It should come as no surprise that phones in Argentina are tapped. Back when mobile phones had removable batteries, the ritual before any important meeting was to hit the off button and take out the lithium battery before setting the devices on the table. Other tactics included holding meetings with a radio on at full blast. The only cure, of course, was to simply accept that any call or conversation could be recorded, so act privately as you would in public. This doesn’t make it right, of course, but it is, to a certain extent, the law of the land. As we’ve come to find out, even the Buenos Aires Times was a victim of illicit surveillance this time around.
A few weeks ago in this column we explained the initial reverberations of the latest case of illegal espionage in Argentina, this time perpetrated during the Mauricio Macri administration and including both members of the then-opposition and the government. The case is a consequence of the intervention of the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI) by the Alberto Fernández administration, where he picked Cristina Caamaño as interim head. (Caamaño, it must be noted, was at the Attorney General’s Office during the presidency of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, which controlled all judicial wire-tapping before the Macri administration sent that faculty over to the Supreme Court). In essence, this is the airing of dirty laundry by the Fernández administration which has a dual logic: on the one hand, demonstrate that the intelligence services were being used abusively and therefore justifying the need for their reform, and secondly proving the theory held by close supporters of the current vice-president that there was a systematic and illicit plan to put her and her closest associates behind bars, a.k.a. “Lawfare.”
The narrative is bifurcated into two major cases, one substantially more damaging for Macri and his chief spies — Gustavo “the Moor” Arribas and Silvia “the Turk” Majdalani — than the other. Caamaño had initially found a list of emails including politicians, journalists, and other members of civil societies that indicated illicit espionage, to which she added lists of journalists and mostly leftist political leaders within the context of the World Trade Organisation convention held in Buenos Aires in 2017 and the G20 Leaders’ Summit of 2018. The latter was a detailed profile of journalists and others seeking accreditation to the events, with the particularity that beyond protocol information they also investigated political affiliation and even personal and financial information, which appears to have been used to determine accreditation status. This, of course, is illegal, yet it seems to be within a series of requests by the Security Ministry run by Patricia Bullrich at the time ahead of global summits that sparked a backlash amongst anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation groups. That AFI was investigating was an “open secret” Perfil had revealed at the time, as it was looking to avoid embarrassing protests in the streets of BA during the global events. Snooping on journalists’ political affiliations and activists' financial statements seems amateurish. These cases are being investigated by Judge Marcelo Martínez de Giorgio, who has also taken on the work of the late Claudio Bonadio.
In tandem, a much more dangerous and troubling situation emerged, and it shows that either the intelligence agencies were an absolute mess during the Macri years, or that they were complicit in not only gathering illegal information but also extortion and all sorts of other improprieties. It starts with an anonymous phone call on December 11, 2018, which sparks an investigation into a drug-cartel led by kingpin Sergio Rodríguez, alias “Vegetable” or “Tomato.” Rodríguez’s turf was in the neighbourhood of Lanús, to the immediate west of Buenos Aires City and part of its metropolitan area. As “Veggie” sought to expand his business he came in contact with a lawyer by the name of Facundo Melo, who offered him protection and even an AFI ID card. Melo, an AFI agent who also represents hooligans of the Independiente football club, asked for a small favour: December was to deliver a package to the apartment of José Luis Vila, Subsecretary of Internal Affairs of the Defence Ministry during the Cambiemos (Let’s Change) administration. As he arrived at the location in swanky Avenida Callao, he noticed he was carrying a bomb, but he was told not to worry, it was meant as a threat and wouldn’t detonate. Melo had inquired whether “Tomato” was willing to murder someone for him. The drug boss finally eventually turned himself in to the authorities after three failed operations to catch him, where he met Lomas de Zamora federal judge Federico Villena, and began singing. All of his associates and family members had been caught, so he spilt the beans looking for a more favourable judicial circumstance. This happened in February this year.
Judge Villena began investigating and managed to seize the mobile phones and other devices of spy Melo, a colleague named Leandro Araque, and their supposed boss Alan Ruíz, former director of Special Operations. There he found pictures of the bomb along with surveillance information on people such as Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner, City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, former Buenos Aires Province governor María Eugenia Vidal, among other heavyweights. Within this editorial house they sought to steal Noticias magazine journalist Rodis Recalt’s mobile phone in order to ascertain his sources within the intelligence community. What was striking was that this apparent ring of undercover and illegal espionage wasn’t being run outside of AFI, but within it and through organic agents. How far up the chain of command did it go? Were Arribas and Majdalani aware of what was going on? Was Macri? Both “Mister Five” (Arribas) and “Miss Eight” (Majdalani) have already put together defence teams and have indicated they were unaware of such operations, trying to keep things at the lower levels of command. More explosive information will continue to emerge.
What does all this mess mean? It seems to suggest that Cristina’s dismembering of the intelligence services, and specifically counterintelligence boss Antonio “Jaime” Situso, led to a “no man’s land” that was never reined in by Arribas, who Macri supposedly placed at AFI for that sole reason. Without Stiuso, things got out of hand, with internal officers embroiled in illicit espionage, back-stabbing all around as loyalty disappeared, and the emergence of parallel rings of information gathering and extortion that spiralled out of control as in the case of the infamous Marcelo D’Alessio.
It is also an indication of gatopardism, or how things change so that nothing changes, with illegal espionage during the ‘M’ years being equal to or even worse than during the ‘K’ decade, with the added dangers of consistent leakage to the press. President Fernández has vowed to reform the Judiciary and its relationship with the spy agencies, and in the meantime he is mounting the legal cases against its former bosses, including Macri himself. Will he and his pan-Peronist coalition resist the temptation of using them to their own benefit? Will his vice-president, an expert at illegal espionage, hold back her hands?