Show-and-Tell Exposé: Education Fraud in Mexico

By: Amanda Kelsey, Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Along Mexico City’s bustling Periférico Sur avenue, a massive electronic dashboard display blares out a number at drivers and passersby alike.  This number, currently already in the billions of pesos, relentlessly continues to increase every minute of every day. The meter’s count, calculated by a Mexican advocacy group, began on August 17th this year, when classes resumed, to portray the exact amount to date of federal education funds that have been diverted or wasted.

Mexicanos Primero (Mexicans First), the Mexican organization responsible for maintaining the display, refers to it as the abusómetro. Based on the 2013 Censo de Escuelas, Maestros y Alumnos de Educación Básica y Especial (CEMABE,Census of Schools, Teachers and Students of Basic and Special Education), the organization calculated that almost $35 billion pesos ($2.65 billion USD) are not dispersed directly for core or ancillary services.[1] This calculation amounts to 14 percent of Mexico’s education budget, and while the amount may seem incredible, leading Mexican authorities actually consider it a conservative estimate of all fraud and abuse.[2] The number on the abusómetro increases $1,000 pesos per second, and it has brought unprecedented public attention to this drainage in government spending.[3] The billboard has turned attention this summer to the use of federal funds in the education sector, but this issue has actually plagued Mexico for years.

The Dunce of the Class: Mexico’s Abysmal Education Record

In 2000, The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) established a study conducted every 3 years called Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) whose function is to monitor student performance on an international basis. The latest PISA revealed that Mexico was the lowest performing OEDC country, handing in the worst score with an average of 417 points.[4] This average is about 125 points lower than the highest performing countries Korea (543) and Japan (540), which is in effect the equivalent of Mexican students lagging two years of school behind their counterparts in top performing countries.[5] While some might attribute Mexico’s lackluster performance to a scarcity of funds required to improve its education sector, that is certainly not the case. Mexico’s public spending on education is 20.6% of its total public expenditure; this is the greatest percentage that any OECD country spends on education, surpassing New Zealand (20%) and Chile (17.7%).[6] The issue, therefore, is not simply a lack of funds but where these funds are actually being allocated. Mexico devotes 83.1 percent of its education budget to teachers’ salaries and 93.3 percent to compensation of staff all together, the highest proportions among OECD countries.[7] The vast majority of the funds in the education budget therefore go towards salaries, leaving little to no room for funds to improve school infrastructures, to buy supplies, to offer transportation, or to acquire any other vital resource.

According to Mexicanos Primero, the census reveals that many people are receiving unwarranted income from the reserves the education budget has earmarked towards salaries. The diverted funds pay the incomes of 298,174 individuals, the equivalent of 13.3 percent of the country’s elementary and high school educators.[8] 113,259 of them are not known at the schools with which they are associated because they have never physically been there, supposedly operating from “another center of work.”[9] Furthermore, there are 114,998 educators who are retired but remain on a list of active teachers, or are in fact dead.[10] Almost 70,000 individuals receive salaries as “commissioned” teachers or “aviadores;” these terms refer to “teachers” on temporary leave to complete assignments to administrative or political positions within the teachers unions.[11] Although public records label these people as teachers, they exist as such only on paper.

The Mexican government allocates a substantial amount of funding towards staff compensation in this sector, and yet an ample percentage of it is clearly not going to the bona fide educators. These discrepancies demand a closer look at the role of the national teachers’ union that has been mired in a history of corruption and has maintained for decades a stranglehold over the education sector. Claudio X. González, President of Mexicanos Primero, specifically named the unions as the culprit, stating: “The federal government and we are financing the enemy because we are paying the political operators of the union’s upper echelon, who are the ones that block the means of protesting for education reform.”[12] This statement, while bold, represents an opinion with which very few Mexicans would disagree. Since the beginning of his presidency, President Peña Nieto’s actions reveal that he agrees with that statement as well, ready to implement reforms to crack down on the national teachers’ union’s rampant abuse of power and capital. The interaction between the President and the union has caused an upset in the education sector, causing traditional practices to be questioned and creating space for other voices to be heard.

President Peña Nieto’s New Role as Hard-line Principal

Sindicato Nacional de los Trabajadores de la Educación, SNTE, (National Union of Education Workers) is the largest labor syndicate in all of Latin America. The union itself was created by the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, PRI, (Institutional Revolutionary Party) to reward those loyal to the party, and until recently the union maintained exceptionally close ties with the PRI, providing political support in exchange for strong control over the teaching sector.[13] Since 1989, Esther Alba Gordillo has led SNTE as president of the union; referred to countrywide as “La Maestra,” her influence and reach knew no bounds. Friend and foe alike knew her as “Jimmy Hoffa in a dress;” powerful and fearsome, she could turn politicians and enemies into sniveling schoolboys. Under her lead, SNTE took charge of appointing and retaining teachers, a capacity that led to widespread abuse and acts of malpractice of allowing teaching positions to be inherited or purchased.

The 2012 elections resulted in Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory, which after a twelve-year interim restored the presidency to the PRI. Until 2000, the PRI spent 71 years in power by relying on cronyism, corruption, and repression to maintain its control. PRI’s firm hold on the presidency and its protective relationship with the union fostered SNTE’s stronghold on the education sector and allowed it to rule in an almost unchecked manner, outside of any domestic force to control it. Despite the previously close ties of the PRI and the SNTE, Peña Nieto wanted to establish his version of the party as distinct from the one of the past and to make education reform a priority. Shortly after taking office, Mexico’s Congress equipped Peña Nieto with the ability to move forward with his plans to restructure the education sector through new legislation. In February 2013, Congress passed a constitutional amendment that eliminated the decades-old practice of buying and selling teaching positions by replacing it with a standardized national teaching exam as well as the creation of an education census (the very one that was the source of information for Mexicanos Primero).[14]

Despite the intense and at times violent protests from union members, Peña Nieto went a step further and arrested Gordillo for systematic acts of embezzlement. This is reminiscent of a similar attempt to fight union corruption and inefficiency when, in 1989, then President Carlos Salinas de Gortari arrested the leader of the oil workers’ union, Joaquin Hernández Galicia, for illegal possession of weapons and for acts of corruption. While Salinas’ move was seen more as a way to demonstrate the government’s political force, Peña Nieto’s decision to arrest Gordillo, coupled with the education reforms, seemed to indicate a legitimate attempt to gain control of and improve the education sector.

 Remedial Classes: “Only Quality Education Changes Mexico”

Civil society has never forced itself into the conversation about education to the extent that Mexicanos Primero has. This may be due to the fact that as González has stated, the unions previously prevented any sort of protests or backlash to their actions. The new reforms seem to have abated the power of SNTE, thus allowing for civil society’s nearly silenced voice to finally come to the forefront. Peña Nieto’s reforms, however, exhibit a clear move to increase the power of the state in the education sector. The reforms were necessary to remove SNTE’s corrupt hold from the sector’s leadership, but it would not serve the interests of the nation to trade one domineering force for another. Overall though, it seems that Peña Nieto has in fact worked towards more transparency through the creation of CEMABE as well as fostered greater commitment to quality control with the establishment of the standardized teachers test. Andrew Selee, director of Woodrow Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, has commented that Peña Nieto was raised by the PRI of old, but to his credit, he has reached out to the new generation.[15]

It is perhaps this dedication to the energy and determination of a new generation that caused him to turn to the reformation of the education sector, but more action is still being demanded of him. To Mexicanos Primero, though the government may not be at fault for the present situation, it is responsible for ending the abuse. “What we ask from the President, the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of Education, and legislators from all parties …is very simple: that the law that they designed and approved be upheld.”[16] Peña Nieto created the census that revealed the discrepancies; now he must act to remedy them. The government has not responded as yet to the abusómetro, apparently deciding to take measured steps on an issue that has become so visible to the public eye. The initial step that might make the most sense would at least be to investigate the list of these phantom teachers who receive money from the education budget, and ensure that they no longer receive those funds. The meter specifically portrays the diverted or stolen funds that are siphoned off to such individuals; but there are other issues it does not address that also demand attention. CEMABE information indicates that 11 percent of the country’s schools don’t have bathrooms, 31 percent don’t have potable water, and 45 percent don’t have proper sewer drainage.[17] Once these funds are no longer misdirected, they can be funneled directly to addressing these basic needs.

At the end of the day, however, eliminating those from payroll that do not provide legitimate services remains a financial reform that doesn’t attack key issues dealing with the quality of the education. The recapturing of funds to then appropriately distribute to the country’s schools would serve as a short-term remedy with which to provide the Mexican constituency as a means of showing an immediate change. This measure, however, would not address all the public’s demands, and eventually they will insist on further tangible action. The government must therefore simultaneously begin working on long-term reform projects that enhance and institutionalize quality control within the sector. As Mexicanos Primero’s slogan states, “Only quality education changes Mexico,” and it is the fruition of this ultimate goal that the group as well as the rest of civil society wants to witness, and soon.

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: and Rights Action


[1] “Mexico City’s ‘abuse-meter’ tracks waste of education funds”

[2] “Proyecto de Presupuesto de Egresos de la Federación 2013: Ramo 11 Educación Pública”

[3] As explained on their website, Mexicanos Primero used the information provided in the Education Census in order to determine the total amount of stolen or diverted funds and thus how fast the abusómetro must run. The organizationassigned a value of $10,000 pesos per month per position for each of the 298,174 irregular positions that receive funds from the education budget. This thus implies that $95 million pesos are wasted every day, and more than $1,000 pesos per second.

[4] “PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do”

[5] “PISA 2009 Results: Executive Summary”

[6] “Education at a Glance 2013 OECD Indicators”–FINAL%2020%20June%202013.pdf

[7] Education at a Glance 2013: Country Note – Mexico”

[8] “Censo de Escuelas, Maestros y Alumnos de Educación Básica y Especial (CEMABE)”

[9] Ibid

[10] Fin al Abuso – El Abusómetro informa”

[11] “Mexico City’s ‘abuse-meter’ tracks waste of education funds”

[12] “OPPENHEIMER: Viva el ‘abusómetro’ educativo!”

[13] “Peña Nieto and the Unions”ña-nieto-and-unions

[14] “Mexico Education Reform: President Enrique Peña Nieto Faces Teachers’ Revolt “

[15] “For Mexico’s President-Elect, a Strategic Journey”

[16] “Fin al Abuso – El Abusómetro informa”

[17] “Abusómetro”