The high-profile espionage scandal hitting close to the Macri administration

por Federico Poore
The Essential, 21-03-2019

With seven months to go before the presidential elections, a high-profile espionage scandal is hitting close to the heart of Mauricio Macri’s administration. The revelations of the recently disclosed “D’Alessio case” are circling around key government officials and the presidential overreaction
has only cast more doubts about its role.

For long, allies and supporters of former president Cristina Kirchner have alleged that the corruption cases she faces at the courts are politically motivated. Even if the notebooks scandal known as “causa Cuadernos” — which made international headlines in August when a series of photocopied notebooks detailing alleged bribes and kickbacks were handed to reporters at La Nación newspaper — is real, could it be that those accused seeking plea bargains are trying to place the blame onto all-too-convenient enemies?

Here’s a short summary of what we know so far:

• On February 8, journalist Horacio Verbitsky revealed that a farm producer named Pedro Etchebest was accusing Marcelo D’Alessio, an alleged security expert, of blackmailing him. According to the investigation, D’Alessio told Etchebest he was acting on behalf of federal prosecutor Carlos Stornelli and demanded US$300.000 in exchange for protection in the “causa Cuadernos,” a case into widespread graft during the Kirchnerite era led by Stornelli.

• Etchebest taped each of his meetings with D’Alessio — who presented himself as a law yer even though he did not have a license — and recorded calls in which the man threat ened him while boasting about his contacts with Stornelli, Clarín veteran reporter Daniel Santoro, Security Minister Patricia Bullrich and even several of the United States three-letter agencies, a claim that the US later denied.

• The extortion case was assigned to Judge Alejo Ramos Padilla, from the Buenos Aires province district of Dolores, who ordered D’Alessio’s arrest and called on experts to examine the contents of his cell phone and computer. Stornelli refused to hand in his cell phone to be analysed and did not show up for questioning.

• Two ex-federal police officers named Ricardo Bogoliuk and Aníbal Degastaldi were also arrested in connection with D’Alessio’s blackmailing operations. Bogoliuk, a commissioner who was discharged from the force in 1999 for participating in highway robberies, served in the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI) in 2017, after Macri took office. D’Alessio, who is now remanded in custody, said he had been following orders from Bo goliuk. As the scandal grew, it was revealed that other people were also blackmailed by D’Alessio and Bullrich acknowledged he met with D’Alessio at least once at the Security Ministry’s headquarters.

• Last week, after a request from opposition leaders, Ramos Padilla appeared before Congress and detailed what he said was a broad system of “illegal espionage” in Argentina comprised by intelligence service members, the Judiciary, government officials and media outlets with the aim of extorting business owners. During the course of the investigation, the judge said, he found that D’Alessio had carried out “intelligence operations” to force people to confess to crimes or implicate others. In an attempt to delegitimize the session, lawmakers from the ruling Cambiemos coalition did not show up.

• Expert reports by the Coast Guard said D’Alessio had access to privileged information in the Cuadernos case and that he knew the contents of an appeals court ruling six days before it was issued.

Macri’s reaction to the scandal was, at least, surprising. On Friday, his Justice Minister Germán Garavano announced he would open up proceedings in the Magistrates’ Council — the body in charge of appointing and disciplining judges — to remove Ramos Padilla, arguing that his appearance before Congress violated the confidentiality of individuals involved in the case. “He’s not an impartial judge. I hope that the Magistrates’ Council, taking into account the evidence (against him), discusses his removal”, Macri said in an interview.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) blasted the move. “The request to investigate a judge who is looking into allegations of surveillance and extortion that could implicate government allies undermines judicial independence,” the organization said in a statement Tuesday. “Any judge can be investigated with good cause, but the government has not provided any convincing reason to investigate Ramos Padilla,” added José Miguel Vivanco, the HRW Americas director.

That same day, the Supreme Court ordered more resources be given to Ramos Padilla to help him carry out the high-profile investigation, a move seen as a message to the Macri government.

The plot thickens

But the credibility of the accusations is also being questioned. Etchebest, the alleged victim, ackowledged to La Nación he had shared offices with Bogoliuk and Degastaldi — the very people that allegedly ordered D’Alessio to extort him — and the newspaper believes “there are too many loose ends” in his story. Meanwhile, respected journalist Hugo Alconada Mon portrayed D’Alessio as a man who has been extorting on his own account, boasting about his (fake) contacts with the AFIP tax bureau and with Colombian drug-dealers in order to sell himself as a “fixer.” Maybe Stornelli was unaware of the extortion being made on his behalf.

Be as it may, at the core of this scandal lies the fact that a judge from Buenos Aires province is unveiling an illegal espionage ring. “The important thing is that Ramos Padilla is messing with an issue he is not supposed to mess with,” said influential political commentator Carlos Pagni in a much-discussed editorial. “He is exposing the intelligence underworld that has been contaminating the Argentine courts, a scheme that involves legal and illegal intelligence networks and the federal courts. Ramos Padilla is nosing around this issue and it appears to be the reason why the government wants him removed.”

At different ends of the political spectrum, both Verbitsky and Pagni said D’Alessio even had intelligence reports on Buenos Aires province governor María Eugenia Vidal, with Pagni suggesting this could be a case of Cambiemos officials “spying on each other.”

From the point of view of Argentine institutionality, two opposing risks lie ahead. Macri’s government could succeed in removing Ramos Padilla and gain control of the investigation, undermining judicial independence. As well as that, the entire Cuadernos case could be thrown out as a result of the alleged extortion methods used to obtain confessions from businessmen.