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The aptly named Lago Escondido (Hidden Lake), to the south of Río Negro province, close to the border between Argentina and Chile, can only be accessed by helicopter or on a horseback journey of several days along a mountain path. English tycoon Joseph "Joe" Lewis, a personal friend of Argentine President Mauricio Macri, has kept the lake fenced for more than 20 years, ever since he bought the 11.000 hectares surrounding it. It was an irregular purchase, for this land is within the so-called "Border Security Area" and the Argentine National Defense Law does not allow it to be in foreign hands. Now a Court of Justice has reopened a lawsuit in which Lewis's eldest son and several public officials are being investigated for that fraudulent transaction.
Joe Lewis took over the land in 1996. He then built a 3.600-square-meter mansion, a guest house, stables, a soccer field, an amphitheater and a heliport. His son Charles circumvented the National Defense Law on border areas. First, the Argentine capital fund company H.R. Properties Buenos Aires S.A. presented a request for authorization to purchase 7.789 hectares before the National Commission of Security Zones, the agency which is responsible for ensuring that no key territory for national security is owned by foreigners.
Simultaneously, the foreign companies HR Properties, Lago Corp and Hidden Lake bought all the shares of the Argentine firm. Once the Commission authorized the transfer, the land was registered in the Río Negro public real estate registry under the name of Hidden Lake S.A., one of the Lewis family’s companies.
Pursuant to this precedent and benefiting from a “shortened procedure”, Hidden Lake S.A. purchased another 2.760 hectares in December 1996, thus taking over all the land surrounding Lago Escondido and proceeded to fence it off.
The Office of the Attorney General for Administrative Investigations (PIA) filed a lawsuit against the public officials who authorized the sales; the notary María Luis Cristina Szama; Ricardo José Juan Mayer, in charge of the Real Estate Registry of the Province of Río Negro; the companies HR Properties, Lago Corp and Hidden Lake, and Joe Lewis’s son.
In March 2017, Court 1 of the Federal Court of Criminal Cassation dismissed the case against the accused because it considered that the offense had prescribed and was thus unprosecutable. The PIA filed an appeal against this decision: Prosecutor Santiago Eyherabide argued that this was a case of "delayed disclosure" of corruption involving officials who held public office until 2012 and that, consequently, as established by law, the prescription deadline should be extended. In addition, the prosecutor requested that an attachment order be granted against the accused and that the land purchase be revoked.
On December 28, 2017, on the next to last business day before the judicial recess, Criminal Court 3 judges Carlos Alberto Mahiques, Eduardo Riggi and Juan Carlos Gemignani reversed the Court 1 decision and reopened the investigation.
A hidden, inaccesible lake
More than twenty years ago, the Lewis family illegally took over Lago Escondido and the surrounding 11.000 hectares of land. In 2009, the High Court of Justice of the Río Negro province ruled in favour of enabling entrance to the lake and generating an accessible passage through the Tacuifí Trail from El Foyel, 45 kilometers north of El Bolsón.
In May 2017, a group of members of the Confederation of Workers of the People’s Economy (CTEP), led by national congresswomen Silvia Horne and Araceli Ferreyra, took the Tacuifí path. They found that the path was severely damaged and the Foyel River crossings had been dredged. Almost a decade after the ruling of the High Provincial Court, it is still almost impossible to reach the lake in any other way than going through Lewis's private road. The only options are a journey of several days on horseback along a mountain path or getting on a helicopter.
In September 2017, the Interactive Foundation for the Promotion of Water Culture (FIPCA) organized a Sovereignty March. For two days, some 70 volunteers from different organizations, members of Mapuche communities and Father Paco Oliveira, from Priests in Option for the Poor, took the Tacuifí path with the aim of rebuilding a river crossing that would allow free access to the lake. "On Sunday September 24, 2017 we reached the shore of a Patagonian lake as if we had crossed the Gaza Strip", wrote Mariana Corral, one of the leaders of the trip.