The death of federal judge Claudio Bonadio in the first week of February once again cracked open the abyss of our very particular form of polarisation, which even has its own name (la grieta).
Much like with the late AMIA Special Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, Bonadio became a signifier for something else, meaning his actions were interpreted by most political actors under their own particular worldview and therefore tainted with bias. A rational approach to the judge’s legacy would inevitably lead to acknowledging deep contradictions, such as his initial judicial support of the Kirchners and a later all-out war against Cristina Fernñandez de Kirchner. Bonadio has never embodied the impartiality and strict adhesion to the word of the law that should be part of the construction of a legendary member of the judiciary. Rather, his arbitrariness and what appears to be a thirst for revenge are more appropriate characterisations of his oeuvre. He wasn’t either the devil on Earth or a Herculean figure taking on the powers that be, he was a product of his environment and one of the most graphical expressions of how Argentina’s judiciary has operated - in every sense of the word - since the return of democracy in the 80s.
Bonadio passed away on February 4 at his personal residence in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Belgrano. He was 64. The cause of death was a brain tumor that was initially identified a year ago, forcing the controversial judge to accelerate his work on several high-profile cases involving Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner. While not unexpected, Bonadio’s death sent shockwaves through the social-political ecosystem, leaving a bitter taste on both sides of the aisle in that the final outcome of his accusations against CFK will come without him. It could also mean a progressive deceleration and final deactivation of several major cases, including the “corruption notebooks” which could once again leave Argentina in a limbo with regards to one of its most transcendental historical moments: the alleged corrupt Kirchnerite scheme involving businessmen and a crooked state to raise dirty money in exchange for public works projects that went all the way up to Cristina.
For the rabid anti-Kirchnerite who voted Mauricio Macri into power in 2015, judge Bonadio had achieved hero status while still alive. He was seen as one of the few who had the guts to take on Cristina while still in power, alongside Nisman, journalist Jorge Lanata and other lesser-remembered characters such as prosecutor José María Campagnoli. It was this side of the grieta that hailed Bonadio an anti-corruption crusader, a domestic version of Brazil’s Sergio Moro, the judge who led the influential Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) investigation that disentangled a network of public-private corruption of unprecedented scale across Latin America.
For this group, it is equally important that Cristina and her acolytes are found guilty in significant cases such as cuadernos (“notebooks”), “Los Sauces” —where the Kirchner family is accused of receiving kickbacks from Cristobal López and Lázaro Báez in the form of fictitious rental agreements in their hotels and office buildings— , as in lesser cases such as where she’s accused of abusing her use of the presidential plane and the inappropriate reception of San Martín memorabilia. Bonadio had a hand in all of these, and several more, including the Memorandum of Understanding with Iran — Nisman’s accusation— and the “dollar futures” case. This is the group of people that scornfully call CFK a “mare” and a “witch,” associated with an historical anti-Peronism that considers recipients of social plans lazy freeriders and most politicians morally decrepit and out for getting rich. They like to forget the glory days of the Bonadio-Kirchner relationship, when in 2011 he threw out embezzlement cases against Néstor’s private secretaries, Daniel Muñoz and Isidro Bounine. Both of them were prosecuted by none other than Bonadio in 2019 in the “cuadernos” case.
The antagonical group has its core among faithful Kirchnerite and a broader group of Peronist sympathisers that have a deep distrust for the market. They see in the federal justice judges who work out of the Comodoro Py federal courthouse a swamp of corruption that has launched a war against Cristina and her administration’s officials because of their paid allegiance to monopolistic business interests and the US Embassy.
Under the banner of “lawfare,” they contextualise Bonadio’s actions as part of a region-wide movement by the hegemonical elites against populist leaders that lifted millions out of poverty and put a stop the neocolonialist extraction of Latin America’s riches by American and foreign corporations from the Northern hemisphere. They see Macri and his policies as a deliberate move against the working class aimed at consolidating power for a small interest group that is aligned with Washington and Wall Street. The return of the International Monetary Fund provides direct evidence.
In their analysis of Bonadio’s legacy they also choose to forget when he was on good terms with the Kirchner matrimony. They remember the late federal judge’s involvement with Carlos Corach, Carlos Menem’s Interior Minister, and his famous “napkin” of officialist magistrates. They call out his inhumanity for not allowing former Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman to seek cancer treatment in the US —of which he ultimately died of— during the Memorandum case. And, of course, the time he shot and killed two criminals back in 2001, as an example of his cold-blooded nature. Cristina herself called him “trigger-happy, mafioso, blackmailer.”
The incredible increase in the Kirchner family’s fortunes during their twelve years in charge of the nation doesn’t raise suspicions, while Cristobal López’s detention was arbitrary and politically motivated. They don’t really like to talk about Lázaro Báez that much, as it’s harder to justify that Néstor’s personal friend is actually a self-made man.
Judge Bonadio is pulled between heaven and hell, between the Olympus and the Underworld of Hades. In the “cuadernos” case which will most likely leave the biggest mark on society, he was innovative and courageous in his use of wich remanding suspects in custody and plea bargains, following in Judge Moro’s footsteps. He also appeared parcial, pushing “repentant” business owners to spill the beans on Kirchnerist officials in exchange for a “get out of jail free” card while failing to properly document their testimony as mandated by law. Finally, this latter point, together with the accusation that Bonadio and prosecutor Carlos Stornelli extorted whistleblowers could lead to the eventual fizzling out of a case the seems to clearly show a complicit system of black money between the political and the business class.