he lives at present, but we’re willing to bet he’s managed to save a few bucks and has likely upgraded his property.
We pray that he is able to make ends meet.
Waiting for More Dominoes to Fall
The arrest of Elba Esther Gordillo was an important step for Mexico as it tries to rid itself of corruption.
Will the arrest of Carlos Romero Deschamps be next? Will Napoleón Gómez Urrutia ever be returned to Mexico, to be held accountable for his actions?
And the rest of the country’s union chiefs? Surely more than a few are finding it a little more difficult to breathe this week.
For the sake of the hard-working men and women they purport to represent, let’s hope justice is served on this group of Mexico’s Most Wanted.