Friday, June 14, 2024

ARGENTINA | 06-06-2024 14:41

Expired food scandal: a chronology of hunger which the government sought to silence

Human Capital Ministry’s missteps over more than millions of kilos of food held back at warehouses has exploded into scandal. Audits galore, dismissals, denunciations and an official communiqué overtaken by the facts.

The scandal of five million kilos of food bought by the Alberto Fernández presidency, which the Javier Milei administration hoarded in warehouses in order to investigate alleged crooked deals, has exploded in its full dimensions. 

The furore reached a first climax on May 30 when the government decided to eject the Human Capital Ministry’s Childhood & Family secretary Pablo de la Torre in the midst of controversy over the food which was stored but not distributed.

“The Human Capital Ministry under Sandra Pettovello has reported that on the basis of information received as to the state and expiry dates of certain products acquired by the previous government (and found in the warehouses of Villa Martelli and Tafí Viejo, Tucumán Province, belonging to the previous Social Development Ministry) carried out an audit and decided to limit the functions of the officials and employees responsible who through malfeasance failed to permanently control the stock and expiry dates of the merchandise,” the Human Capital Ministry stated in a communiqué.

“The corresponding administrative investigations were carried out as well as activating a protocol for the immediate delivery of the food still ahead of expiry date via the Argentine Army to guarantee rapid and efficient logistics,” it concluded.

It was quite the turnaround. The previous Saturday De la Torre had assured that the food in stock "is in perfect condition" and earmarked for emergencies. 

"The food is in perfect condition, not past its expiry date or rotting and is used directly for all emergencies. In Argentina there is a catastrophe every 10 or 15 days and one has to help out," maintained the then-secretary. 

Less than a week later, the Ministry reported food past its expiry date which had not been distributed and blamed De la Torre’s department for the error.

President Javier Milei’s government at first said that the products had not expired but when the contrary was proved, it took the decision to fire De la Torre. His right-hand man, Héctor Calvente, and four others were also dismissed.

As De la Torre stepped down, the secretary said it had been “an honour” to form part of Milei’s government.

“I will continue to work for our homeland from wherever I am. I ask God to illuminate President Milei in the enormous task of bringing this country forward,” published the ex-official on social media. 

His brother, provincial senator Joaquín de la Torre, the former mayor of San Miguel, came out in support. 

De la Torre’s exit came just three days after Presidential Spokesperson Manuel Adorni said that the government would appeal a ruling by Judge Sebastián Casanello ordering the Human Capital Ministry to report the quantity of food destined for social canteens which it had stored and immediately distribute it.

Adorni went further, arguing the food is “reserved in preventive form for emergencies or catastrophes.” Milei’s chief spokesman promised that "not a single item of food will be thrown into the rubbish,” differentiating between the food delivered to soup kitchens and the food reserved for catastrophes.”


How the scandal broke

Some months ago, journalist Ari Lijalad made a request for access to public information as to the location of the food which was answered by the Human Capital Ministry. 

On that basis social leader Juan Grabois amplified his criminal charges with the new information supplied by Lijalad via the El Destape website, summoning the Human Capital Ministry to distribute the food rotting in the warehouses of Villa Martelli. 

Judge Casanello subsequently ordered an urgent plan for the government distribution of five million kilos of food accumulating in the warehouses of the Human Capital Ministry headed by Sandra Pettovello.

In this context prosecutor Patricia Ochoa determined possible malfeasance, leading the judge to rule an injunction ordering the Ministry to deliver the food in a maximum period of five days.

Pettovello, fearing the worst, has also filed a complaint with the Anti-Corruption Office about alleged fraudulent contracts. The denunciation was “filed with the body to determine whether a crime was committed and, if so, who was responsible,” said the Office in a statement.

Criminal complaints against De la Torre and Victoria Tolosa Paz, Social Development minister during the government of Alberto Fernández, have also been filed, the latter invoking alleged irregularities in the purchase of 12 million kilos of yerba mate, of which 9 million kilos were distributed.

Pettovello’s portfolio subsequently signed a distribution deal with the Fundación CONIN and roped in the Army to assist in deliveries.

The warehouses hold: powdered milk (339,867 kilos expiring next month, 160,279 more kilos expiring between August and September, 343,972 kilos reaching the end of October and 80,062 more until November); corn flour (4,439 kilos with an expiry date of July 25); tomato purée (25,602 kilos lasting until September 30 and 92,063 kilos until November 30); peanut butter (57,703 kilos with an expiry date of October 5) and chickpeas (80,868 kilos, expiring between October 12 and 18).

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