Verdict in on suitcase scandal, as fresh details of shady campaign financing emerge

Yesterday, as a Miami court declared one Venezuelan, Franklin Durán, of conspiracy and acting illegally as a foreign secret agent in the US, his one-time hapless associate, Guido Antonini Wilson, went on CNN to assure that the suitcase with some $800,000 in US bills, captured by Argentine customs agents last year, was destined for the electoral campaign of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Unsurprisingly, neither the judgment nor the CNN interview elicited any sort of comment from the Casa Rosada, or pink house – the seat of Argentina’s executive here in Buenos Aires.Today's cover of La Critica

When the scandal first broke last December, the Kirchners’ initial response was to denounce a CIA plot to destabilise their government, the president and her associates later shifted gear, accusing Antonini Wilson of being a fugitive from Argentine justice, and daring him to declare before in an Argentine court. In fact, Antonini Wilson was allowed to leave Argentina unmolested just days after the suitcase was discovered, and having visited the Casa Rosada in person. He told reporters he is more than happy to declare before an Argentine judge, and has in fact already contracted a lawyer for his defence.

Now some hope that the Argentine justice system – which struggles to assert its independence from the executive and is rife with corruption and inefficiency – will indeed open a home-grown investigation into the matter of whether Chavez illegally funded Fernández de Kirchner’s campaign.

Meanwhile, the cash-stuffed suitcase isn’t the only thing casting doubts of her campaign finance. Campaign funding has never been particularly transparent in Argentina, but after newspapers published reports that a supposed narco-trafficker, Sebastián Forza, who was assassinated in August in a mafia-style shooting, had financed her campaign to the tune of 200,000 pesos.

Now the public prosecutor is investigating “ghost donations:” several people who swear they never gave a penny to Kirchner’s presidential campaign figure on the legally required donor lists as having donated large sums well beyond their means. La Nacion has named several such ghost donors, three of wholm were registered on the same day, November 22, 2007, as having made cash donations.

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Bad times for ex-presidents

The scandal that has haunted Carlos Menem since his presidency ended in 1999 will finally be aired in court when the ex-president (and current senator for La Rioja province) will be tried for his part in a secret arms deal that saw weapons sold illegally to both Croatia and Ecuador between 1991 and 1995.

Does this man look like a crook to you?

Does this man look like a crook to you?

The oral trial will be a drawn-out process, with 41 accused under investigation in the matter. Among them is ex-economy minister Domingo Cavallo.

Menem is accused of having signed three secret presidential decrees permitting the illegal arms sales. According to the accusations, Menem knowingly broke a United Nations arms embargo to aid Croatia in its fight against Serbian forces in the early 1990s. He then used the same trafficking network to send arms to Ecuador during a 1995 border dispute with Peru. Many Argentines find it particularly mortifying that Argentine weapons were sent to support Ecuador – not only because Argentina was acting as a mediator between Ecuador and Peru, but also because Peru was the only South American country to stick up for Argentina during the 1982 Falklands War.

Menem has eluded justice over the accusations for some time, and the question some are asking, though, is why now? Menem was detained and placed under house arrest on the same charges on 2001 but was acquitted (in a less-than-transparent process) due to lack of evidence. A case of double jeaopardy? And if not, why has the case taken seven years to be revisited? The timing has some saying it’s the Kirchners taking revenge on Menem – a fellow Peronist – for voting against their grains tax bill that saw farmers strike earlier this year. They do seem to have the power to turn – and halt – the wheels of justice, and the courts’ vigor in the case against Menem is a stark contrast to its lethargy when it comes to examining accusations of corruption against several serving Kirchnerite functionaries. In any case, when he stands trial this week, he will become the first democratically elected president in Argentine history to suffer such an indignity.

Ex-members of the military junta, on the other hand, have been seeing the pointy end of justice ever since the return of democracy in 1983 and it has only gotten pointier since the Kirchners have been in charge.

On Friday, ex-dictator, former president General Jorge Videla was moved from house arrest in the leafy and civilised Buenos Aires neighborhood of Belgrano to a military prison in the Campo de Mayo, just outside the capital.

Videla was convicted of crimes against humanity when Raúl Alfonsín, the first democratically elected president to follow the dictatorship, set up tribunals to judge the ex-military rulers. Videla enjoyed a few years of freedom after Menem handed out pardons for ex-repressors in 1990, but those pardons have been overturned by the Kirchners and since last year Videla has been stuck at home, much like any other 83-year-old man who finds himself heartily unloved by the majority of his neighbours and fellow citizens. But now instead of growing old and dying among family, he will be in prison – on the very site where many Argentines found themselves illegally held and tortured under his authority during the 1970s.

While serving out a life sentence, Videla faces further charges and will be called to give evidence in a number of pending cases, including an investigation into the widespread practice of “baby theft” – the policy of misappropriating the newborn babies of illegally imprisoned women, who were later “disappeared” and their babies illegally adopted by military families. He also faces kidnapping charges and is being processed for having participated in “Plan Condor” – a clandestine scheme by which the military governments of several Southern Cone countries (backed with training and tacit approval from the USA) helped each other by swapping illegally detained prisoners and exchanging information obtained under torture.

As for slippery old Menem – his get-out-of-jail-free card is still valid for a while. Serving senators are protected from imprisonment (possibly the main reason Menem has sought to prolong his political career), so even if found guilty, he buys some time until his term ends in 2014.

Storm in a suitcase

The political scandal that started with a suitcase stuffed with dollars, detected at a Buenos Aires airport late last year, is now irrupting spectacularly, with a conspiracy trial in Miami pointing to crooked dealings between the Argentine and Venezuelan governments.

Cristina Kirchner and Hugo Chavez, photo by TIME

Cristina Kirchner and Hugo Chavez, photo by TIME

The facts are as follows. At around 3:30am on Saturday, August 4, 2007, Venezuelan businessman Guido Antonini Wilson landed in Buenos Aires on a chartered plane from Caracas. He was stopped going through customs, and a young customs official opened it to find some $800,000 in undeclared US bills. The suitcase was seized, but Antonini Wilson was let go (apparently because the appropriate justice official could not be found so early in the morning). Some months later, the young customs official appeared on the cover of Playboy.

The plane, which was chartered by Argentina’s state-owned energy company, carried several other passengers, including four executives from Venezuela’s state oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, and three Argentine government officials.

A few days later, Argentina’s then-president, Néstor Kirchner, sacked Claudio Uberti, the Argentine official who had offered Mr. Antonini Wilson a lift on the plane. Kirchner swore he was not up to anything crooked, and demanded answers from Hugo Chavez. “I am not covering up anything,” he insisted. “My hands are clean.”

Meanwhile, Nestor Kirchner’s wife, Senator Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, was in the middle of her presidential campaign, which would be decided at the polls in November. The campaign involved lots and lots of expensive advertising at home and plenty of appearances in chic foreign locations. No domestic media interviews were granted and she avoided Argentine reporters while on her world tour.

Cristina won the election with a huge margin, but the early days of her presidency were marred when further facts in the suitcase scandal came to light in December 2007.  During the days following the suitcase’s sequestration, there were a number of phone calls registered from Uberti to Néstor Kirchner, and on 6 August, according to witness testimony here in Argentina, a secretary working in the Casa Rosada (or Pink House, offices of the Argentine president in Buenos Aires) saw Antonini Wilson in the building. The next day, he left the country.

By this time, US investigators in Miami had become involved. Three Venezuelans and an Uruguayan were arrested in Miami on charges of acting as agents of the Venezuelan government, operating in the US illegally and allegedly pressuring Antonini to cover up the source of the cash. Antonini Wilson was cooperating with US law enforcement which revealed it had evidence that the cash was destined for the presidential campaign of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

The Kirchners stopped demanding answers from Chavez, and started blaming the Evil Empire of the North.

A docile congress rushed to Cristina’s rescue, passing a resolution condemning the US over the investigation. Cristina Kirchner called the case a “garbage operation” and Chavez said it was a CIA plot. The young customs official turned Playboy pin-up, valiantly capitalising on her new-found fame despite death threats, had her dreams shattered when political pressure forced her off a popular reality show. The young woman had been rehearsing for months to appear on “Showmatch” (a program whose vulgarity must be seen to be believed), in its edition called “Skating for a Dream,” where she was set to ice-skate in a sparkly g-string.

But now the case is  on in Miami and the Argentine papers over the weekend were filled with details revealed by the US attorney, who is prosecuting one of the men involved in the imbroglio for failure to register as a foreign agent. The others who were arrested have all pleaded guilty and are now helping investigators.

Saturday's edition of La Critica

Saturday's edition of La Critica

Argentine officials’ constant accusations about the political motivations of the case have forced the US ambassador here to release a statement explaining the basics of the US justice system and the independence of the prosecutor. Perhaps the Kirchners are so stuck in their own mindset, which likes to see the judiciary as a tool of the executive, that they can’t believe things work differently elsewhere. Or maybe they’re just desperate. But even if politics is playing a role in the case – and there’s every reason to believe the US is keen to expose Chavez as a crook – that won’t take much heat off Caracas and Buenos Aires.

President Kirchner is answering no questions about the case, but her officials are busy throwing out one-liners in an effort to deflect inquiries. Exasperation that the US is taking the word of a “delinquent” – Antonini Wilson – over the government’s is one such. Calls for Antonini Wilson’s extradition is another popular non-sequitur. After all, Antonini Wilson was here in Buenos Aires and they let him go. The fact is that the Venezuelan businessman holds US citizenship and is cooperating in an investigation into crimes committed in the US. They’d hardly let him go anywhere right now, much less hand him over to a government suspected to be intimately involved in the scandal.

FBI tapes played in the Miami court (Antonini Wilson was pursuaded to wear a wire on his return to Miami, and the  transcripts are providing plenty of column-fodder for Argentina’s political reporters), along with witness testimony, leave Cristina Kirchner and Hugo Chavez with little option but to use the well-worn (though, it must be said, historically justified) refrain of a yankee plot to destabilise Latin America and undermine its champion-of-the-people leaders. While one can assume that anything that might embarrass Chavez (who has just expelled the US ambassador) would be welcome in US foreign policy circles, the charge of a CIA plot is far-fetched to say the least. Given that the suitcase flew in on a plane hired by the Argentine government, and that its carrier was accompanied by an Argentine government official, the accusations of CIA plot point clearly to extreme incompetence or extreme credulity on the part of the Argentine and Venezuelan governments. All anyone has to do to plant incriminating undeclared cash on these people is to ask politely for a lift in their plane?

The apparently unembarrassable Cristina is now hunkering down trying to work out how she’ll avoid tough suitcase-related questions from reporters (who will be harder to avoid in New York than they are here) when she travels to the US at the end of the week for a United Nations General Assembly.

Dirty War generals condemned

On August 28, the trial of two retired generals ended, with both condemned to prison for the rest of their  lives for crimes against humanity, committed while they formed part of the military regime that ruled Argentina from 1976-1983.

Menedéz and Bussi, with their lawyer. Photo by JORGE OLMOS SGROSSO / AFP/Getty Images

Menendéz and Bussi, with their lawyer. Photo by JORGE OLMOS SGROSSO / AFP/Getty Images

Antonio Domingo Bussi and his colleague Luciano Benjamín Menéndez were convicted of kidnapping, torturing and murdering a senator, Guillermo Vargas Aignasse, who disappeared on the day of the military coup – March 24, 1976. The military’s story was that he was later released, but his familiy never saw him again.

Argentina stands out among its southern cone neighbours as the only country that has successfully brought former military rulers – who together were responsible for the extra-judicial imprisonment, torture and execution of tens of thousands of Argentines – to trial for crimes against humanity. At the moment, there are 1,200 cases related to human rights abuse during the dictatorship before the courts. These trials are thought to involve just over 1000 people. There are 403 people under arrest for the alleged crimes, 336 of these are in custody and 67 on bail. Some 28 ex-represors have been sentenced and are in jail, while 55 are on the run. But the trials are not universality supported and for many Argentines, they don’t really represent the closing of this ugly historical chapter as much as the re-opening of old wounds.

The trial was partially televised. Watching the two watery-eyed, white-haired old men read their personal testimonies – filled with indignation at what they call illegitimate and politically-motivated trials – was certainly an emotionally confusing experience. Bussi, whose lawyers had tried to declare him unfit to stand trial due to illness, spoke with plastic oxygen tubes attached to his nose and wept as he denied ever having laid eyes on Vargas Aignasse. Part of me wanted to feel sorry for these pathetic, wicked old men, with their sad old bodies and ill-spent lives. But the words they read recalled clearly that in the vigour of youth, these men used their power to stamp out the lives of others who thought differently from them.  They showed no signs of regret, resisting with every last breath the moral meaning of what they had done, and the consequences the dictatorship had for the country.

Menéndez told the court “Argentina flaunts the dubious merit of being the first country in history to judge its victorious soldiers,” he said. “They call the operations of the armed forces illegal repression.”

The wicked old men were not without their supporters. In one particularly action-packed (and televised) moment, when Bussi’s sentence was announced, prominent pro-military activist Cecilia Pando lept to her feet and started screeching, making throat-cutting gestures and swearing at Argentina’s secretary for human rights, also present, declaring that she would kill him with her own hands.

Cecilia Pando going berserk. Photo by DyN

Cecilia Pando going berserk. Photo by DyN

Pando later said she regretted her outburst, but objected, “They are trying them under the penal code when they should be trying them under the laws of war.” She has also argued that there can be no justice while only the ex-military are tried, and not those involved in the guerrilla movements that committed deadly acts of terrorism during the 1970s. Many share this view, while others argue that ex-terrorists and ex-statesmen cannot be held to the same standards. This view holds that state terrorism unleashed against the people is in a class of its own and is a crime against humanity, and what the terrorists did was not of the same magnitude in kind nor death toll. Pando singled out Human Rights Secretary Eduardo Luis Duhalde for his history as a left-wing activist during the ’70s.

The judges relied in part on jurisprudence generated at the Nuremburg trials, which condemned members of Hiler’s Nazi regime for crimes against humanity. The court declared:

“The implementation of a systematic plan, consisting of kidnapping, torture, clandestine detention, elimination and the hiding of corpses – all with a view to ensuring the impunity of the perpetrators – has been proven.”

The court decided the two were guilty of crimes against humanity, though not of genocide. There are some  in Argentina who believe the Dirty War, which saw some 30,000 Argentines forcibly “disappeared” and their bodies disposed of clandestinely, does indeed qualify as genocide. While no ethnic group or class was targeted, they argue that the generals’ plan was a sort of “ideological cleansing” designed to rid Argentina of certain modes of thought or ideology that the generals deemed “subversive.”

The sentence was greeted with cheers from human rights activists, but some protested violently at the house arrest sentence received by Bussi in light of his age (he is 82). Menéndez (who is 81, but in better shape than his colleague) will stay in the jail where he is already imprisoned for separate human rights violations.

Narco-panic in Argentina

A series of mafia-style assassinations and the ensuing investigation into their connection with possible drug cartels has Argentines asking whether their country has graduated from consumer and transit country to major producer in the international drug business.

First of all, a neighbour who detected strange aromas alerted police to a drug lab operating next door to her home in greater Buenos Aires, where, on July 18, nine Mexicans and one Argentine were arrested. The lab produced ecstasy, metamphetamines and ephedrine, and is the first of its kind to be discovered in Argentina.

Then, on July 24, there was a shooting in the parking station at a large shopping centre in the outer suburbs of Buenos Aires. First thought to be a robbery, police soon suspected it to be a settling of accounts involving narcotraffickers and money launderers. Two men, both Colombians, were shot – one was killed and the other is under arrest. Both men are said to be part of the Cordillera Cartel.

On August 7, three young businessmen were reported disappeared. That day, two of their burned-out cars were discovered and on 13 August their bodies were found, shot mafia-style with 16 bullets. On 16 August justice officials revealed that one of the three, Sebastián Forza, was under investigation for trafficking ephedrine to Mexico.

On 16 August the two crimes are said to be connected after police discovered records of telephone conversations between Forza and the survivor of the shopping centre shooting.

Last Sunday, August 24, an associate of Forza’s threw himself from his mother’s ninth-floor apartment in Buenos Aires, leaving a note that said, among other things, “if you really are investigating, please do it properly.” Like Forza, the man was involved in the pharmaceutical business. Police are investigating whether he killed himself voluntarily or was threatened – maybe even pushed.

According to La Critica, the Mexican Sinaloa Drug Cartel has set up shop in Argentina, using the illicit pharmaceutical trade to manufacture amphetamines.The paper says:

“An investigation shows that the nine Mexicans arrested in the laboratory… –  investigators say Forza may have been their ephedrine provider – belong to the cartel led by Joaquín “Chapo” Guzmán Lorea, the most dangerous of Mexico’s drug bosses, named on the US’s most wanted list.” (Sunday, 24 August edition)

Ephedrine, a key ingredient in speed and other amphetamines, is readily and cheaply available in Argentina due to its widespread use in cold and flu medicines. Ephedrine has been banned in Mexico (it is tightly regulated in many countries) for the precise reason that it is used to produce illicit drugs, making the substance difficult to get hold of. Reports say ephedrine is more than three times the price in Mexico that it fetches in Argentina.

Argentina provides excellent conditions for narco-traffickers: multiple porous borders; an ineffectual and corrupt customs system; ineffectual, corrupt and underpaid police forces; chronic political ineptitude and corruption; and a generally lax regulatory environment.

Argentina’s government either doesn’t have or declines to reveal any comprehensive plan to fight drugs and drug-related crime, apart from a recent – and already controversial – policy to decriminalise drug use.

On the consumer-side, Argentines do enjoy their drugs – particularly cocaine, which is readily available, cheap and of high quality. The UN’s World Drug Report 2008 says Argentina is the world’s third-largest cocaine user, behind the US and Spain and tying with England/Wales. The report says 2.6% of Argentines aged between 15 and 64 years have used cocaine, making them the biggest users in Latin America.

The three young, fresh-faced empresarios and their grieving families paint a picture of middle-class society rent asunder by drug crime. But the lower classes in Argentina have long been afflicted by the consequences of drug abuse.

NGOs and families working and living in villas miserias, or slums, around Buenos Aires and some of the large provincial capitals have been pleading for intervention and assistance in their struggle against paco, a crack-like drug made from cocaine residue. Cheap, easy to produce and smokeable, paco is highly addictive and provides an intense, short-lived high. It can lead to serious brain damage when overused, and some say it’s behind the rising levels of violent crime in Argentina.

The New York Times has a good in-depth feature and accompanying slideshow on Buenos Aires’ paco scourge. To watch a video by Argentina Reporter filmed in a Buenos Aires slum, click here, or select the video called “There Goes the Neighbourhood” in the column on the right.

A paco smoker, image by Chaco Online

A paco smoker, image by Chaco Online