Argentinean Christmas or: the chauffeur’s notebooks

by Friederike Elias

„For a Christmas without political prisoners“ was the call for a demonstration to be held on December 14th, at the crossing of the streets Avenida de Mayo and Avenida 9 de Julio in the very heart of Buenos Aires. Such a slogan is exceptionally cynical since it originally referred to the disappeared victims of the Argentine military dictatorship. However, in this particular case, the slogan refers to other political prisoners, those imprisoned for corruption cases – former members of the government of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – Among them is Julio De Vido, who gained a certain notoriety in the Notebook scandal („Cuadernos de las coimas“ in Spanish).

Picture source: pixabay.com

In eight notebooks, totaling 683 pages, the chauffeur Oscar Centeno – the driver of Roberto Barrata, state secretary to the minister of planning Julio De Vido – had documented his journeys over ten years, carrying, among other things, bribes in his luggage. The first notebook begins on February 1st, 2005, with the entries:

08:00 From the home to the ministry, 249 km, La Plata special trip
14:10 From the ministry to the house Lic. Barrata
17:00 From the house Lic. Barrata to the ministry
18:00 From the ministry to the event at the gas station with President Chávez (Barrata)
22:00 From the ministry to the house of Quiroga

Notebook 1, Page 1; picture source: lanation.com.ar

Then the records become more particular and finally contain specific information about trips where the bribes were transported to public buildings and even to the presidential couple’s private home.

Notebook 6 (23/07/2010); picture source: lanation.com.ar

„[…] Baratta tells me again that he will go in alone and that I should give him the car because he has to hand over the US$4 million to Dr. Nestor Kirchner himself, in the chalet where Dr. Kirchner lives with President Cristina and that he does not want them to see me […].“ (Entry from notebook no. 6, July 23rd, 2010, own translation.)

The notebooks document nothing less than the biggest corruption scandal in Argentina’s history. During the regular trips, Roberto Baratta, state secretary to Julio De Vido, ahead of the Ministry of Planning in Nestor Kirchner’s government, collected bribes from the most important Argentinean construction and energy companies before driving them to the private residences of the Kirchner couple or even to the Casa Rosada, the presidential palace. The chauffeur allegedly recorded his trips, freight, and other details in order to put pressure on his employers in case he would be fired. The notebooks ended up in the hands of journalist Diego Cabot because Centeno’s ex-girlfriend, who wanted to take revenge for experienced abuse in the relationship. Mr. Cabot then handed over copies of the notebooks to the judicial system.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner campaigning alongside with her husband, Néstor Kirchner in 2007; picture source: wikipedia.org

The emergence of the notebooks uncovered an entire network through which the Kirchners, so go the accusations, enriched themselves during their time in power. Numerous associates testified in order to obtain leniency in the sense of „law of the repentant“ or „ley del arrepentido“, a kind of plea bargain. Among the many others, there was José Lopez, about whom we had previously reported (see also blog article in German „Die dunkle Seite der Macht – auf den Spuren der Kleptokratie in Argentinien“). Lopéz, also a member of the Ministry of Planning, was caught early in the morning trying to hide US$6 million and an assault rifle in a nun convent near Buenos Aires. However, after his arrest, he persistently remained silent about the origin of the funds. Moreover, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is seemingly the heart of the network, enjoys immunity as a political officer – she serves as vice president in the current government. The immunity was also waived for a search of her private homes, in which nothing but empty secret safes were found. The pattern seems to be repeating itself, as the group of companies belonging to the family of Mauricio Macri, who succeeded her as president, is also cited in the notebooks.

Where did the money come from, and why did the Kirchner couple presumably need so much money? The journalist Hugo Alconada Mon assumes that the granting of overpriced public contracts was based on a calculation that took all eventualities into account: In addition to the construction costs, bribes for the simulation of competing bids, and hush money for the officials involved, ranging from the governor of the province in question to journalists, judges, and public prosecutors were included in the calculation. Therefore the bribe of law-enforcers was a precautionary measure if the events came to light, and a criminal trial was to be held. This case pattern seems to be known, but not proven, as shown in a statement made in 2005 by the Minister of Economic, Roberto Lavagna, who said at one dinner of the Chamber of Construction that the public tenders functioned like a corruption cartel. He said the reason for these events were the election campaigns and the associated high expenditures needed to stay in power: In this unique case, which revealed an extensive corruption network up to the most Argentine government’s very highest circles, at least US$200 million are said to have been passed back and forth. So much for this cinematic story, which, as Alconada Mon puts it, „once again surpasses the imagination itself.“

Despite the evidence, a conviction is rather unlikely for the parties involved. Corruption trials in Argentina last for decades and end in the statute of limitations, usually without a verdict. Numerous reasons for this can be found in the organization of the Argentine judicial system (see blog post „Slow Justice is No Justice – Argentina’s Dysfunctional Judicial System“). The significant dependence of the judicial system on politics is another critical factor. Politically motivated impeachments of judges can be carried out through the Supreme Court. This could be another reason why activity in corruption cases‘ follows political majorities‘ own game. Trials against officeholders are slowed down and will pick up speed again when there is another change of power.

Interestingly, of the twelve judges who focus on corruption cases at the federal level, none is interested in processing the lawsuits faster, and corruption cases are only heard more rapidly in individual chambers. For a judge, a profession which is characterized by the autonomy assigned in the separation of powers and by professional obligations, this is an astonishing fact.

This consistency of behavior can be explained from an organizational-sociological perspective, referring to the neo-institutional approach. Among this theory: the more insecure the environment is and the greater the dependence on superordinate institutions, especially the state, the more the organizations within a social field grow similar.

Regardless of their efficiency, institutionalized rules, practices, and processes are adopted by successful organizations in the field. If these generalized rules conflict with the actual activity structure, the institutionalized facade decouples from the actual activity structure. Decoupling is exactly what happens with corruption cases. Formally, they are conducted, but they are not advanced any further at the level of the activity structure.

Basically, organizations need to appear legitimate within their environment to receive support and resources and ensure their survival. Therefore, expectations from the institutional context are taken up and incorporated into formal structures. The establishment of the anti-corruption office in 1999 should also be understood in this sense. It was instituted to meet the needs of international associations and consortia dedicated to the fight against corruption. In reality, however, this office has neither functional nor financial independence. It is reporting directly to the president and is therefore unable to fulfill its actual control function. The systematic prevention of control is necessary to prevent the organization’s decoupling processes from becoming apparent.

The reform of the judicial system currently under consideration proposes increasing the number of judges responsible for corruption. If we evaluate this reform proposal within the presented neo-institutionalist theory, it becomes clear that they are based just on the formal structure. The reform is suitable for signaling to the outside the willingness to change, thus increasing the judiciary’s legitimacy and credibility within society.

According to theoretical considerations, however, reforms would have to start at the level of the organizations‘ activities in order to generate change. The „law of the repentant“ can be understood as a reform in this sense since it appears to be capable of changing actual practices in a sustainable way.

A fundamental problem that arises in the case of corruption in Argentina – and this could be the starting point for the change in the law system – is the interlock between the political, judicial, and economic systems whose members already comprise a significant part of the country´s social elites. Considering the connection between such legal and political elites, the educational pathways are likely to be significant, since law studies are one of the central access routes to political careers. Besides, in Argentina, it can be assumed that because of the high concentration in the capital Buenos Aires, the social elites‘ circles also overlap in many ways.

Lantern festival „globes“ on Christmas Eve; picture source: wikimedia.org

These close, long-standing ties may explain why corruption offenders can actually hope for a Christmas amnesty. The History shows us that everything is possible on Christmas eve, like in the high-profile case of ex-president De la Rua: He has been convicted for paying bribes to the Senate, but an acquittal was issued in Christmas stillness on December 23rd, 2013. In his case too there had been credible testimonies from the „suitcase carrier“. In Argentina could be this year, as already in the USA, once again a happy Christmas holiday for some corrupt criminals.

 

The notebooks can be viewed online at: https://www.lanacion.com.ar/politica/los-cuadernos-de-las-coimas-hojea-los-cuadernos-como-si-los-tuvieras-en-tus-manos-nid2159636

Sources: 

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Clarin (2005). El costo de vida: el ministro de economia en um ambito que compete a de vido: Lavagna denunció sobrecostos y cartelización en la obra pública. Clarin.com (24/02/2017). Accessed on 10/12/2020.

Clarin (2020). Contra el „lawfare“: Luis D’Elía y Fernando Esteche preparan una marcha y un acampe para pedir por una “Navidad sin presos políticos”. Clarin.com (06/12/2020). Accessed on 10/12/2020.

DiMaggio, P. J. & Powell, W. W. (1983). The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields. American Sociological Review 48 (2): 147–160.

Guardiola, J. A. (2019). La ruta de las coimas (40’). Argentina: En Portada. Accessed on 10/12/2020.

Handelsblatt (2013). Gericht spricht Argentiniens Ex-Präsidenten frei. Handelsblatt (23/12/2013). Accessed on 10/12/2020.

Meyer, J. W. & Rowan, B. (1977). Institutionalized organizations. Formal structure as myth and ceremony. The American journal of sociology: AJS 83 (2): 340–363.

La Nacion (2018). Los cuadernos de las coimas: los montos de los sobornos, según las confesiones de los imputados. La Nacion (21.08.2018). Zugegriffen am 10.12.2020.

Politi, D. (2018). Bags of Cash in Argentina: Driver’s Notes Propel Corruption Inquiry. New York Times(03/08/2018). Accessed on 10/12/2020.

Relea, F. (2003). Argentina descubre la corrupción de la época de De la Rúa: El ex presidente y los servicios de espionaje, implicados en sobornos a senadores. El País (14/12/2003). Accessed on 10/12/2020.

 


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