Corruption in Argentina is very efficient, as everyone gets their cut.
It remains unclear how far the ripple effect of the corruption scandal that detonated in Argentina over the past few weeks will go. There can be little doubt that it will go at least as far as Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, but it is troubling to see how several businessmen have been freed after admitting their crimes and reaching a plea bargain with the prosecutor and judge, among them presidential cousin Ángelo Calcaterra. Argentina is facing a unique opportunity to set the conditions to severely limit corruption in public works projects, but it must do so by the hand of a controversial and morally questionable judge. If indeed the investigations continues, and all those responsible face the courts and serve their time, then maybe we can fathom a paradigm shift in which corruption is no longer the natural state of things.
The meticulous annotations of a chauffeur, leaked to the press and then used as evidence by Prosecutor Carlos Stornelli and Judge Claudio Bonadio, shone a light on a secret everybody already knew: the Planning Ministry in charge of Argentina’s public works projects was a cesspool of corruption through which Néstor and Cristina Kirchner solidified their political power and grew immensely rich. Oscar Centeno was Roberto Baratta’s driver, and Baratta was Planning Minister Julio De Vido’s right-hand man. What Centeno’s notebooks, with military rigour, described was a cash-based financial system put together by Baratta through which the country’s major construction companies secured coveted energy projects though bribes. The supposed final destination of those funds were the constant electoral campaigns that happen every two years in Argentina, but it is painfully obvious that much of it also went to the personal safety boxes of everyone involved. Corruption, in Argentina, is very efficient, as everyone gets their cut.
One of the things that set this case apart was that Judge Bonadio decided to jail several prominent businessmen. Illustrious firms like Techint — owned by billionaire Paolo Rocca — and Iecsa — formerly owned by President Mauricio Macri’s cousin, Calcaterra — are implicated, alongside companies that were built to absorb funds from Kirchnerite corruption, like Electroingenieria, or historically shady entities like the Argentine Chamber of Construction, run by Carlos Wagner.
Yet, as the days have passed, several of the businessmen — their morale broken, unaccustomed to cold prison cells — confessed to their crimes, reached a plea bargain with the prosecutor and were subsequently freed. Their legal strategy, coordinated by the same group of lawyers, is to claim they were extorted by the Kirchners into paying bribes. This reasoning would then indicate that the businessmen are victims, and therefore only partially responsible. The problem is they’re not.
Several of those currently repenting played a key role in creating and executing the whole scheme. Wagner, who’s company is named Esuco, was a central node of the system given his role at the Chamber of Construction, while Javier Sánchez Caballero — former CEO of Iecsa — was one of the most enthusiastic supporters and players. And Juan de Goycochea, the first to sing before the judge, had been fired by Spanish firm Isolux after an internal audit showed he had set up a parallel structure that paid millions to low-level employees for services the company never received. The money, of course, went to the Ministry and ultimately into the whole Kirchnerite recollection system.
The judge’s strategy was known from the start. He sought to pressure the businessmen using prison in exchange for information. His final target is also wellknown: Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. The former president and current senator is splattered with guilt. She is an important character in Centeno’s notebooks, which narrate a meeting after Nestor’s death in which she personally indicated the money being collected was to be used for the campaign. The driver, apparently invisible to his superiors, went on several occasions to the Casa Rosada, the presidential residence in Olivos, and to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s apartment in Recoleta, an expensive neighbourhood in Buenos Aires, to pick up or drop off duffel bags and suitcases filled with cash. Whether Fernández de Kirchner can be jailed remains unknown, but that she will suffer the consequences as the head of a criminal racket that defrauded the state is clear.
But you need two to tango. Or maybe three. In this case, not only was there a clear intent by the government to extract cash in exchange for public works projects, and willing businessmen, but also a pragmatic legal system with malleable judges. Former federal judge Norberto Oyarbide said he was pressured by ex-spy Antonio “Jaime” Stiuso — infamous for his relationship with Alberto Nisman, the deceased AMIA Special Prosecutor — and Javier Fernández, member of the National General Audit Office. The eccentric Oyarbide, who ruled in record time that the incredible accumulation of wealth of the Kirchners was completely legitimate, was a necessary participant in the aforementioned collection system. Yet, as a veteran of the Comodoro Py courthouse, he knows many secrets, which could be exchanged for impunity.
Fortunately, Brazil’s prosecutors have lent a helping hand in the form of the Odebrecht corruption scandal. Brazil’s Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash) was a judicial carpet bomb, unleashing a series of unimaginable events including the jailing of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, and the imprisonment of billionaire Marcelo Odebrecht, among others. In Argentina, a disagreement with Brazil’s prosecutors meant the information collected overseas hadn’t made its way through the legal system, despite several investigations into Odebrechet’s dealings in the country. A deal was finally cut over the past few weeks and Argentina’s prosecutors will now get their hands on the evidence.
With the notebook scandal on one side and Odebrecht on the other, prosecutors and judges have the tools to go all the way in pursuit of public-private corruption. If they decide to prosecute only the Kirchnerites, then this will be nothing more than revenge. If, instead, they choose to tackle the entire ecosystem, then there’s true reasons to believe things are beginning to change.