On the evening of April 19, 2004, the country’s entire political system gathered in the Casa Rosada for an announcement by President Néstor Kirchner, who’d been in the job for just over a year. In the pompous name of “Triennial Justice and Security Strategic Plan,” Justice, Security and Human Rights Minister Gustavo Beliz detailed sweeping reforms – including one that, at the end of the day, would cost him his job: the elimination of the 12 federal courts whose exclusive job it was to hold government officials to account for corruption.
Kirchner, then at the peak of his popularity, knew it would be a tough battle, so he summoned 21 of the country’s 24 governors, all his ministers and dozens of congressional heavyweights for the occasion. And he made Beliz camouflage the court reform, hiding it amid a battery of other changes to the country’s security forces, criminal legislation, even its voting system.
The proposed reform did not go unnoticed. It triggered a reaction from a deep state of court bigwigs and the intelligence operatives that serve as their investigative arm. Power circles refer to this combo as Comodoro Py, after the name of the street in the neighbourhood of Retiro where the federal courts are located.
Kirchner, who was pragmatic at picking his fights, made a choice: he fired Beliz three months later. The day after he was out, Beliz went on national TV to expose, picture included, a person Argentines had hardly heard of up until then: Jaime Stiuso. “This is the person all Argentine politicians fear,” Beliz said at the time. Soon afterwards, Beliz had to leave the country – he now holds a bureaucratic job at the Inter-American Development Bank.
This 15-year-old story would be history if the consequences of that decision – which Argentine political leaders receive regularly, more or less explicitly – were not far too visible today.
Examples abound. In an interview with Perfil last weekend, former economy minister Roberto Lavagna, who is weighing a presidential candidacy, said in passing that he has been recently told “not to speak on the phone because it has been bugged.” Metaphors abound too: on February 4, the day the courts had to resume work after their summer break, a sewage flood filled some of Comodoro Py’s floors with human excrement.
On its website, the AFI Federal Intelligence Agency claims to be “making a difference” to the wellbeing of the nation. But most Argentines still refer to this recently rebranded institution by its old name SIDE, the State intelligence service or simply los servicios. As Lavagna illustrated, politicians have become accustomed to the illegal collection and cross-firing of information missiles across the political divide. Like addicts, they use these services against one another, seemingly unaware that the mud unfalteringly slings back at them.
Kirchner’s choice of Stiuso over Beliz in 2004 resulted in tragedy for Argentina a decade later: the violent and still unresolved death of federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman at the start of the 2015 electoral season. Today, history seems to be repeating itself as farce. The arrest of a low-level operative named Marcelo D’Alessio has given Argentines a new glimpse to an underworld that has an influence – if not control altogether – over what politicians say or do in public.
The D’Alessio affair is telling beyond his own voluble personality that got him primetime television space and columnist status in the press. He has been accused of extorting businessmen for money in the name of federal prosecutor Carlos Stornelli, who is running the biggest corruption probe in Argentina’s history. Stornelli denies having had any knowledge, but the allegations against him benefit the suspects in the so-called ‘cuadernos’ investigation, who include former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, a bunch of her former officials and some of the nation’s biggest business leaders.
How many D’Alessios walk the corridors of power, funnelling mafia messages to and fro? And more importantly, why do politicians accept to profit from them and then be their hostages, alternatively? The first answer: because they get or need a quick, short-term political advantage.
There is nothing new about the idea that intelligence operatives work to advance their own personal agendas, or those of politicians who pay them or give them benefits – the epitome is the FBI’s Mark Felt, or “Deep Throat.” But when the exception becomes the rule, as seems to be the case in Argentina today, the game enters a whole new level, one in which there are no agreed terms of engagement and no limits (i.e. someone’s private life). The inputs from mercenary spying services, that translate into court investigations, hardly ever lead to fair trials and they are even less likely to lead to sentences (only two every 100, according to an audit by the Council of Magistrates).
This Sword of Damocles will be hanging above throughout this long campaign year: candidates know the losers might go under the courts’ knife. When politics become a matter of survival, compromise is not an option. Don’t blame D’Alessio or Stiuso for that.