Argentina: Internal Insecurity
A Vicious Murder
It was January 25, 1997, mid-summer. A charred body appeared in a sand pit 15 kilometers from Pinamar, a tourist
spot on the Atlantic coast frequented by famous politicians and businessmen. It was photographer José Luis Cabezas from the Buenos Aires Magazine Noticias. He had been kidnapped at dawn after leaving a party at postal magnate Andreani's home. They took him, handcuffed, down a deserted road. According to the second coroner's report, they brutally beat and executed him with two shots to the neck. Next they put his body in the front seat of a car, doused it with gasoline and set it on fire. Only Cabezas' almost unrecognizable remains were found.
The murder shocked the nation. The country had not faced this type of crime since the rule of Isabel Perón and López Rega, (National Minister of Social Well-being and head of the dreaded "Triple A" (1) and the military dictatorship that followed. The style of Cabezas' kidnapping and murder -hands cuffed in front of him, the execution, and the body's incineration to destroy theevidence- were Mafia trademarks. These elements and Cabezas'
profession proved from the beginning that the homicide was not a common crime. Speculation and the frenetic search for a motive to find the murderers and the mastermind behind the crime began along with the investigation.
The Photographer Cabezas
José Luis Cabezas was a photographer for a magazine that combines show business news with investigative
reporting about people and events related to politics and corruption. He participated in two projects which may have cost him his life. One dealt with a wave of robberies and assaults in Pinamar attributed to members of the Buenos Aires Police force. The other discussed a powerful postal magnate, Alfredo Yabrán, who was publicly accused by the ex-Economic Minister, Domingo Cavallo, of being a Mafia boss in Argentina.
In the first article, Damned Police, the force appeared as an out-of-control institution, implicated in
criminal and terrorist acts. The other article discussed Alfredo Yabrán's activities, properties and investments. He allegedly owns private security agencies, whose bodyguards were linked to the 1976 militarydictatorship. These two articles sparked growing speculation about the cause of Cabezas' death. Initially, investigators followed over fifty leads. The most viable led to the gang of Margarita Di Tullio, alias Pepita la Pistolera (Pistol-slinging Pepita).
From Pepita la Pistolera to Yabrán
Pepita owner of a low-life bar, is accused of running brothels, and of drug trafficking on the Coast along with her partners, called Pepitos. A witness, Carlos Alberto Redruello, denounced her participation and that of the Pepitos. Investigators found the murder weapon and carried out a comparative analysis that should have led to the case's rapid solution. It did not happen. In spite of the police's triumphant attitude, something was missing: the motive. Few believed that Pepita la Pistolera could have instigated a crime of this nature. According to the witness's accusations, it had been committed to protect the business of a small scale band or to get Cabezas off their backs by blackmail. It seemed obvious that the crime had been committed by professionals, reminiscent of the methods of "task groups" during the dictatorship. Many suspected that the crime had been a contract.
It quickly became clear that Redruello had been "coached" by the police in an effort to lead the investigations off course. He became a suspected accessory to the crime. The murder weapon disappeared and later was returned, without the knowledge of its owner, one of the Pepitos who was falsely incriminated in the crime.
During the course of the investigations, the trail leading to the Pepitos gang lost substance. This hypothesis had to be abandoned in spite of the reluctance of the judge in charge of the case, José Luis Macchi. They began to investigate the lead implicating the police, whose attitude during the case raised serious suspicions about certain irregularities. In this way it was discovered that the night of the crime, the commissioner of Pinamar and other officials had given orders to "free up" (leave the area where the kidnapping took place without police protection). The hypothesis arose of a mixed band of police, private security agents and common criminals that supposedly could have organized a drug distribution network on the Atlantic Coast.
Investigations led to the imprisonment of the alleged murderers. Four of them confessed their participation in the kidnapping. Two were small-scale criminals from Los Hornos in the Buenos Aires Province. Police inspector Gustavo Prellezo hired them to "squeeze" the victim. Prellezo supposedly fired at least one of the shots that killed the photographer. He remains in custody, along with another police officer, Sergio Camaretta, the ex-head of the Valería del Mar Station on the Atlantic Coast, who allegedly helped plan the crime.
Although they attempted to blame this group for the planning and execution of the murder, the investigations
indicated otherwise. At the present, there are other suspects, perhaps all police officers. Some of them at least witnessed the execution. One or two cars met the kidnappers at the sand pit. In addition, the clues point to Gregorio Ríos, Security Chief for postal magnate Alfredo Yabrán. In spite of his efforts to prove that he does not have close connections to Prellezo, he now appears to be implicated. Using the Excalibur system to trace cellular phone calls, investigators proved that he kept in close
contact with Prellezo. Although Prellezo had kept silent in the past, he recently confessed that he was working for Gregorio Ríos on security for a Pinamar Hotel owned by Alfredo Yabrán.
Ríos used cellular phones belonging to Yabito, an agricultural firm and Bridess, a security company, to
communicate with Prellezo. Alfredo Yabrán owns the first. It is assumed that he owns the other as well. This information puts the businessman in an increasingly difficult position. He is suspected of being the mastermind behind the crime, although the Los Hornos gang speaks of an intellectual author called the Candidate. The informant that caused the arrest of Pepita la Pistolera's gang affirms that some "congressmen" visited him in jail while Cabezas' murder was being planned. Although there have been arrests, the case's resolution still seems distant. The chief commissioner in charge of the investigation, Víctor Fogelman, once stated that perhaps the mastermind would never be discovered. They still do not know the motive, complicating investigations that seem to obey dark interests from different sources.
The local police investigations were hurried and brief. Erased fingerprints, lost evidence, and inappropriate
procedures mounted throughout the investigative process. The first autopsy determined that Cabezas died from a bullet through the temple. The second, conducted several months later and based on the testimony of the Los Hornos gang, concluded that the photographer had a fractured jaw and rib. He had been brutally beaten, perhaps during an interrogation and was subsequently executed with two shots to the nape of the neck -a conclusion that contradicts the results of the earlier autopsy.
Police officials were fired for incompetence and inefficiency. It was soon discovered that it was not carelessness, but a cover-up. This not only put some agents under suspicion, but the force as a whole. Mistrusting his own police, the Governor of Buenos Aires Province, Eduardo Duhalde, began a parallel investigation under the authority of the provincial Security Secretariat. They took over immediately and called in the FBI for technical support.
The government initially brushed off its responsibilities in an attempt to reduce the case to the level of a common crime. Later they tried to wash their hands of it, because the crime had been committed in the province administrated by Duhalde. Perhaps they were trying to take advantage of the situation to blame the Governor, who had become the top political adversary of Menemism within the party. However, after confirming the case's political repercussions, theExecutive decided to put the nation's intelligence services on the investigation. The ruling party's efforts to obstruct the investigation caused some political analysts to speculate. In spite of these efforts, Congress created a commission to supervise the investigation.
This literally generated a war for the control of the investigative process where mistrust and a lack of confidence dominated. Initially the search for the guilty parties took place in a tense environment. Today strong suspicions exist
that the government itself was attempting to create a smoke screen. At the very least, the Cabezas case caused some unsettling situations for the Argentinean democracy.
Police and Custody
First the investigation proved what was already common knowledge, that the Buenos Aires Province Police is corrupt. Many of its members are suspected of crimes although they enjoy impunity in most cases. Repeated denunciations of "trigger happiness," involvement in drug trafficking, illicit profits and illegal arrests exist,reminders of the dictatorships. Suspicion of cover-ups of logistical support for the crimes that shook Argentina in1992 and 1994, obligated Governor Duhalde himself to allow several officers, including the police chief, Pedro Klodzyck, to be tried. This caused the publicized but never carried out project to restructure the security forces. They quickly became more than the opposition parties' supposed
hallucinations designed to discredit "the best police force in the world," as Duhalde himself once defined them. In truth governor could no longer deny this reality without destroying his political chances to become the nation's president in 1999.
Although they had attempted to derail investigations by scapegoating Pepita the Pistolera's gang, police were now
caught in the eye of the storm. With accusations of a police cover-up, direct participation in the crime, of setting up or at least participating in a drug trafficking ring on the coast, Duhalde purged the force. All 48,000 officers, thelargest security force in Argentina, were declared available for charges. Preliminary investigations began of officers suspected of any crime. The province's Security Secretariat was restructured by decree. The Under Secretariat of Auditing and Control was created, with a Direction of Control of Police Administration, which Duhalde threatened to put in the hands of a civilian. He carried out this threat with the recent appointment of a lawyer, Mirta Elsa Misiti, who will receive complaints from the community about corruption and abuse of authority by uniformed officers.
The measures carried out by Duhalde caused serious problems in the force. They even proposed a possible police strike that was called off as a result of social pressure. The security force had become so discredited in the eyes of civil society that it would be unable to support the complete crumbling of its image and the total loss of legitimacy that the strike could have caused.
The police were not the only ones in a bind. The private security agencies were also under scrutiny. It was discovered that they employed many ex-police officers investigated and exonerated of committing irregularities and crimes. They also
hired the so-called "unemployed labor force" that carried out repression during the military dictatorship without fear of reprisal. The agencies in the Province of Buenos Aires employ around 50,000 men, not counting the approximately, 20,000-25,000 with short term contracts. This represents a real private army, with more members than the provincial police, and without any state control.
This compelled Congress to discuss the need to regulate these agencies and especially their hiring practices with the objective of preventing organizations, which violate societal norms and are willing and able to break the law, from jeopardizing internal security. As a result the Internal Security Law was proposed within a dangerously restrictive legal framework. Different political sectors reached a consensus about the outcry against crime.
The Mysterious Mr. Yabrán
Most of the agencies in the province are property of an until recently mysterious and invisible individual, Alfredo Yabrán. Yabrán has always presented himself as a simple private mail businessman. He did not show his face
when Domingo Cavallo accused him of being a Mafioso in control of key areas of the nation's internal security through his privileged relationship with the government. Yabrán allegedly accomplished this through the aforementioned agencies as well companies that provide the state with identity documents for citizens, transport letters and documents through privately owned mail, and allow
merchandise into the country at the Ezeiza International Airport, where contraband has become institutionalized. He always denied that he was owner or shareholder of all these businesses and that he had close ties to the government, especially President Menem. The president in turn vigorously denies any type of close relationship with Yabrán.
The facts contradict Yabrán's and the government's assertions. Faced with the investigator's assault, a nervous Yabrán contacted high government officials more than once. With the Excalibur system, many calls were traced from
the magnate's offices, under investigation because of the contact between Gregorio Ríos and Prellezo. Seventeen calls were made to the Minister of the Interior, Carlos Corach; one call was made to the Minister of Defense, Jorge Rodríguez, who admitted to knowing Yabrán when he was Intendant of Buenos Aires; and 102 calls were traced to Minister of Justice Elías Jassan, who denied knowing Yabrán at all, but who later, faced with the evidence and the scandal provoked by it, had to resign. There were also 35 calls to the President's offices as well as several calls to Alberto Pierri, who was one of Governor Duhalde's men, and congressional candidate for the lower house in this October's elections. Additional calls were made to the Secretariat of Natural Resources and Sustainable Development, to Congressman Raúl Baglini and to SIDE, the Intelligence Service, where he communicated with the person in charge of tapping telephone lines, among others. Also in the midst of criticism, Cabinet Chief Jorge Rodríguez met with Yabrán. He complained to Rodríguez that he was being targeted in what he
considered a defamatory campaign against him that was hurting his businesses. These complaints had already been presented to the government through Emir Yoma, ex-presidential advisor, presently under investigation for dealing arms to Ecuador and Croatia.
On one hand these facts reinforce the public theory linking Yabrán to the crime. This forced the businessman to abandon his steadfast anonymity and appear before the press. He later spoke to Congress about his businesses and his relations with the government in an attempt the clear his name of accusations of Mafia connections. Doubts about the legitimacy of his commercial companies persisted. Congress formed an Anti Mafia Commissionthat is currently investigating him. The inquest should clear up any doubts about Yabrán's possible connections with drug trafficking. On the other hand, these same facts suggest
a close relation between the businessman and political power that President Menem's statements defending Yabrán have not disproved.
Political Arm Wrestling
Cabezas' murder occurred during a crucial period for the future of the Argentine government. Elections for both houses of Congress (the Senate and Chamber of Deputies) will take place this October. The parties are in the middle of a struggle where seats in Congress and the confrontation between the opposition and the governing Justicialist party are in play. Also, the parties' internal choices of their 1999 presidential candidates will depend in part on the results of these elections.
In the past months the absence of a truly alternative political program, strategic errors, and primaries plagued by strong divisions within the opposition parties seem to favor the ruling party. The party's true political rivals are high unemployment rates and repeated accusations of corruption and Mafia ties of ex- Economic Minister, Domingo Cavallo, that caused a flood of judicial denunciations.
At the party level it is clear that Eduardo Duhalde (2) is Menem's natural successor. He controls million dollar funds to solve social problems that he administers with a highly paternalistic attitude. It was almost certain that he would win the primary and the presidential elections, until a new factor shook up this political panorama. A group of diehard Menem supporters, led by Senator Jorge Yoma, the president's ex-brother in law, launched a campaign to allow a third term for Menem, although the Constitution specifically prohibits it. To avoid this obstacle, they spoke of a popular
referendum to modify the article in question.
The project met considerable resistance. Primarily it dashed Duhalde's aspirations, as he was preparing to defend
his political space. Relations between the President and the Governor grew tense. A war started between the two men who were once political allies. Argentine society witnessed a clash with unforseeable political consequences.
A Governor With Difficulties
Cabezas' death further complicated Governor Duhalde's position. In the power struggle, the Cabezas crime threatened to become a battlefront that could be used to discredit the governor. The opposition and a sector of the Menemist ruling
party could have used his failure to solve the crime against him . This raised questions about Duhalde's ability to guarantee security, possibly emphasizing the existing climate of impunity. These are red hot topics for the electorate. In practice Duhaldists and Menemists used the case to sling mud at each other. The latter took advantage of Duhalde's difficulties. The governor felt that he had been blamed for the murder, and the authors of the crime sent a forceful message to make his life difficult. At the same time, a series of events began to occur without any plausible explanation.
An attempt on a race car co-pilot Rubén Valentini's life occurred in Pinamar. It turned out that he received a call from Yabrán's offices two days after the Cabezas crime, although Valentini had denied having any contact with the businessman. No one vindicated the failed attempt and no one knew the motive. The almost-victim belongs to racing team that President Menem's son, Carlos, Jr. drove in before his death.
Shortly thereafter, some journalists tried to air an investigative documentary that showed the President's recently finished mansion in Anillaco, a town of 1,000 inhabitants in the Rioja Province. It also showed the landing strip, comparable in size to the runway at the international airport in Buenos Aires. Located a kilometer away from the house, it was built with either with supposedly reserved funds or with somewhat dubious donations. Clearly it was forthe president's personal use. The program was censored, which provoked strong debate and accusations of violation of the freedom of the press. This was bad enough. However, what captured public attention was that denunciations about the strip had been made many months before, without any results. This time the repercussions were such that the president chose to maintain a low profile to the point of denying his
participation in the elections.
Following these events, Menem invited Duhalde to a meeting in the presidential residence. The two men no longer
appeared together in public or spoke to each other, although both denied that they had clashed. The meeting initially postponed by Duhalde, was private, without the presence of other officials and with an secret agenda. Everyone spoke of a "truce." This provoked suspicion that everything that had happened, including Cabezas' murder, could have been a series of warnings to Duhalde, as his own statements suggested.
With a calmer internal front, Duhalde was able to continue the investigation. With the help of friends, a senator and a businessman, they were able to discover who actually committed the murder. However, what could have been considered a victory was transformed into a double-edged sword for the governor. The Secretary of Security for the Buenos Aires Province, who helped insure that the investigations were not bogged down by following the false lead blaming the Pepitos, resigned. He may have done this
because of internal problems, perhaps even with Duhalde. At the same time, the governor insinuated that the masterminds behind the crime might be Cabezas' actual murderers. This affirmation did not carry weight with the civilian population, which had become quite skeptical of the investigations.
This version contrasted with the Los Hornos gang's court testimony mentioning a "candidate." At the same time, the false witness blamed alleged "congressmen". During this period, one issue of the magazine Noticias unexpectedly published on its cover a photograph of Alberto Pierri, the president of the Chamber of Deputies, congressional primary candidate for Buenos Aires Province, and close friend of Duhalde. His enemies accuse him of illegal profiteering, influence peddling and the organization and control of the Mafia of the Mercado de Abasto in Buenos Aires as well as of using less than
gentlemanly methods against his opponents. It is worth noting that Pierri won the primary thanks to Duhalde's not entirely spontaneous support.
The facts cast doubts about the governor and his true political will to solve the crime. It may be that image
requirements motivated the search for the guilty parties. It is possible that they could have met up with elements that could be dangerous for him and his reputation. Duhalde had always been under extreme scrutiny because of veiled suspicions of links to drug trafficking. Yabrán's appearance on the scene in a way permitted Duhalde to remedythe situation. Duhalde attacked Yabrán and publicly mentioned him as a possible suspect in the crime, telling him find a good defense lawyer. However, he underestimated the seriousness of Yabrán's calls to members of the government to avoid to another conflict with Menemism. This occurred anyway when Jorge Domínguez received Yabrán. Duhalde did not hesitate in showing his disapproval.
Although the treatment of Yabrán put Menemists and Duhaldists in open conflict, the president and the governor reached a new accord for the elections because the internal struggle was seriously affecting the ruling party. Polls showed for the first time that the party was behind in Buenos Aires Province. This endangered Duhalde's political project and well as the governing party as a whole.
The effects of the new truce were readily visible. A few days later, Fogelman testified that it was practically
impossible to find the mastermind behind the crime. As a means to "depoliticize" the investigation, they decided to not turn in the results of all calls traced with the Excalibur system to the judge. Instead they would just have him examine only the list of calls that according to the provincial government were directly related to the murder. In theory this could limit the list to only Gregorio Rios's calls without further investigation of Yabrán's calls to the president and other government officials. In this way they may have attempted to reactivate an abandoned theory indicating a combination of police, security agents and common criminals.
The Dark Side of Power
Today, over six months after Cabezas' death, investigations seem destined to be bogged down in an attempt to dilute them. In the process these investigations diluted responsibility for the murder and found scapegoats. The dark points of this story are many, perhaps too many. They include drug trafficking, blame for the murders, and million-dollar illegal deals. Any of these crimes could have set off the murder. At the present, though, suspicions suggest drug trafficking that may go beyond a simple distribution ring on the Atlantic Coast.
The difficulty in determining the motive proves how illegality has taken over different areas and permeated
institutions. Until the present there is no evidence in the Cabezas case. Maybe only his close collaborators, who have kept completely silent, know what Cabezas had discovered and why it was serious enough for him to be killed. It is only clear that the crime occurred with police participation in conjunction with private security officers who were related to repression during the dictatorships (Gregorio Ríos and the representative of the Bridess Company were repressors in ESMA and El Vesubio, clandestine concentration camps.) This revealed possible connections between them and members of the establishment in a huge web of complicity and co-responsiblity.
After this crime it became clear that state and private security organisms, instead of being instruments to defend citizens, have turned into illegal enterprises serving unspeakable interests with almost total impunity. This impunity was guaranteed in Argentina by the Law of Due Obedience and Deadline, passed during the Alfonsín administration and Menem's pardon of the repressors, which saved many military and police officers from jail and made them believe that they had a blank check to commit any crime.
It is also clear that within political institutions, especially in the Executive branch, corruption has infiltrated the ranks and the power divisions causing power divisions and confrontations between opposing camps who are willing to win at any cost. In the Cabezas case, this battle seems to have taken on all the characteristics of a Mafia war involving the president to a much greater extent than is commonly assumed.
Argentine society reacted strongly, faced once again with situations that leave it defenseless. For example, a strange climate was created by the 130 threats made since January to journalists who follow the developments of this crime and
other corruption cases. Witnesses and district attorneys that attempt to solve other Mafia related crimes have been intimidated. These crimes include the Case of District Attorney Lanusse, who investigates gold contraband and assaults designed as warnings to government personalities or their families. Examples include the recent aggression against Cabinet Head Jorge Rodríguez's daughter's guardians and of spokespeople such as the president's ex-wife, Zulema Yoma, in conflict with the government because of her son's death. There have also been threats to those who protest against impunity in serious terrorist acts against Jewish targets such as the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the Joint Israeli-Argentinean Association, AMIA, in 1994, as well as to those charging the government with a cover-up of the recent discovery that the death of Carlos Menem, Jr., the president's son, perhaps was not accidental.
It is clear that today's Argentina is the setting for numerous unspeakable drug and arms trafficking incidents,
implicating uniformed personnel, functionaries and businesspeople with possible and suspected links to the government. A dark scheme where power and illegality blend and use inherited structures and mechanisms from the era of the dictatorships, draining the content of democratic institutions and seriously endangering them, leaves society with the sensation that today we all are Cabezas.
1. Death squadrons of the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance during the final moments of the last Peronist government.
2. Powerful governor of the Province of Buenos Aires, where almost half of the Argentine population resides.