Crime and the state: Latin America’s season of scandal

In Argentina, Mexico and Brazil, major scandals have highlighted the murky links between serious crime and the political arena. Why have hopes of reform been dashed? Español.

Ivan Briscoe
24 February 2015
nisman protest.jpg

Argentines take to the streets in protest after the death of special prosecutor Alberto Nisman. But to whom can they direct their outrage? Demotix/Claudio Santisteban. Some rights reserved. 

It was in the Syrian town of Aleppo, not long before the war began, that the plot began which somehow led to the death of the Argentine state prosecutor Alberto Nisman. What emerged from an extraordinary and secretive meeting between the Argentine foreign minister, Iranian counterparts and the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, was a “plan of impunity”, and “criminal engineering” concocted at the highest levels of state power. Or so we are led to believe if we read the 289-page document to which Nisman dedicated his last days—and which will now, forever and irrevocably, be tainted with his blood.

The death of Nisman, shot in the head in circumstances still unknown and possibly unknowable in his Buenos Aires flat on 18 January, came one day before he was due to present his report to Congress, and has transfixed his country’s political life. In it he details what are purported to be the main acts and actors of the plan hatched in Aleppo—a plan to thaw diplomatic and economic relations between Iran and Argentina frozen for 13 years.

So far so good, the prosecutor admits: that is a matter for diplomats, not judicial investigators. His accusations kick in where the formalities of diplomatic rapprochement end.

The secretive, backhand transaction oiling the talks, Nisman argues, was Argentina’s offer to pull back from its efforts to link Iran, and five senior Iranian officials in particular, to the worst terrorist attack in Argentine history. His fatal gunshot is like the frayed end of a string which winds back through a darkened labyrinth of spies and Islamists, trials and acquittals, cash for confessions and hush money, to end on a winter morning in Buenos Aires in 1994, when a massive bomb in a Renault van exploded outside the AMIA Jewish community centre leaving 85 people dead.

Beyond Argentina

Argentines have been in a state of shock. The potential remains for grave legal and political damage to the president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose term ends late this year, as the investigations into Nisman’s death and his report stumble on haphazardly; two weeks ago the president was cited (imputado) as a result of Nisman’s charges. At the same time, it may seem that the case as a whole, along with its echoes of Argentina’s giant political necropolis or the many unfathomable ‘suicides’ among the country’s elite, forbids any comparison or generalisation.

Yet the Nisman case is not unique in Latin America. In Mexico, the disappearance of 43 trainee teachers in September last year generated the country’s first authentic revolt against systemic narco-corruption. In Brazil, the Petrobras kickback scandal has only just begun to menace the Workers’ Party leadership and the president, Dilma Rousseff, whose poll ratings have fallen to 24% just months after re-election.

Almost every country in the region bears its distinctive mark of criminal activity, whether involving drugs, protection, corruption or money-laundering, and its particular understandings and accommodations, high and low, between crime and players in political life. But it is an open question as to why now, in countries supposedly transformed or revitalised, or merely repackaged for media consumption, certain crimes or scandals are mustering an indignant popular response rarely seen before. Nor can it escape notice that the crimes in question do not point in any straightforward way to an order from a president, minister or general, or any of the other more traditional sources of state-sponsored murder in Latin America. What concerns the Argentine public, or the Mexican protesters or the Brazilian middle classes, is not primarily that the culprit may be sitting shamelessly in some hall of power.

Although nothing should be discounted, it seems a touch far-fetched to imagine that a cristinista acolyte was dispatched to silence Nisman, or that a hit-squad stalks the fringes of progressive pro-government symposia, guns sheathed in volumes of Laclau or Zizek. And what concerns the Argentine public, or the Mexican protesters or the Brazilian middle classes, is not primarily that the culprit may be sitting shamelessly in some hall of power.

Instead, the concern is far more diffuse and, as a result, more lethal to the future of democratic politics: the worry is that all the last decade’s efforts to recast the state, redistribute economic gains or reform the law of the land, have come aground on the stubborn realities of power. It was after all former president Néstor Kirchner who famously appeared before Congress in 2005, as Nisman was to have done last month, to announce that the era in which a coven of “mass killers, thieves and corrupt people” ran the country was over. And it is now the late president’s wife who continues to proselytise on Facebook as the dark arts gets stuck in rewind.

The blame game

The fact that no one in high metropolitan power is individually to blame for the Nisman killing, or the disappearances of the desperately poor rural students in Guerrero, Mexico, can also be taken to mean that everyone is guilty.

This systemic understanding of events is dominant in the wave of Mexican protests, where mordant voices such as the news presenter Carmen Aristegui, the corruption expert Edgardo Buscaglia or the law professor John Ackerman note the Faustian bargain struck by the political class—a free ride for organised crime in the backwaters so long as the easy life of business deals, legal immunity, bribes and campaign funds for the nation’s elite is also untouched. “The heart of crime are politicians,” Buscaglia has declared. “Mexico is a country whose state controls collapsed years ago.”

How explicit, conscious or complicit this arrangement is is nevertheless a matter of doubt. The Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, is reported to receive news of his 120-million-strong flock via a daily briefing of reheated news clippings. His ignorance possibly overshadows his complicity, though the comforts of his reported $7m abode have not won him much sympathy.

Likewise we may never know what precise nods and favours were needed to enable the former mayor of Iguala, José Luis Abarca—one of the chief suspects with regard to the apparent massacre in Guerrero—to sustain for two years a political post on behalf of a national centre-left party, the PRD. And this in spite of his wife’s multiple mafia connections or first-hand testimony that, with a beer bottle in one hand and a gun in the other, the mayor personally shot dead a community activist in 2013. 

Evidently, in these same peripheral regions without a functioning state to speak of, locals are intimately aware of the proximity of their officials to crime. So depleted is the stock of honest local authorities in Guerrero and elsewhere, after the discovery of multiple clandestine graveyards, that ‘self-defence’ groups are taking matters into their own hands. The conclusions provided by Attorney General Jesús Murillo Karam in January of the official investigation into the 43 disappeared —an ‘historical account’ claiming they were murdered as part of a narco-feud between remnants of a drug cartel, then incinerated in a rubbish dump—likewise nods to links between police, Abarca and the local heroin mafia. 

The prosecution’s account of the massacre stops there. But room remains for further conjecture as to the actions of officialdom. One possibility is that central state and security institutions knew very well what was happening on the night of 26 September, especially in light of the evening of shoot-outs, bus thefts and general pandemonium that is reported to have preceded the massacre. Would the barracks of the 27th Infantry Battalion, based in Iguala, not have been on alert—not least since one of the trainee teachers roaming that night, Omar García, had declared that the army “always reached an agreement with the narcos”? Or the federal police? Or the former state governor, Ángel Aguirre, for 26 years a member and a deputy for the now ruling PRI party? Both in Mexico and Argentina, albeit from different political slants, governments have immersed themselves in the business of coining a discourse and brushing up a public image: this is government by relato, or story.

Alternatively, none of these national institutions nor politicians linked to the central state knew anything of lawless Guerrero, nor cared much for its felons. That defence would probably serve in a court of law and it is hard to find evidence to prove otherwise. But in a country which the president, elected in 2012, has sought to redeem before international eyes with a growth agenda and a liberalising platform, it surely does not pay to know nothing and control even less a territory which is a three-hours drive from the capital.

The story ends

These tensions between a state’s responsibility, its knowledge and control of the country, and the way it represents itself lie at the heart of the public unease generated by these cases. Both in Mexico and Argentina, albeit from different political slants, governments have immersed themselves in the business of coining a discourse and brushing up a public image: this is government by relato, or story.

Neither has withstood the experience of day-to-day rule. Mexico’s investment profile briefly peaked by projecting the lean visage of Peña Nieto and shielding the world from news of crime—only for a heinous crime to dominate news of Mexico.

The Argentine case is more complex. Since Kirchner’s presidency began in 2003, it has delivered on many public goods, including economic growth, lower inequality (one of the best three performers in the region) and subsidies for the poorest. Yet its primary discursive anchor has not been general enrichment but reprise of the cause of those killed by the military dictatorship in the late 1970s and demonisation of the junta’s collaborators. This combination of material improvement, historical memory and Manichean polarisation has proved extremely resilient as a ruling strategy. In better days, the government took credit for commodity-fuelled growth as the fruit of popular sovereignty. Faced however in early 2014 by a run on the peso and a tide of awful economic news, Kirchner’s government has moved to blaming remnants of the dictatorship and its rent-seeking financiers. Likewise, the response to the Nisman case has been to decry agents of destabilisation lurking in every shadow, and even in the death itself. “It’s the most voluminous operation of active judicial coup-mongering that Argentine history has known,” the cabinet chief, Jorge Capitanich, recently declared.

Intelligence taps

But there are two problems with sustaining a relato such as this. Since it needs constant feeding to maintain itself, the government will tend to view independent institutions and sources of information, such as the INDEC statistics bureau or the prosecution service, as irritants rather than public assets. Secondly, when faced with certain threats, the government will tend to resort to those parts of the state which its own narrative has disowned.

Argentina’s state intelligence services stand out here for their astonishing omnipresence in the Nisman case. A neutral reader of the prosecutor’s report is likely to be surprised by the extensive use of phone taps on shadowy figures connecting Iran and Argentina. Indeed, it is one of the report’s great weaknesses that there is little proof linking these conspiratorial mutterings with the approval of higher authorities, such as the foreign minister or Fernández herself.

At the same time, these authorities themselves appear to have turned to spies–usually the same spies–for their everyday needs. We know that from as early as 2004 Néstor Kirchner was inclined to take personal control over the country’s intelligence agents; the justice minister of the time resigned over this issue. A long-term ally of Kirchner from Patagonia was put in charge of the intelligence service (formerly called SIDE, now just SI). The rumour mill even has it that the president enjoyed an afternoon nap while listening to the recorded phone calls of his political opponents. He allegedly called the service, with a touch of the patriarch, ’my SIDE’.

A former intelligence chief has suggested that the current president follows this tradition, partaking of her opponents’ conversations with élan. Naturally, many of these ‘facts’, most of which derive from unattributed comments by former and current intelligence agents, must be treated with care. But we do know that the intelligence Nisman used stemmed in large part from the work of one very senior agent, Jaime Stiuso, who was dismissed in December. Rival spy factions with feuding patrons would in fact seem to be one of the more likely reasons the prosecutor ended up dead. The Buenos Aires Herald journalist who tweeted the first news of Nisman’s death has fled the country to Tel Aviv, seemingly having suffered pursuit by secret agents.

The gruesome details of the prosecutor’s death may eventually come out. Yet even if they do not, a moral emerges as to how the radical new governments of Latin America have learned to rule. The tangents and forking paths of the Nisman investigation, leaping as it does from Syria to Paraguay, encompassing factions of spies and foes in the judiciary, or even rival blocs of victims of the original AMIA attack, would appear to owe a lot to the fictions of Borges. But the longevity and survival of the techniques of power that previous and now disgraced Argentine oligarchs and generals once employed is pure Foucault.

Pieces of state

This dependence on legacies from old security states is characteristic of much of modern Latin America. When I and colleagues from two other institutes began studying illicit networks in the region for a recently published book, we were surprised to see how many governments—whether radical, moderate or right-wing—depended on pacts and highly volatile coalitions with many different, and sometimes dubious, allies. Democracy in the wake of the economic disasters of the late 1990s brought into government new forces led by politicians with no party structures, limited territorial reach and experience or based on a populist appeal. This was the case, in one way or another, in Venezuela in 1998, Mexico in 2000, Brazil in 2002 and Argentina in 2003.

Once in power, and given the limits of their means, the reforms they introduced to meet huge public expectation were not so much root-and-branch as wattle-and-daub. Their narratives may have been majestic on occasion. But with few foundations to stand on, they depended in Congress, with trade unions and business elites, or in the media and the security forces on the ability to strike pacts. And with pacts, in many cases, came a more or less direct association with clandestine activity and crime.

The tyranny of mutual benefits can be seen as the syndrome of the modern Latin American government. Exchanges of favours and money reflect this odd co-existence of vulnerable new rulers rejecting the past and figures emblematic of that same sordid history. In some extreme cases, the innards of the new government plotted to build a new order on the foundation of old vices.

It is hard to explain in any other way the sheer magnitude of the corruption scandal shaking Petrobras in Brazil, and Rousseff herself—a suspected $3.5 billion diverted between 2004 and 2012 via kickbacks from a club of regular contractors into the accounts of members of the Workers’ Party and its allies. It is the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history and is redolent not just of greed but of great over-confidence in the unscrupulous business of power consolidation at a time of high growth and massive underwater oil finds.

As those days of the ‘fat cows’, to borrow from the Spanish term for boom-time, come to an end, it is natural to expect that disaffected publics will pick mercilessly over the failings of the last decade. It is healthy democratic practice to ponder the opaque intermediaries shuttling in and out of government buildings, as in the Nisman case. Or to wonder at the ignorance of state officials pedalling through the 24-hour news cycle while oblivious to facts on the ground.

“At the end of the day,” one Mexican media consultant told the Financial Times in the wake of Iguala, “reality has a way of intruding into even the best communications strategy.” At the same time, independent and trustworthy sources as to the nature of this reality are in short supply; Twitter rages in their absence.

Little could be more indicative of this intrusion of history, or the chasm in objective public information, than the voice which has cast the most authoritative doubt on the Mexican government’s version of events in Guerrero. The criticism comes from the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, expert in the hard ways of identifying the remains of those who were ‘disappeared’ by the last military dictatorship.

Stripped of narrative, short of public trust and now deprived of the engine of growth, the leaders of the great reformist era of Latin America will find it hard to stop the scandalous arrangements of the last decade leaking out. “It will hit Brazil’s conscience for a long time,” the author Nélida Piñón has said of the corruption scandal. “How is it possible that it wasn’t known, that they strip out a house like Petrobras and nobody knows or says anything?”

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