Argentina’s slippery fight against corruption
When a judge sentenced two former Ford Motor executives to prison this week for helping Argentina’s 1976-83 military dictatorship kidnap and torture 24 employees, relations of the victims in the courtroom burst into applause.
Not only was it the first time that representatives of a multinational company had been found guilty in a human rights trial in Argentina, it seemed like one more sign that change was under way in the country’s notoriously slow and ineffective justice system.
Only the day before, the father and brother of none other than President Mauricio Macri — Franco and Gianfranco — were summoned for questioning as part of ongoing investigations into bribery schemes during the previous administrations of Néstor Kirchner and his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, from 2003 to 2015. That followed the indictment last month of one of Argentina’s most powerful businessmen, Paolo Rocca, chief executive of the Techint Group, in a related case.
In a similar way to the Ford case, the “notebooks” scandal that has ensnared Rocca and the Macris is important for being the first time that the country’s major economic players who for decades have enjoyed a cosy relationship with successive governments are being systematically hauled before courts. Historically, it has mainly been politicians who have attracted the eye of the law — even if alarmingly few have ever ended up behind bars.
But it is far too soon to pronounce that the battle against corruption in Argentina is being won. Look no further than the release on bail this week of Amado Boudou, Cristina Fernández’s vice-president who is accused of using shell companies and middlemen to seize control of a company given contracts to print local currency.
Indeed, for those encouraged by the fact that Mr Macri’s own father and brother are being investigated — it could suggest a certain degree of independence of a judiciary criticised for being highly politicised — it is worth remembering that investigations of Boudou began when he was still in office.
And disappointingly, so far nothing has come of an agreement announced earlier this year between the governments of Argentina and Brazil over the sharing of information relating to the neighbouring country’s vast Lava Jato corruption scandal, which has spilled over into almost every other country in the region, including Argentina.
“I don’t buy it. We have to be cautious, and wait and see,” says Natalia Volosin, an Argentine law professor at Yale University, of the apparent anti-corruption drive taking place. “It’s not the first time that judges have acted against corruption, but they are the same judges who were accomplices” of previous governments, she says, arguing that “structurally, nothing has changed”.
There have been some positive advances under Mr Macri’s watch, such as new laws improving access to public information and promoting plea-bargaining. But one of the most glaring problems — the lack of independence of judges and prosecutors — has yet to be fixed. Until a transparent new mechanism for their designation, oversight and removal that separates them from political influence is in place, it would be naive to expect too much of Argentina’s justice system.