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.

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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