Buenos Aires: Corruption in Argentina is widespread and usually unpunished, the US embassy reported in a series of secret cables released by WikiLeaks and published on Wednesday. One cites a series of very profitable Patagonian real estate deals by the late president Nestor Kirchner — husband of the country`s current leader — and other top officials.
The classified cable sent to Washington in May 2009 noted a series of preferential sales of large properties in El Calafate, where an ally of the Kirchners was mayor, and noted that Kirchner reportedly resold one five-acre plot for USD 2 million, 40 times what he had paid for it less than two years earlier.
The embassy said a judicial investigation into the deals involving 50 top government officials was stalled and was then put in the hands of Kirchner`s niece, a prosecutor who herself benefited from one of the properties. Other key government auditing posts were filled by political insiders with conflicts of interest whose investigations have gone nowhere, the embassy added.
"Argentina`s corruption scandals frequently make a big splash at the outset, only to dissipate into oblivion due to the languid pace of the `investigations` and the endless juridical pingpong to which they are submitted," the embassy concluded.
A study by Argentina`s Centre for the Study and Prevention of Economic Crimes, a non-governmental organisation, found the country`s courts take 14 years on average to resolve corruption cases, with only 15 out of 750 resulting in convictions, the cable said.
The embassy`s analysis of Argentine corruption seemed to be prompted by the resignation a month earlier of Manuel Garrido, Argentina`s chief prosecutor for corruption cases. He quit in frustration after filing more than 100 cases and failing to win a single conviction in five years. Garrido, who recently joined the campaign of presidential challenger Ricardo Alfonsin, claimed then that top government officials thwarted his every move.
"Glaring weaknesses in key components of Argentina`s anti-corruption architecture point to an emasculated institutional framework incapable of providing needed checks and balances," the cable concluded.
The Argentine government reacted with silence, despite front-page articles about the cables in opposition newspapers. In a personal aside during a speech about the economy, President Cristina Fernandez said on Wednesday that she tries not to get annoyed at criticism like her late husband often did.
"That`s what he did and look how he ended up," she said, referring to Kirchner`s death in October of a heart attack. "I won`t be a victim. I hate people who say they`re being victimised."
An embassy official declined to comment on the cables on Wednesday.
But some financial crime experts doubt that legitimate real estate deals could justify the Kirchners` declared wealth, which has soared to USD 13.8 million from roughly USD 500,000 while they have been in office, generating allegations of illegal enrichment that investigative judges have shelved. The Kirchners have attributed the gains to income from their hotels and other real estate investments.
New regulations announced in recent weeks give Argentina`s Financial Information Unit more power to investigate real estate transactions, seizing profits and issuing fines when it discovers evidence of laundering to mask tax evasion or other financial crimes. The government watchdog`s director, Jose Sbatella, told last week that his work has the President`s full support.
But Ricardo Tondo, an Argentine money laundering expert, said that "the real proof to show that this guy (Sbatella) can`t be manipulated is whether he`ll investigate the Kirchners` investments in tourism real estate. And if he doesn`t, they`re using him."