As the Argentine intelligentsia was emerging from a generalised state of shock in the aftermath of Javier Milei’s surprise victory in the PASO primaries, a new “black swan” slapped them right in the face, once again sending shockwaves through the socio-political ecosystem.
A series of late night social media posts by model and influencer Sofía Clerici revealed a romantic relationship with Martín Insaurralde, Kirchnerite strongman in the all-important municipality of Lomas de Zamora in Buenos Aires Province. Clerici’s Instagram stories showed her enjoying the pleasures of life alongside a lifetime public servant and two-time Mayor of one of the most populous, and poor, municipalities of the Conurbano or ring of jurisdictions that encircle the Buenos Aires City. A traditional Peronist bastion, the Conurbano is run by the so-called “barons,” out of which Insaurralde had risen to become a sort of primus inter pares with the blessing of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her son Máximo, who placed him in Buenos Aires Province Governor Axel Kicillof’s Cabinet as a sort of political commissar in the aftermath of the ruinous 2021 midterm elections where Peronism was defeated by Juntos por el Cambio in the “mother of all battles,” as the the region is known electorally.
Cristina, Máximo, and the rest of their associates who are banded together in La Cámpora political organisation have decided to distance themselves from the presidential election, which they consider already lost, and instead want to focus on building a fortress from the Province, which means Kicillof — who is at odds with Máximo Kirchner and Insaurralde and appears to respond only to the vice-president — must win re-election. Yet, the public scandal that has erupted from the “yacht-gate” has put the focus on the use of dirty money in the political sphere, particularly in the shady dealings of the barons of the Conurbano, and especially in their relationship with sectors like the gambling industry. The Insaurralde-Clerici affair comes on the heels of the former mayor’s high-profile divorce from model Jésica Cirio, rumours of which speak of a multi-million dollar settlement, and as a Peronist political operative called Julio ‘Chocolate’ Rigau was taken into custody after being found withdrawing funds with 48 debit cards belonging to employees from the provincial legislature, part of a well-known funding mechanism by which political hires are expected to give their salaries to the party in exchange for employment and healthcare. The “caste” in all its glory.
There are many reasons why the appearance of these pictures weeks before a transcendental election where ultra-libertarian outsider Javier Milei is in the lead have generated such a sensation. Was this politically timed, and if so, by who? Does this affect Economy Minister Sergio Massa’s chances, and if so, by how much? And Kicillof’s? And why have Patricia Bullrich and Milei been so quiet on the matter, especially given last week’s presidential debate where they could have seriously gone on the offensive against Massa? According to political communications firm Ad Hoc, which published an analysis of the digital conversation in the immediate aftermath of the event, the keyword “Insaurralde” was mentioned 661,000 times by 390,000 Argentine users during the three days after the pictures became public. Sentiment was negative in 86.6 percent of the mentions, with a very substantial number of posts mentioning Massa and Kicillof. Another study from consultancy CB Consultora in Buenos Aires Province found that 89.2 percent of their sample had some level of knowledge of the scandal. Asked whether it affected their voting intention, 8.9 percent indicated that they were unsure about their decision and had now decided to vote against Unión por la Patria and 3.8 percent were going to vote for Kicillof and now won’t; 7.7 percent weren’t sure how to react. This is relevant in the context of Kicillof’s re-election bid – the same study gave him a 36 percent voting intention share, compared to 22.9 percent for Néstor Grindetti (Juntos por el Cambio) and 21.7 percent for Carolina Píparo (La Libertad Avanza); 12.7 percent remain undecided.
One of the big question marks surrounding the scandal has to do with the way it unfolded, with Clerici publicly posting images of Insaurralde and her about to sip champagne aboard a yacht that is brilliantly named Bandido, off the coast of Marbella in Spain’s Costa del Sol. Other images included a Rolex watch, Louis Vuitton handbag, and Cartier bracelet along with expressions of gratitude for the gifts, and even a private video where she can be seen kissing a shirtless Insaurralde in bed. (Interestingly, Clerici, a former Playboy playmate, already sparked a media scandal a few years ago when Daniel Scioli, then-governor of the Buenos Aires Province, was caught by his partner, Gisele Berger, sexting with Sofía.)
The immediate reaction to the Insaurralde affair was for Kicillof to ask for his official’s resignation and to trash the post of Cabinet Chief entirely. Insaurralde was also told to drop his candidacy for councillor in Lomas de Zamora. He is now under investigation in at least five cases accused of money-laundering, illicit enrichment, tax evasion, and contraband. One of the cases picks up on a report by journalist Carlos Pagni that indicates that Cirio asked Insaurralde for US$50 million in their divorce settlement (suggesting his net worth stood at US$100 million, a supposed logical impossibility for a lifelong public servant), before she finally accepted US$20 million. The model is also now under investigation for abetting Insaurralde, as is Clerici.
Where did the money for such an opulent trip come from? According to journalist Ramón Indart, Insaurralde has had a longtime relationship with the major players in the gambling industry present in the Province. He strong-armed his way into the regulatory body, forcing Kicillof to appoint Omar Galdurralde to lead the lottery, and many suggest this sector is one of the main lines of financing for the provincial political system. But is it possible for Insaurralde to amass a US$50 million, maybe even US$100 million, fortune, as Pagni suggests? It sounds unlikely, but Kirchnerism is rife with cases of extreme corruption including Néstor Kirchner’s personal secretary, Daniel Muñoz, who managed to purchase 113 properties including two apartments in the Plaza Hotel in New York, 16 condos in Miami, and a beach resort in Turks & Caicos. His overseas investments reached US$70 million.
The Insaurralde affair connects directly with the ‘Chocolate’ case mentioned above, which apparently ropes in the whole of the political underworld of Buenos Aires Province, including associates related to Massa, Unión por la Patria and Juntos por el Cambio. And what about Milei? While he’s raised the issue on social media, he hasn’t been vehement as he is in general while ranting against the “caste.” The ultra-libertarian economist has been accused of corruption by selling candidacies while reports suggest there are many current and former members of Massa’s Frente Renovador in his coalition. Bullrich, who vows to put an end to Kirchnerism and corruption, has remained similarly tranquil. The airing of dirty laundry and media leaks have become a staple of political campaigns in Argentina. While it isn’t entirely clear what their true level of impact is, they definitely leave their mark on the electorate. During the home stretch of the campaign, the “caste” is appearing in all its glory.