For the first time in a while, Argentina appears to be finding its way back to some sense of normality – at least when it comes to the political agenda. For the past few months headlines have been dominated by the coronavirus pandemic and the Alberto Fernández administration’s response to it, along with the more recent but consistent relevance of Economy Minister Martín Guzmán’s high-stakes sovereign debt negotiations with private creditors. This week, though, illegal political espionage during the previous administration targeting both the opposition and members of Mauricio Macri’s own Cambiemos ruling coalition were revealed by the current interim director of the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI), Cristina Caamaño. The information has already resulted in a formal accusation against Macri, former AFI intelligence chiefs Gustavo Arribas and Silvia Majdalani, and calls to reform the Intelligence Law, in order to “clean up” Argentina’s spy agency and its practices. Funnily enough, Alberto’s Frente de Todos coalition appears to be walking in his predecessor’s footsteps, perpetuating the never-ending cycle of institutional reform of the Judiciary and the intelligence agencies in order to serve one’s own political goals.
Let’s start with some background, a lot of which sounds pretty theatrical. Caamaño, who led the office charged with investigative wiretaps during the second presidency of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was designated as the trustee of the AFI. Upon arrival, she began an internal audit that first looked at overall expenses (1.12 billion pesos was used for covert operations throughout the Macri years, she reported a month ago), and then at electronic devices used by the agency’s spies. On a Western Digital brand hard drive her sleuths found traces of a trove of deleted documents — which they recovered — that included a list of over 80 intercepted emails from at least 86 people linked with politics. The surveillance began on June 2, 2016, and includes the names of high-level members of Cambiemos such as Ernesto Sanz and former Anti-Corruption Office head Laura Alonso, as well as then-opposition leaders like Frente de Todos deputy Rodolfo Tailhade and current Parliamentary Affairs Secretary Rodolfo “Chino” Navarro. SAnd a single journalist: Luis Majul. The latter, it must be noted, is a vehement anti-Kirchnerite and was signalled out by many hardcore followers of the current vice-president for having leaked a series of damaging audios between Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner and her stooge Oscar Parrilli (now a Senator and a former head of Intelligence), in which she used foul language and apparently mistreated her collaborators, but exposed no illegality. (Majul suggests this leak is part of a political operation to air dirty laundry including his sources, against Kirchnerites, and internally within the ruling coalition during Macri’s presidency).
Caamaño lodged an official complaint this week in which she noted the hacked emails were not backed up by a warrant, meaning they had been illegally procured and said acquisition was the sole responsibility of the heads of the intelligence agency, “the Moor” Arribas and “the Turk” Majdalani, and President Macri. The case ended up being randomly assigned to judge Marcelo Martínez de Giorgi — who replaced the late Claudio Bonadio, the fiercest enemy of Mrs. de Kirchner — and was picked up by Prosecutor Jorge Di Lello, who has already indicted Macri and begun the investigation.
No-one anywhere in Argentina was surprised by the revelation that the spy agencies were being used for political espionage, even though the list of names did raise a few eyebrows for two reasons: there were too many “nobodys” present, along with several heavyweight members of the ruling coalition at the time, particularly in the Unión Cívica Radical (UCR) party, and some of the more “political” members of Cambiemos, such as former lawmaker Nicolás Massot, who was aligned with the group that pushed back against ex-Cabinet chief Marcos Peña’s power. Within the rebranded Juntos por el Cambio coalition they have noted that since 2015 they had been communicating using messaging applications with self-destruct features like Telegram and shunning traditional phone lines for encrypted WhatsApp calls. The question for them wasn’t if they were being tracked but by who: was it Macri’s buddy Arribas looking for deficient loyalties, or was it an illegal ring of spies that worked in the underworld of judicial extortion and the selling of information, like the infamous Marcelo D’Alessio?
In the pan-Peronist governing coalition there were little doubts as to the meaning of all of this: it is one more brick in the wall of “lawfare,” helping to prove that the Macri administration managed a “judicial table” that orchestrated its strategy of political persecution against former Kirchnerites with the ultimate goal of putting Cristina and her family behind bars. Throughout the presidential campaign CFK laid out her vision of a continental conspiracy led by the Judiciary and the mainstream media of countries that had been governed by “progressive” or populist leftist leaders to imprison them with the explicit support of the United States, putting Alberto in the uncomfortable position of having deal with the concept of “political prisoners” and having several high-ranking officials in his own government contradict him publicly, making it clear who their political boss is. But Alberto, a professor of criminal justice at the University of Buenos Aires, has expressed his desire to restructure the Judiciary, starting with the infamous Comodoro Py federal courthouse, a move which goes hand-in-hand with tearing down the embattled intelligence system and eliminating underground espionage rings, many of which emerged toward the end of Cristina’s second term among elements of the Buenos Aires provincial police, the military, and the dismantled former SIDE spy agency.
As this drama unfolded, a virtual session in the Magistrates Council was being held to rule on the future of controversial judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral. The last remaining magistrate appointed by Carlos Menem in the 1990s, Canicoba Corral iaces grave accusations including claims he took kickbacks from within AFI, engaged in illicit enrichment, requested bribes, and enjoyed the use of private jets owned by powerful businessmen. Like former judge Norberto Oyarbide before him, it seems that Canicoba Corral’s head will not roll – he counts on support from both sides of the aisle, even if the instances of his opulent life are well known throughout Comodoro Py. While Oyarbide was allowed to silently retire (and gain access to a frothy pension package), the Council was expected to throw out all accusations against him without investigating, except the one relating to the airplane trips. It didn’t materialise: there was a power outage, rendering the session null. Canicoba lives to fight another day thanks to the auspices of Edenor electricity company.
All of these fascinating events are not only expected to continue, but to accelerate in coming days and weeks as the “new normal” of Covid-19 gives way to “the usual” political agenda. There can be little doubts that Alberto’s lofty dreams of reforming the Judiciary and the intelligence agencies respond in great part to Cristina’s survival instinct, which will continue to press for absolution and the inquisition of Macri and his officials. The president may have noble aspirations, as apparently the previous administration had, and as his friend and current Strategic Affairs Secretary Gustavo Beliz attempted under Néstor Kirchner before being forced out of government and into exile by none other than mega-spy Antonio “Jaime” Situso. Under Macri, the Judiciary quickly got the message and resorted to the same tools used by Mrs. Fernández de Kirchner’s preceding administration of against its opponents including illegal wiretaps, criminal investigations and economic pressure through the AFIP tax agency.
The crimes of the past must be investigated and tried impartially, both Kirchnerista and Macrista, but equally or even more importantly is the attentiveness of crimes being perpetuated today.