The incredible public apparition of a series of handwritten notebooks detailing the inner workings of the “collection mechanism” behind the Kirchnerista corruption system shocked Argentina this week, as speculation over the judicial situation of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner mounts.
Yet, as always with Argentina’s Judiciary, the taste is bittersweet: while the explicit content of those notebooks appears to show how even Néstor Kirchner personally received duffel bags full of dollars in the Olivos presidential residence, an opportunist legal system and a crooked judge like Claudio Bonadio taint a case that has the potential to become our very own Lava Jato. While Cristina remains protected by senatorial immunity, the timing of these latest accusations — as President Mauricio Macri slides in the polls while CFK rises as she purposefully remains silent in the face of a crumbling economy — once again raises suspicions about the political use of the courts, a decades-old vice of this land and its elites.
Corruption was the name of the game for Néstor Kirchner. From his early days in charge of the city of Río Gallegos, in the southern province of Santa Cruz, all the way to his presidency, Néstor mounted an obscure financing system that allowed him and his wife to further their political goals. The system consisted of a symbiosis between a corrupt state and corruptible businessmen willing to pay bribes in exchange for highly-lucrative public works projects that were rarely completed. With him from day one was Julio De Vido, who rose to become his planning minister, in charge of a gigantic black box of discretional funds that made Kirchner and his buddies extremely rich, siphoning dollars away from our decrepit infrastructure.
The Fall of the House of Kirchner. Macri’s surprise 2015 electoral victory over Kirchnerite candidate Daniel Scioli — former Buenos Aires province governor and Néstor’s vice-president — led to the courts going into overdrive, jailing corrupt Kirchnerites left and right.
Each arrest was more cinematographic than the previous one, with former public works secretary José López caught after dropping off duffle bags filled with dollars and a semiautomatic rifle at a nun’s Convent and former vice-president Amado Boudou — accused of defrauding the state to buy the country’s only private money-printing facility — arrested in his pyjamas. The impunity with which they acted, expressed in that they didn’t even care about covering the tracks, was repugnant. The Ks, that is.
Now, we seem to have a perfect snapshot of how the collection and distribution mechanism worked all the way to the top. Yes, that means Néstor and Cristina Kirchner included. Oscar Centeno, a former Army sergeant who was the chauffeur for Roberto Baratta, De Vido’s number two man, kept meticulous notes in a series of notebooks, eight of which ended up in the hands of La Nación journalist Diego Cabot. After photocopying them, analyzing and decoding their content, he handed the copies (not the originals, which he returned to his source) over to the courts. The documents date from 2008 to November 2015, and consist of trips on board Centeno’s Toyota Corolla between construction companies, the Olivos residence, the Planning Ministry, the private residence of the Kirchners in the posh Recoleta neighbourhood of Buenos Aires, and a series of safe houses.
Centeno’s notebooks indicate he transported at least US$35.6 million in those seven years, while Federal Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli estimates the actual number is closer to US$200 million. Centeno’s ex-wife Hilda Horovitz had already accused him of being Baratta’s bagman last December at Bonadio’s courtroom.
Along with Baratta and several other members of the Planning Ministry, Bonadio issued arrest warrants for several businessmen, which marks a positive departure from previous investigations into Kirchnerite corruption.
Ruben Valenti, director of metallurgical company Impsa, would meet Baratta at the Feir’s Park Hotel in Esmeralda Street and gift him boxes of Lagarde Champagne along with suitcases filled with dollars, of course. Carlos Wagner, president of Esuco and former head of the Argentine Chamber of Construction, would leave the dollars ready for Baratta and Centeno at one of his offices located on 151 San José street, just a few blocks from Congress. And Javier Sánchez Caballero, general manager of Iecsa — the firm owned by President Macri’s cousin, Angelo Calcaterra, until March 2017 — would met the bagmen at the Hilton Hotel’s parking lot in Puerto Madero, where he would hand over the cash. At press time, 17 people had been arrested since Wednesday night, 10 of which were businessmen.
It remains unclear why Centeno kept tabs on Baratta and his shady dealings. According to ex-wife Horovitz in an exclusive interview in Noticias this week, the chauffeur was a spiteful man, frequently annoyed by the “crumbs” he received. His intention, she explained, would be to extort Baratta if he were to be fired. It’s also a curious coincidence that the original notebooks haven’t been found. Judge Bonadio received copies from the La Nación journalist, but the prosecution hasn’t been able to find the originals in their successive raids. The level of detail including names, licence plates, locations, and specific amounts of money — how he knew these remains unclear — raises further red flags.
It’s highly likely that Centeno’s notebooks are truthful, and it is difficult to imagine that Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was unaware of her late husband’s financing tactics. Baratta, De Vido, and the whole Planning Ministry was infested with corruption. Yet, something’s off.
Once again, the current socio-political-economic situation forces a rational doubt. A vicious devaluation has pushed Argentina into a recession, as President Macri went to the International Monetary Fund for an emergency loan. Stagflation has set in, eroding purchasing power and hurting both business owners and employees. A recent investigation by Perfil shows that the ruling Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition used the names of lower and middle class citizens to mask campaign donations during the 2015 presidential election and 2017 midterm elections both in Buenos Aires City and province. A true chink in provincial Governor María Eugenia Vidal’s pristine armour. Fuelling further suspicion, President Macri’s approval ratings have been sinking for months, and even Vidal has slid, while Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has silently gained strength. This case could be a perfect distraction.
The Judiciary has an historic opportunity to pursue publicprivate corruption all the way to the top. That’s not just Cristina, but also Macri’s cousin and the private sector. Bonadio’s tainted track record makes it difficult for one to remain optimistic.