Argentina: ex-president walks in arms smuggling case

By a vote of two to one, on Sept. 13 a three-judge panel in Buenos Aires declared former Argentine president Carlos Menem (1989-1999) innocent of involvement in the government’s clandestine sales of arms to Ecuador and Croatia from 1991 to 1995. The judges also acquitted former defense minister Oscar Camilión, former air force head Brig. Gen. Juan Paulik, Menem’s former brother-in-law Emir Yoma, and 14 other defendants. Prosecutor Mariano Borinsky, who had asked for an eight-year prison term for Menem, said his office would appeal the decision, although he himself is leaving his post to accept a judgeship.

Menem is the first former Argentine president ever to be tried on corruption charges. He was a close US ally during his time in office, and he vigorously pushed a neoliberal economic agenda of privatization and austerity. Two years after he left office, the economy collapsed and Argentina was unable to meet its debt obligations, resulting in what at the time was the largest default in history.

Using three secret decrees signed by Menem and his ministers, the Argentine military sold weapons to Croatia and Ecuador under the pretense that the weapons were going to Panama and Venezuela. Sales of weapons to Croatia and Ecuador were banned at the time by international agreements. Croatia was covered by an embargo of weapons for the warring former Yugoslav republics; Argentina was on the committee that was supposed to enforce the ban, and it supplied 800 United Nations peacekeepers to the region. At the same time, the Argentine government was secretly selling Croatia 6,500 tons of heavy cannons, antitank missiles and other weapons.

As a signatory of the Rio Protocol of 1942, Argentina was committed to guaranteeing a peaceful resolution to any border conflicts between Peru and Ecuador, but when a brief war broke out between the two countries over borders in 1995, Argentina secretly sold Ecuador 8,000 FAL combat rifles and 75 tons of munitions.

The Argentine daily Clarín wrote that the Sept. 13 acquittal “seemed to surprise even the defendants.” The paper, which is critical of the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, also noted that until recently Menem, now a senator from La Rioja province, was in a faction of the Justicialist Party (PJ, Peronist) that strongly opposes the PJ faction that Fernández heads. Now Menem is running for reelection to his Senate seat as an ally of the Fernández faction. The elections will take place on Oct. 23, and the court plans to wait until after the vote to release its written decision in the arms smuggling case; this will show its reasoning for acquitting the defendants. (Clarín, Sept. 14, Sept. 15; La Jornada, Mexico, Sept. 14)

The trial, which began in October 2008, has been hampered by the loss of evidence and potential witnesses. In late 1995 nine workers died in an explosion at a military arsenal involved in the case; the explosion apparently destroyed key evidence. Two potential witnesses died in a helicopter crash, and two more died from unexpected heart attacks. Another possible witness, retired navy captain Horacio Pedro Estrada, died of a gunshot wound in his Buenos Aires apartment in August 1998 in what the authorities ruled was a suicide. According to press accounts at the time, Estrada, who was right-handed, was shot in the left side of his head, and his hands showed no traces of gunpowder.

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, Sept. 18.

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