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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 16-02-2019 09:44

Caught in the crossfire

To put this last bit bluntly: newspapers Página/12 and La Nación have been leading the communications battle on either side of the infamous grieta.

An internal war has broken out in the Comodoro Py federal courthouse, one that requires a special set of spectacles to decipher. The arrest of an eccentric character named Marcelo D’Alessio – who was recorded asking for US$300,000 supposedly on behalf of federal prosecutor Carlos Stornelli – is the entry point through which corruption, conflicts of interest, and the manipulation of the public opinion can be understood. And, given the implicit intentionality behind the press coverage this and related cases have been receiving, it’s key to have a bit of a feel for what each particular news outlet represents. To put this last bit bluntly: newspapers Página/12 and La Nación have been leading the communications battle on either side of the infamous grieta.

At stake is much more than the fate of the so-called ‘cuadernos’ corruption notebooks graft scandal, but the underlying make-up and division of power behind Argentina’s omnipresent and corrupt Judiciary, which has danced to the tune of the Casa Rosada since time immemorial. That our federal judges live lives well beyond the means of their tax-free salaries is nothing more than an understatement, but comprehending that they also put a price-tag on the hows and whens of the cases under investigation – effectively playing God with the nation’s power players – is the key to understanding their own longevity. Each side, with their team of intermediaries, financiers, and inorganic agents are playing their cards as this year’s presidential elections near. Expect things to get even spicier in the weeks and months ahead.

D’Alessio, our aforementioned eccentric, was arrested on Friday by the Coast Guard at the behest of federal judge Alejo Ramos Padilla at the luxury private neighbourhood of Saint Thomas, in the Buenos Aires province town of Canning. A frequent commentator on issues of drug-trafficking for major news outlets, including Clarín and America TV, D’Alessio is being charged with extortion after securing a commitment from businessman Pedro Etchebest in exchange for immunity in the cuadernos case.

More specifically, D’Alessio told Etchebest that his name had come up and that he was working on behalf of Stornelli, the lead prosecutor in the case, who wanted money to buy a home in the beach town of Pinamar. Etchebest’s accusations came with a long series of recordings, videos, and W hats A pp chat logs that s up p or te d his claims, including video footage s h o w i n g D ’A l e s s i o meeting with Stornelli for several hours in Pinamar, alone at moments and also accompa n ied by county mayor Gustavo Sa n z. T he case is under investigation by judge Ramos Padilla who is not part of the Comodoro Py group, as he’s in charge of the Dolores federal courthouse, which has jurisdiction over Pinamar. He’s also accused of being close to the Kirchnerites, and has blocked certain measures by the Mauricio Macri administration, while remaining absolutely lowkey. While it is clear that someone in his courthouse is leaking information to Página/12, this news outlet hasn’t been given access to the same sources. Journalist Horacio Verbitsky, who originally broke the story in his website El Cohete a la Luna, has.

An unexpected fortune was found among D’Alessio’s assets in a series of searches carried out under both Ramos Padilla’s case and a 2016 investigation into money-laundering, headed by Federal Judge Federico Villena of Lomas de Zamora, another Buenos Aires Province location. Eleven vehicles were found on his properties, including a new Range Rover valued at US$100,000, along with two speed bikes and even a yacht. D’Alessio seemed to have a thing for luxury watches too, of which he owned 50 including a US$200,000 Double Tourbillon. Raising even more eyebrows, D’Alessio also had an arsenal of sophisticated weapons, intelligence and surveillance materials, a DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) badge, FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) shirts, and a recording studio. Recordings show that D’Alessio claimed to work for the United States Embassy, the DEA, and even the National Security Agency. (The US Embassy has denied any association with D’Alessio.)

Interestingly enough, Verbitsky’s original report outlining the alleged extortion, carried out on behalf of Stornelli, wasn’t covered by Clarín or La Nación. Only when the prosecutor came out to deny the accusations did they give it space. Página/12, on the other hand, gave it ample real estate in its print and digital editions. They did count on exclusive information, of course. Yet, once the issue blew out of proportion, two of La Nación’s leading journalists, Joaquín Morales Solá and Hugo Alconada Mon came out swinging against the accusations. Elisa “Lilita” Carrió, founding member of President Macri’s Cambiemos (Let’s Change) coalition, then presented leaked phone taps from Ezeiza prison that she said would show the “operation” against Stornelli was orchestrated from within the jail that houses Kirchnerite officials who have behind bars in the context of the cuadernos case. The main protagonist? They claim it is Roberto Baratta, the fulcrum of the whole case as he was the official whose every move was recorded by chauffeur Oscar Centeno in those infamous notebooks, illustrating how the bribery collection mechanism worked. And how, exactly, did Carrió get a hold of these phone taps, one may ask? She received them “anonymously” and they form part of a different investigation into drug-trafficker Mario Segovia, who is a recluse in that same prison. Oh, and by the way, Judge Villena, the official in charge of the case against Segovia, doesn’t even have access to those recordings, which were gathered by the AFI spy agency.

If any of these occurrences appear too fantastical to be true, please, read on.

While Stornelli has been protected by an important sector of the media that has also been aligned with the government, soon after the allegations were aired Federal Judge Luis Rodríguez immediately fell from Olympus, after he was accused of taking bribes in a spin-off corruption case. Rodríguez was accused by a defendant in the cuadernos case (bear with me) — Carolina Pochetti, the widow of the late Néstor Kirchner’s private secretary, Daniel Muñoz, who is also deceased — of accepting US$10 million in exchange for a get out of jail free card for Pochetti, who is accused of laundering some US$70 million in illgotten money along with her husband. The same Pochetti who reached a plea bargain with the prosecutor – who happens to be Stornelli – who at the time requested the widow be remanded in custody. That request was denied by Rodríguez. Now, the Federal Judge who recently acquired a luxury Audi Q5 (worth approximately 20 times his salary), must prepare his defence at the same courthouse where he’s imparted justice for seven years. Rodríguez, meanwhile, is also suspected of having cheated in his entry exam along with another federal judge, and is the owner of World War II antiques including Nazi paraphernalia.

Thus works the Argentine Judiciary. These are the people holding the keys to the country’s counterbalancing power. And therefore the future of the nation.

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Agustino Fontevecchia

Agustino Fontevecchia

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