The latest chapter in Argentina’s never-ending corruption story took another dramatic turn this week, as Senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s properties were searched and momentum continued building to strip the former president of her parliamentary immunity.
Tens of thousands of protesters marched on Congress on Tuesday, calling for her to face justice and for the Senate to authorise the search of her private residences in the context of the unfolding ‘bribery notebooks’ scandal, in which she stands accused of leading a pucorruption scheme alongside her late husband, former president Nestor Kirchner, and their disgraced former planning minister Julio De Vido.
Fernández de Kirchner has flat-out rejected the allegations against her.
In a fiery speech during a Wednesday night Senate vote that stripped her temporarily of immunity from police raids, the former head of state took aim at the federal judge leading the investigation, Claudio Bonadio.
“Do you really think Bonadio is impartial? There are six cases against me and five are headed by him,” she said. “When a case appears with the ‘Kirchner’ name in it, ding, there he his.”
Evidence against Fernández de Kirchner piled up late last week, as construction sector bosses began turning en masse against the 65-year-old in order to secure plea bargains.
Bonadio and Federal Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli’s fastmoving pre-trial investigation focuses on information obtained from the written recordings of former Planning Ministry chauffeur Oscar Centero, who documented in a series of notebooks names, dates and amounts of alleged kickbacks paid by construction sector bosses to former Kirchner government officials via the Planning Ministry.
“I regret nothing. In any case, I regret not having been intelligent or open enough to convince and persuade more people that what we were doing, with all our virtues and mistakes, improved the lives of millions of people living in Argentina,” Fernández de Kirchner told the Senate.
Accepting the inevitable, she and her voting bloc voted in favour of the measure after pushing for a series of conditions, including that her lawyer and another senator be present during the searches and that police did not allow the searches to be filmed or photographed.
On Thursday, a crowd of journalists, curious onlookers and supporters of the former president gathered outside her Buenos Aires apartment in the neighbourhood of Recoleta while at least a dozen police officers and other officials wearing white jumpsuits and blue latex gloves entered the residence.
“There is a shameless, humiliating manipulation towards me. But if they believe that with this they are going to make me change my ideas, they are wrong. For better or for worse, I belong to a generation that grew up with the fear that we would be hunted down to be ‘disappeared,’ or raped, or thrown into the sea”, the 65-year-old senator charged, invoking the highly sensitive memory of Argentina’s 1976-83 dictatorship.
Fifteen people have been arrested to date, while several others have secured plea bargains that have granted them a reprieve — possibly only temporarily — from prison.
Businessman Alberto Taselli was arrested on Thursday after his brother Sergio’s arrest on Tuesday. One former public official, Oscar Thomas, remains on the run. Thomas was former director of the Yacyretá Binational Entity (EBY) during most of the Kirchner administrations. The government announced it is offering a 500,000-peso reward for information about his whereabouts.
Meanwhile, an Italian court this week called on investigating prosecutor Carlos Stornelli to lobby his colleague Eduardo Taiano, who is in charge of the Argentine branch of the international Lavo Jato corruption investigation, to obtain testimony from former Techint director Héctor Zabaleta.
Zabaleta stands accused of having played a key role in the alleged graft ring. Milan prosecutor Donata Patricia Costa has sought his testimony in the investigation into Italian private sector involvement in the Petrobras-Lava Jato corruption scheme since October last year.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Police seized US$1 million and 1.5 million pesos from the apartment of Nestor Otero, the businessman whose company holds the contract for the Retiro bus terminal.
As several construction sector bosses returned to court this week, information about Former Public Works secretary José López’s testimony were leaked to daily La Nación, which reported the disgraced former official gave Bonadio detailed information about the general modus operandi of the alleged graft ring involving CFK and other high-level government officials.
López coordinated public works at the Planning Ministry for 12 years under Julio De Vido. He was arrested on June 14, 2016 after he was caught throwing US$9 million in cash over the wall of a convent —along with a semi-automatic rifle—,where money tied to alleged Kirchnerera corruption was being stored in cahoots with a group of nuns. López told the courts last week that the money belonged to “people in politics.”
Having testified several times, López is said to have said he was part of a collection ring to fund electoral campaigns in the Buenos Aires Province, indicating a few local mayors were involved, as well as La Cámpora, the youth Kirchnerite organization led by Máximo Kirchner and Andres Larroque. On Friday, Judge Bonadio secured a plea bargain from López, who is jailed under protective custody.
Why is everyone talking about flan?
The word of the week in Argentina was, strangely, ‘flan.’ A custard tart that is a traditional national dessert, flan was a metaphor used by comedian Alfredo Casero to illustrate what he considers to be the irrationality of populist Peronists. A well-known anti-Kirchnerite, Casero likened their claims to social welfare payments to a family whose house had just burnt down that only cares about eating flan. Suggesting the Ks sacked the nation’s coffers, Casero’s metaphor became viral on social media, to the point where even President Mauricio Macri uploaded a picture eating flan. “We want flan,” chanted Cambiemos supporters in the weeks marches. Not everyone was a fan, though: Casero saw several of his comedy shows cancelled after having criticised the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo and questioned the legitimacy of their recovered relatives. He later apologized.