There are no accidents in Argentina when it comes to the timing of judicial decisions and information leaks, especially when they carry the strong scent of the intelligence agencies. The release of a series of incriminating private chat messages between federal magistrates, City officials, and top executives from Grupo Clarín came just as a court in the capital was preparing its guilty verdict for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, which effectively came this week but had been written for some time. It sets the table for both sides of the deeply divided political field to accuse each other of being the incarnation of evil, on the one hand responding to “lawfare” and the international conspiracy against progressive leaders, and on the other of abusing their control of the intelligence agencies for illicit espionage. In both cases, it demonstrates that Argentina’s leading political sectors – essentially defined by their position for or against Kirchnerism and Peronism more generally – represent two sides of the same old and rusty coin, and are therefore in great part responsible for today’s constant state of crisis. The media, organised roughly in the same way as the politicians, is on the same boat.
Most in the country were only just beginning to come down from the adrenaline rollercoaster that was the World Cup match against Australia, in which the Albiceleste’s clear superiority wasn’t capitalised in terms of goals, meaning the last few minutes of the match turned into a nail-biting experience. Around that time (it was a Saturday) a series of private chats between a group of characters involving the likes of federal judge Julian Ercolini, Buenos Aires City Security Minister Marcelo D’Alessandro, and two members of the Mahíques clan (both of them powerful judges) began to circulate among journalists. Judges Pablo Yadarola and Pablo Cayssials, former intelligence agent Leonardo Bergot, media executive Tomas Reinke, and Grupo Clarín executives Jorge Rendo and Pablo Casey, completed the list of participants. The messages, which included voice notes, were taken from two separate groups on the private communications application Telegram.
The select group had spent a few days at a beautiful estancia near the Patagonian city of Bariloche named Lago Escondido. The vast majority of the land near the lake is owned by British magnate Joe Lewis, a known friend of former president Mauricio Macri. The group had flown in on a private plane and were invited by Clarín to the retreat. The content of the chats expose several of them in their intimacy, with foul language and other unsavoury phrases come to light. But they also crucially show how these magistrates and officials sought to cover their steps by creating fake invoices, trying to impose a false narrative by either manipulating friendly journalists or blocking coverage of the trip altogether. They also make thinly veiled threats against those they deem responsible for the leaks.
The story of the flight had initially been covered in mid-October by Página/12, a publication clearly aligned with the ruling Frente de Todos coalition. After the initial appearance of the leaked messages, only Perfil, Tiempo Argentino, and Horacio Verbitsky’s website El Cohete a la Luna decided to publish them (the latter two are in the same ideological space as Página).
The incriminating private messages were acquired through some sort of hacking of D’Alessandro’s phone. According to Verbitsky, they were available for sale on a digital marketplace for leaks for US$600 to be paid in cryptocurrency. Telegram, which is supposedly safer than other messaging applications like WhatsApp, is known to be vulnerable to several schemes, some of which are relatively simple to execute if a desktop user session is open, as journalist Pablo Corso explained recently on the Modo Fontevecchia show. He mentions the use of “SIM swapping” (or requesting a new SIM card from the mobile phone provider without the knowledge of the account holder). There’s also the possibility that a much more sophisticated agent could use software like Pegasus, which last year was shown by a journalistic investigation to have been used to hack politicians and government officials, journalists, human rights activists, business executives and others, though these systems are hugely expensive.
These messages have opened many lines of questions and analysis. There is nothing inherently criminal in having these magistrates and officials accept an invitation to a public retreat from an interest group that happens to be the country’s largest media conglomerate. The issue here is ethical, rather, given the massive potential for a conflict of interest that requires someone like Ercolini, Mahíques, or D’Alessandro to live by the maxim “ser y parecer” (which roughly translates to “being and appearing to be”). For a group of magistrates and public officials that have been involved in sensitive cases regarding Kirchnerite figures, and who have been accused of carrying out a campaign “lawfare,” accepting a free trip to Joe Lewis’ mansion paid by Clarín is the epitome of naiveté. Trying to cover it up using fake invoices constitutes a crime. And leaving all of this in writing in two Telegram groups is pure stupidity.
Which leads us to another can of worms: these messages were clearly acquired by a malicious actor engaging in illicit espionage. Not only does that speak badly of the participants, who are people connected to the intelligence and security sectors (they should’ve known better!), but also of the political actors trying to benefit from their publication, namely President Alberto Fernández and the now-convicted Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. It’s interesting to note that the head of state and his second-in-command have spent a lot of words criticising the Macri administration for their spurious use and abuse of the intelligence agencies over the past three years, only to jump on this conveniently timed leak of illicitly acquired private communications. It’s also contradictory in that Fernández de Kirchner and her husband enjoyed the services of both spies and judges during their golden years, clearing them of wrongdoing and pressuring opponents at their disposal. Selective justice and the political use of the Judiciary is one of the major systemic problems of the Argentine democratic system, and it isn’t just a Kirchnerista or Macrista problem – it stretches at least all the way back to the Carlos Menem administration.
The role of the media should also be scrutinised critically in the wake of this leak. The editorial directors of both Clarín and La Nación penned articles accusing the president of legitimising illicit espionage while indicating the private nature of the messages should have been respected by non-militant newsrooms. In the messages, the participants are seen scheming how best to manipulate the public opinion, mentioning several of Argentina’s major outlets and journalists, including some aligned with Frente de Todos. As usual, the issue has become politicised, with coverage responding to the outlet’s ideological position. Clarín, La Nación and Infobae didn’t publish anything until they had no choice, while the “militant media” responding to Kirchnerism and Peronism more broadly went at it, many times without even checking the information. At Perfil — which was accused by Rendo this week of being “oficialistas” or aligned with the government – we checked the information with the group participants and sought to only publish leaked information that we deemed of public interest. What was written in those chats was serious enough to merit publication despite a breach of the personal privacy of these public officials and members of the private sector, but at the same time we tried to emphasise that there was nothing illegal about the original trip, only what came after, even if the trip itself was ethically questionable. And we shouldn’t be oblivious to the fact that it was timed to come out just before Cristina’s conviction.