President Alberto Fernandez on Monday called for the opening of a criminal investigation into alleged collusion between judges, prosecutors and media businessmen, after leaked messages showed a group shared a trip together and then sought to agree on strategies to cover it up.
The president delivered the message via a Cadena Nacional national broadcast delivered on the eve of an anticipated verdict of a corruption trial investigating alleged wrongdoing by Vice-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and former government officials and businessmen dating back to her two presidential terms in office (2007 to 2015).
"I have decided to instruct the Justice minister to appear before the Public Prosecutor's Office and request that the facts related to the trip in question and its financing be criminally investigated," declared the Peronist leader
According to the president, "it hurts democracy to see the anti-republican promiscuity with which some businessmen, some judges, some prosecutors and some officials move. Up to now they have felt unpunished. It is time they began to be held accountable for their behaviour.”
Fernández used a national broadcast – a tactic favoured by Fernández de Kirchner during her own presidencies – "because it is evident that a large part of the private media system has decided not to report on what happened on that particular trip.”
The controversy stemmed from an October 13 trip to Lago Escondido, a paradisiacal spot in Patagonia, attended by judges, prosecutors, businessmen and Marcelo D'Alessandro, the justice and security minister of the Buenos Aires City government, according to a report published by the Página/12 newspaper, which made it public four days later.
The travellers, who flew in a private plane organised by a firm called Flyzar, stayed at the country house residence of British billionaire Joe Lewis, the owner of thousands of hectares of land in the south of the country.
Over the weekend, via reports in Página/12 and the El Cohete de la Luna website, a series of chat messages sent via the Telegram messaging app were leaked. In them, the alleged participants in the trip debate a strategy to avoid disclosure of the details of the trip and hide the origins of the funding of it, according to audio and text messages published by the outlets.
Some proposed the presentation of apocryphal invoices, photo montages, threats and other tricks.
The messages also indicate that members of the group are seeking to identify who provided information about the meeting between judges, media entrepreneurs, business leaders and the City Hall official. At one point the members of the group indicate they suspect the Airport Security Police (PSA) may be involved.
The exchanges seem to have been taken from hacking a phone belonging to D’Alessandro, who at one point tells the group “ it is very serious and dangerous that they spy on where one travels and moves.”
"They stole his phone line, took screenshots and uploaded them to a dark web,” a City government source told Perfil.
‘Series of crimes’
“It seems clear that the trip existed. And everything seems to indicate that, knowing that the event had become news, those who participated in it were concerned about the certain risk of being involved in a series of crimes such as the receipt of gifts and malfeasance," the president said in his address.
“They had one certainty: Argentina's main media group would guarantee the non-disclosure of the facts. Apparently, they were also the organisers of the meeting,” he added, referring to the Clarín Group, a media group which is sharply critical of the government.
“Argentina needs, once and for all, honest officials, honest judges and businessmen who make their profits without corrupting others," Fernández said, vowing to put an end to the underhand tactics that the country “has been maintaining over the years.”
"Everything seems to indicate that the deterioration of the institutional quality of some judges, prosecutors, former officials and businessmen has been exposed once again. All of them involved in a perverse game of bribery which seriously affects the proper functioning of the State and, in particular, the administration of justice," the head of state stressed.
Messages from two chat groups were posted online at a website of unknown origin late Monday. The first, which the Times has seen, was set up by Pablo Casey, the nephew of Grupo Clarín boss Héctor Magnetto and the director of Legal and Institutional Affairs for the same company, and by the firm's CEO Jorge Rendo.
According to the conversations, they were allegedly the hosts of the meeting attended by judges Julián Ercolini, Pablo Yadarola, Pablo Cayssials and Carlos Mahiques. Other participants were D'Alessandro, the former head of SIDE intelligence services and owner of a consultancy firm, Tomás Reinke, and another former spy, Leonardo Bergot. The Buenos Aires city attorney general, Juan Bautista Mahiques, also took part.
The second Telegram group was allegedly created on October 20 with the same aim: of stopping the publication of stories about the trip and halting investigations into the circumstances surrounding it.
Opposition leader and Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta strongly backed his justice minister.
"I spoke to Marcelo D'Alessandro and I trust his words. As we have always done, he and all the officials of the City are at the disposal of Justice for whatever it needs," tweeted Horacio Rodríguez Larreta.
"We are facing a new operation from Kirchnerism resorting to the manipulation of information and illegal espionage. They try to distract attention from the important issues and generate the feeling that we are all the same," Rodríguez Larreta wrote in a post on Twitter, echoing the line of many opposition politicians that the government was seeking to muddy the waters ahead of the imminent court ruling against Fernández de Kirchner and her co-defendants.
Several other opposition figures, among them Patricia Bullrich and Silvia Lospennato, expressed their "solidarity" with D'Alessandro, who described the revelations and president’s reaction as “a "tragicomic intelligence operation to save the boss."
"The desperate attempts of Kirchnerism to evade justice are embarrassing. But not even by violating the law will they be able to hide the reality,” declared Bullrich, a likely presidential candidate next year, alleging that the government had played a role in the leaking of the private messages.
“Another embarrassing operation by Kirchnerism to muddy the waters and dodge their judicial responsibilities,” said Buenos Aires City Government Minister Jorge Macri in a post on Twitter.
Frente de Todos Senator Oscar Parrilli, often seen as something of a mouthpiece for the former president, said that the revelations would have “international repercussions.” He even compared it to the Watergate scandal in the United States.
"This is going to have international repercussions, it doesn't end here. It's the Argentine Watergate, they won't be able to stop it,” said Parrilli.
"This is the appearance of the mafia. This is not a chat between businessmen, officials and judges. It is a chat between [Grupo Clarín boss Héctor] Magnetto's delegates, the bosses of the mafia, and their subordinates, who are the judges," the pro-government lawmaker said in an interview with the El Destape website.
"The parallel state, the real power in Argentina, has appeared," he said, denouncing the attempted cover-up.
"We talk about lawfare, about the ‘judicial party,’ but this is much more than that, it is a mafia. And with a mafia there is no democracy," insisted Parrilli.
"They went there to plan a strategy to proscribe Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in the 2023 election, because they take it for granted that there will be a conviction but it may not be final. So they want to draw up a legal and judicial strategy to ban her," he alleged about the motives for the Lago Escondido meeting.