March 4, 2013 6:23 pm

A fight in Mexico

Peña Nieto has raised expectations – now he needs to deliver

The gloves are off in the battle between Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico’s new president, and the crony union and industrial leaders dominating the country’s political life.

The authorities last week arrested Elba Esther Gordillo who, for over two decades, has led the 1.5m-strong teachers’ union, the largest in Latin America. She is accused of illegally diverting 2bn pesos ($156m) of union funds to pay for her own expenses. These include $17,000 in plastic surgery bills and a $1m home in San Diego.

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“La Maestra” (“The Teacher”) – as she is commonly referred to in Mexico – denies the charges. Her allies claim the arrest was politically motivated. Just one day before Ms Gordillo was taken into custody, Mr Peña Nieto signed into law an ambitious education reform, to overhaul the country’s poorly performing school system. This new set of policies strips the union of the power to hire and promote teachers, establishing more rigorous criteria.

Of course, there needs to be no doubt about the judges’ independence from the executive. Ms Gordillo’s trial must be fair and transparent. This is essential to dispel accusations that the arrest was illegitimate. Yet, the fact that Mexico’s attorney-general felt he had the freedom to look into Ms Gordillo’s allegedly corrupt practices is welcome. Past governments were often reluctant to take on Mexico’s endemic cronyism. Ms Gordillo was able to enjoy the protection of both Mexico’s largest parties, which had an interest in capturing the large voting block formed by her union.

Ms Gordillo’s trial will be watched closely by other power-brokers. These include Carlos Romero Deschamps, who has headed the oil workers’ union since the early 1990s. Were Ms Gordillo able to subvert due process, this would send a signal that some people are still above the law.

Meanwhile, Mr Peña Nieto is rightly pressing ahead with the reform agenda he outlined last December in his “Pact for Mexico”. Last Saturday he received his party’s backing to open Pemex, the oil giant, to foreign investment. This should create jobs and foster growth. He also plans to shake up Mexico’s telecoms sector. Mexicans deserve a better service and lower prices than those offered by Carlos Slim’s Telmex, a near-monopolist.

These steps are necessary if Mexico is to become Latin America’s most dynamic economy. As he starts to take them, Mr Peña Nieto has raised expectations – abroad and even more so in Mexico. Now he needs to deliver.

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