Luxury Villas, Designer Labels: Jailed Mexico Union Boss’ U.S. Oasis
Reuters, March 3, 2013
CORONADO, California (Reuters)—Boasting two properties in an exclusive enclave just outside San Diego and an enviable designer wardrobe, the jailed boss of Mexico’s teachers’ union was just another multi-millionaire to her neighbors.
As Elba Esther Gordillo, once widely regarded as the most powerful woman in Mexico, languishes in a Mexico City jail on charges she embezzled around $200 million in union funds, her six bedroom, three-floor luxury villa on the Coronado Cays stands empty.
Gordillo, 68, has previously denied allegations of corruption. Her lawyer could not be reached for comment.
“All I knew was she was Mexican, and somebody said she was very influential, and I knew nothing more,” said Karin Hoad, who owns the property next door to Gordillo’s.
“Coronado Cays is very private. If you go there you’d think it’s a movie set. You don’t hear anything, you don’t see anything,” Hoad said by telephone from Costa Rica, where she runs a sanctuary for stray dogs.
Gordillo’s home has a mooring dock outside the patio with access to San Diego Bay, and she owns another nearby plot in the same development. She was known to have a residence in the United States, though the value of her assets in San Diego came as a surprise to many in Mexico.
Her arrest on Tuesday comes after new President Enrique Pena Nieto has pledged to put an end to the corruption that has long plagued public life and the reputation of his ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Political analysts say Gordillo’s detention serves as a warning shot to any politicians or union bosses involved in corruption.
The fraud case against Gordillo, herself a former PRI stalwart, hinges in substantial part on the fact that she managed to purchase such expensive properties.
Her two Coronado properties are worth nearly $9 million between them, according to San Diego County’s tax assessor, a far cry from Gordillo’s humble beginnings in southern Mexico.
Gordillo has publicly denied the allegations of corruption leveled against her over the years in interviews, and said in 2002 her wealth came from an inheritance from a grandfather. Gordillo said last month she made her money through the “sweat” of her brow.
Gordillo’s lawyers, family and supporters have kept a low profile since her arrest.
Politicians close to Gordillo have declined to comment on her arrest. The New Alliance Party she helped found said in a statement it would not issue opinions on the judicial process. Gordillo’s daughter has said she does not want to talk about it.
Mexico’s Attorney General Jesus Murillo says Gordillo spent more than $3 million at a Neiman Marcus department store between 2008 and 2011 alone, citing evidence harvested by the government.
Gordillo’s spending far exceeded her salary as union head. She had a declared income of 1.3 million pesos ($102,000) a year between 2009 and 2012, according to Mexico’s attorney general. That was a fraction of the sum prosecutors said she spent and deposited in banks during the period.
Prosecutors are focusing on funds they say were diverted from union accounts, and on how Gordillo managed to amass millions of dollars worth of property.
Two of Gordillo’s Coronado Cays neighbors, who asked not to be named to keep a low profile given the scandal, said she was often seen with a security detail. This caused alarm.
“She shows up with her bodyguards in bulletproof vests and displaying semi-automatic weapons, you know that’s a very real consideration,” said one of three full-time residents in the cul-de-sac. “She has a driver, a maid, a chef, a personal assistant and her cleaning staff, and three or four bodyguards—they all show up and there’s no more parking.”
Gordillo’s Coronado Cays properties are at the most expensive end of the island of Coronado, in an area where local housing association officials and building inspectors say more than half the homes are owned by foreign nationals including Mexicans.
She also owns several upscale apartments in Mexico City, the attorney general says.
The Coronado Cays, as locals call it, is a breezy enclave of about 1,500 luxury homes on a sliver of land called the Silver Strand that separates the Pacific Ocean from San Diego Bay.
Many of the properties in the gated, guarded community are second homes for jet-setters, residents say.
The Cays is broken into 10 ‘villages’ named for places in the West Indies, including Kingston and Trinidad Cay, where day laborers, landscapers and construction workers park their trucks next to Mercedes Benz, Range Rovers and Rolls Royces.
Gordillo herself had a black chauffeur-driven Hummer, her neighbors said. At times, friends of Gordillo would descend in a swarm of Hummers and take up all the parking, they said. There was no way to independently confirm this.