Argentina’s Corrupt Police Force Casts Cloud Over the Kirchner Presidency: Some High Level Politicians Tied to Police Corruption

  • Likely the most popular leader in the hemisphere, President Néstor Kirchner is currently experiencing a 70 percent favorable rating on the eve of his first year in office, compared to bottom scraping ratings of his counterparts in Peru, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, etc.
  • Notwithstanding his past successes, Kirchner’s reputation for ambitious, forceful and elaborate reforms will now be tested by a resurgence of one of the most intractable issues in Argentina’s public life: police corruption and its unseemly connections with some of the country’s most influential, if unsavory political bosses.
  • The Kirchner Administration’s plan to cope with tainted factions in the Buenos Aires police force, the Bonaerense, needs the backing of political leaders, including the Buenos Aires’ governor Felipe Solá who technically oversees the Bonaerense, lest a haphazard strategy generates a debacle comparable to the one of 1999.
  • Five years ago, Eduardo Duhalde, the Buenos Aires governor at the time, thwarted the government’s proposed reform plan by firing the attorney appointed to oversee the restructuring of the Bonaerense.
  • Death squads are at work, as common crime metastasizes into record statistics.
  • Kirchner, himself a Perónist, has alienated many other powerful Perónists with his tough stance on police and political corruption. He is now breaking ties with his former mentor, Duhalde, the powerful party boss who once backed him even when the president’s support was fragmentary.
  • Argentine authorities and some of its suspect federal police officials risk jeopardizing the required transparency of the U.S.’s Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, as ex-president Carlos Menem once did.
  • A complete overhaul of a corrupt police force depends on Kirchner’s political will and his personal courage to clamp down on the lucrative deals involving some of Argentina’s most powerful political bosses, in the face of unyielding opposition from all of them.

Police and political corruption feed off each other
The Argentine human rights’ group, Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo stage weekly demonstrations which provide their members with the opportunity to cite their accusation that there are “assassins walking the streets of Argentina.” This chant takes on great relevance upon close inspection of the nation’s federal policing system. A little over two decades after the collapse of the country’s infamous military dictatorship, and on the threshold of Argentine President Néstor Kirchner’s first anniversary in office on May 25, the Argentine leader is working vigorously to overhaul the police force and eliminate the remnants of the dirty war. Although the current atrocities do not compare to those between 1976-1983, in which 9,000 individuals were “disappeared” and as many as 25,000 were tortured and killed, police corruption – especially among the Bonaerense – continues to evoke the specter of the former military dictatorship. The Buenos Aires Herald reported that Justice Minister Gustavo Beliz has posited that because police and political corruption feed on each other, there can be no definitive progress made against crime until both groups are reformed.

Veiled and outright threats to Kirchner
Therein lies the problem for Kirchner, whose presidential campaign was in part predicated on a robust anti-corruption pledge. Observers speculate whether he will be able to withstand the political pressure coming from advisers, “friends” and political elites in his own Perónist party to sanction anything more than pro forma changes, and wonder if he can effectively expunge corrupt elements from the federal police without antagonizing his powerful political allies. Is he the man for the job, or will his take-charge style, which has worked so well in the recent past, now crumble? More importantly, will he back down if key elements of the Bonaerense refuse to yield their present relative freedom of action? Kirchner has disclosed to reporters that his family had received threats just days after he publicly accused the Buenos Aires police force of being complicit in a recent spate of kidnappings affecting the area. What is unequivocal, though, is the certainty that Kirchner will face a difficult uphill struggle in detecting and clamping down on members of the police force who chronically break the law without paying the price.

Kirchner attempts to overhaul the federal police force
In the thousands, the Buenos Aires police have been implicated in crimes spanning decades, ranging from petty theft, to political intimidation, to murder. These transgressions by formula have been executed with brazen impunity from any consequences from the provincial governor, Felipe Solá, and other political bosses who have traditionally wielded convincing influence over the force. The Buenos Aires provincial governor turned down the position of being Kirchner’s running mate, a job that Duhalde reportedly wanted for his Economy Minister, Roberto Lavagna. Duhalde had other plans for Governor Solá in order to ensure that Buenos Aires, the base of the Per?nist party’s powerful branch, would stay under the former’s thumb. Thus, Duhalde quickly endorsed the re-election bid of Governor Solá. However, in December 2003, Solá did accept the resignation of his security chief, who was viewed as a political ally of Duhalde and an inimical presence to the police reform process. This move was reportedly seen as being instigated by Kirchner. The president also has just axed 107 top-ranking federal police officers, as announced by his Justice Minister, Gustavo Beliz, and the head of his cabinet, Alberto Fernández. Kirchner was said to have personally reviewed a number of federal police officers’ files in order to determine who should be forced into early retirement. This massive overhaul supplements his anti-crime campaign launched on April 19, in an attempt to generate public trust in the Argentine federal police force, and particularly the Bonaerense, where none is being felt.

Protesters rally against the Bonaerense
The symbolic breaking point for Buenos Aires residents concerning the symbiotic arrangement between the police and suspect politicians was marked by the kidnapping and subsequent death of a 23-year-old engineering student which had a telling impact on the nation. On April 1, 135,000, largely middle-class demonstrators, protested against seemingly ineradicable vice in the Bonaerense, with a rousing display of outrage in downtown Buenos Aires. Juan Carlos Blumberg, a millionaire textile merchant, organized the march upon the murder of his son, Axel. An investigation into Axel’s death found that the Buenos Aires police force willfully disregarded frantic calls from neighbors who stood by helplessly as they heard the young man being beaten to death. Rumors ran rampant about members of the Bonaerense allegedly pocketing bribe money from Axel’s kidnappers in return for covering up the crime.

Police linked to execution-style killings
In 2002, several plain-clothed agents from the Bonaerense and the Prefectura Naval, a semi-military unit responsible for securing Argentina’s ports and waterways, reportedly took part in two execution-style murders. Dario Santillan and Maximiliano Kosteki were two unemployed youth who were gunned down during a job protest in Buenos Aires. Photographic and video footage of the scene showed Santillan beside a wounded Kosteki, crying out with one arm raised, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” Then, the police fatally shot Santillan in the back, as he turned to flee. The cameras also revealed that neither of the young men was armed. Moreover, the officers made no attempt to call an ambulance for either of the youthful victims. The video surveillance also exposed the details of the skullduggery used by officers in civilian dress to infiltrate the crowd of job protesters. These agent provocateurs set the stage by damaging property and performing other violent acts before opening fire on demonstrators and making arrests. This strategy was ominously suggestive of the dirty war tactics that military junta decoys designed in the 1970s as a means of cynically befriending their foes and then “disappearing” them. Perhaps the most notorious of these decoys was former naval Captain Alfredo Ignacio Astiz, “the Blond Angel of Death.” The self-proclaimed “best-trained assassin” of politicians and journalists during the dirty war (as he boasted in a local news magazine interview) was assigned to penetrate the organization of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who were a highly visible organization of mothers of junta victims, whose vigils were known to be upsetting to the security forces. Astiz would join their public marches after playing the empathy card by stating that a death squad also had supposedly abducted his beloved brother. His up-close and personal style of gleaning information and inspiring trust reportedly resulted in the disappearance of Azucena Villaflor, the founder of the Mothers association, as well as several French nuns who were pushed out of a military plane flying over water after having been drugged.

According to the International Committee of the Fourth International, the precursors to present undercover police units or patotas (street thugs), were the self-described “task forces,” which kidnapped, tortured, murdered and “disappeared” those earmarked as foes of the military dictatorship (1976-83). Under the military government, “subversives” were detained by military and police task forces, brutally tortured and clandestinely executed.

Police target Argentina’s journalists
Furthermore, every year, there are more than a handful of allegations about journalists who have either been intimidated or killed by police officers. The brutality of police operations has been exposed following the 1997 killing of José Luis Cabezas, a photographer for the investigative magazine Noticias. Cabezas’ body was incinerated to destroy the evidence after his killers cuffed his hands in front of him, beat him and executed him with two shots to the neck. Cabezas had contributed to two investigative pieces which undoubtedly had cost him his life. One story covered a string of robberies and assaults in the resort city of Pinamar which were attributed to members of the Buenos Aires police force, characterized in the Noticias story as criminals and terrorists. The other article focused on an influential postal delivery magnate, Alfredo Yabrán, who was publicly accused of being a mafia boss in Argentina by the ex-Economic Minister, Domingo Cavallo, after which he allegedly committed suicide. The two articles quickly sparked speculation regarding the cause of Cabezas’ death. An investigation helped establish what already had been common knowledge: that the Buenos Aires provincial police force was corrupt to its substructure and would do anything for cash.

Spike in common street crime
In light of the fact that crime reportedly has superseded unemployment and economic recovery as a top public concern—with more than 800 crimes said to be reported daily in and around the capital, the federal police force has been targeted by the president for an urgent overhaul. Due to the police’s systemic corruption, it has become a matter of great public concern whether these agencies are serving their purpose: to maintain law and order. Nor is corruption limited to Argentina. In a United Nations Development Program (UNDP) Report released April 21, seven percent of the more than 18,000 Latin Americans surveyed said that they had been “pressured” to vote for a certain candidate or had sold their votes in the most recent presidential election in their country. The percentage of Argentines thought to have been subjected to political intimidation by factions in the provincial police forces is likely to be exceedingly high.

Kirchner alienates his mentor, Eduardo Duhalde
A political rift has taken shape between Kirchner and his long-time Perónist mentor, former president Eduardo Duhalde, who once somewhat expansively declared the Buenos Aires provincial police as “the best in the world” when serving as governor of the province in the 1990s. On the other hand, there are some who doubt the extent of the intensity of Kirchner’s commitment to certain aspects of the reform movement that he now leads. This is because the president undoubtedly owes his ascension to power to Duhalde’s handpicking him for the office.

The president’s mettle to stand up to Duhalde at this point is even more audacious since Kirchner, the former governor of the largely uninhabited province of Santa Cruz, had the distinction of being the president who came to power with the smallest fraction of the vote in a presidential election in Argentine history, with only 22 percent of the ballots being captured by him in the first round.

In the thickly populated field of candidates, he became the president-elect when former president Carlos Menem (1989-1999), who was scheduled to compete in a run-off against him, suddenly pulled out from the race when the latter realized that he couldn’t win and that he would be humiliating himself. One week before Kirchner took office on May 25, 2003, outgoing Argentine president Eduardo Duhalde, in his weekly radio show “Talking with the President,” appealed to members of his Justicialista Party (PJ) and opponents to support the president-elect, stating “The opposition should be more prudent and avoid criticism for at least this year.”

Hurricane K’s whirlwind year
The prevailing opinion is that any concern about Kirchner’s dedication to police reform is without merit. During his first year in office, he worked hard to attract popular support for his assault on the panjandrums of his own Justicialista party. Almost on the eve of the Argentine president’s first anniversary in office on May 25, 58.9 percent of respondents to an Analogías poll said that they would vote for him if the presidential election were to be held this year. He has become affectionately known throughout the country as “Hurricane K,” a moniker that refers to his wide-ranging, prolific and highly popular reforms. His ambitious initiatives began when he first solicited the retirement of the armed forces’ senior commanders, and reached a defining moment for his presidency when he recommended impeachment of truant and corrupt Supreme Court justices. He also curtailed his own constitutional right to handpick prospective members of the Court by requiring that he enter into consultations with civic and academic organizations when nominating prospective candidates.
Under Kirchner, the Argentine government eventually ousted the democratically-elected governor of the province of Santiago del Estero, Mercedes Aragones, in light of a murder scandal that exposed what federal officials had described as the “systematic violation” of the rule of law by local officials in that jurisdiction. A trustee appointed by the Argentine president to administer the province purged the jurisdiction of corrupt judges, police officers and politicians. Consequently, Aragones was arrested, along with her husband, Carlos Juárez, and the feared, former provincial intelligence chief, Antonio Musa Azar, for allegedly conspiring to cover up the killings of Leyla Bshier and Patricia Villalba. Azar’s son and associates of Juárez reportedly chopped up Bshier and fed her carcass to the big cats and wild birds in a private zoo owned by Azar. A poor area of the country, Santiago del Estero has long been controlled by Perónist politicians from the Juárez family. An investigation into the murders uncovered local government links to drug-trafficking and prostitution, and exposed the Santiago del Estero government’s secret compilation of nearly 40,000 dossiers on its citizens. The investigation also has widened into the human rights abuses that occurred during the 1976-1983 period.

Kirchner also terminated the long-instituted amnesty that protected miscreants who abused their authority during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship from being charged for their crimes, with 64 percent of Argentine respondents to an Equis poll agreeing with him. He is also the first of Argentina’s post-military junta presidents to publicly memorialize the destruction of Argentine democracy and the sweeping human rights violations that followed the 1976 armed forces’ coup. In March, five Per?nist governors boycotted the opening of the museum of remembrance at the site of the former military dictatorship’s most notorious concentration camp. Moreover, he has requested the extradition from Chile of 73-year-old Carlos Saúl Menem, the notoriously corrupt Argentine president who held office throughout the 1990s, and who is charged, among other things, of failing to declare his ownership of a Swiss bank account reportedly containing $600,000, as well as misappropriating funds allocated for the construction of two jails during his administration.

Plan recalls Duhalde’s failed strategy
Most of these actions by Kirchner haven’t sat well with Duhalde and the many Perónist representatives and senators who are loyal to the former president and ex-governor of Buenos Aires. Some analysts believe that Kirchner’s reform policies and strong public approval rating will indubitably falter and then plunge if he continues to have the temerity to bait key Perónist leaders. Several prominent Per?nists selected for leadership posts at the party’s annual convention, including party president Eduardo Fellner, have since resigned their positions ostensibly under pressure from Kirchner. Furthermore, some observers are not holding their breath over the likelihood that Kirchner’s forced retirements or discharges of “dirty” police officials, reminiscent of a similar failed bloodletting scheme in the late 1990s, will have any more luck this time in reforming the habitual malfeasance of the police.
After 2,000 officers were terminated and 48,000 were incriminated several years ago in some form of corruption or other crimes, Carlos Brown, Secretary of Security for the province of Buenos Aires, announced plans for the structural revamping of the force. Ironically, this restructuring, which was first attempted in 1998, was spearheaded at the time by then Buenos Aires provincial governor, Duhalde. In 1999, however, the news broke out that the governor had fired the well-regarded lawyer assigned to oversee the anti-corruption and anti-crime campaigns. At the time, Duhalde adamantly rejected the proposed reforms with the cartoonish histrionics reminiscent of a mob boss. His widely-denounced conduct reputably was due to the fierce, albeit self-serving opposition by senior police officials and their political allies.

Duhalde, running on the Perónist ticket, was defeated in the 2000 presidential election by Radical party leader Fernando de la Rúa, and his left-of-center Alianza coalition partner, Frepaso. As governor, he was patently incompetent (his successor had to pay workers with provincial bonds after Duhalde had plunged the province into bankruptcy). Duhalde’s legacy was also marred by allegations of graft and corruption. Yet, as governor of Buenos Aires, he did boldly move to break up the local police’s crime cells while declaring that, “We can’t confuse a firm line with a hard line. That was why at the time I dissolved the then Buenos Aires Police, because I don’t want to have in my province a hard line police force like there had been during the period of repression under the last dictatorship.”

Duhalde went on to become president in 2002 (the country’s fifth leader in two weeks), after street protests over the economy brought on the resignation of Fernando de la Rúa on December 20. Previously, Duhalde had been the vice-president under Carlos Menem, who now faces an international arrest warrant on multiple corruption charges relating to his 10-year rule in the 1990s.

Washington assists Argentina’s prodigal police
Argentina’s close military relationship with the U.S. has afforded its federal police force to undergo U.S.-funded International Military Education and Training (IMET) courses, ongoing training and exchange programs with U.S. law enforcement authorities and regional International Narcotics Control Law Enforcement (INCLE) funding for police training in interdiction activities. Additionally, in 2003, the Argentine government received $1,990,000 under the U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program, which, according to the Center for International Policy, issues grants and loans, enabling countries to acquire U.S.-produced weapons, defense equipment, defense services and military training at discounted prices. The Argentine federal police force also received a share of the funds.

Thus, Kirchner presumably is anxious that any repercussions brought on by the police force’s wrongdoings ricochet swiftly off his back, as Washington consistently has lauded him as a president with a strong anti-corruption platform. But Washington would be well advised to closely scrutinize Kirchner’s overall performance on the law and order front in light of its funding of the federal police force with both non-lethal as well as lethal equipment. Kirchner is loath to have his administration be in the uncomfortable position of being compared in any respect to Menem’s. The latter’s alleged illegal arms trafficking indirectly implicated the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program when the charges, which were dropped last year in a controversial ruling, were first brought against the disgraced former president.

The President-by-default has a lot to prove
Local and international observers are waiting to see how much Kirchner will be able to distinguish himself from his predecessors, particularly from his former mentor, Eduardo Duhalde, and from his onetime political adversary, Carlos Menem, with Washington among the more concerned. Cracking down on the Bonaerense may prove next to impossible for Kirchner, since he needs the backing of the political bosses, who otherwise are close to the police. There is little wonder why this relationship, based on venality, has been all but unapproachable in the past. Although President Kirchner has been under intense political and personal pressure to show a significant degree of movement in a short period of time, his achievements within only one year have been almost breathless. So far, much to the chagrin of both old and new-found enemies, he has more than proven himself.