Tuesday, January 27, 2015

WNU #1252: Argentine Prosecutor Dies in “Suicide”

Issue #1252, January 25, 2015

1. Argentina: AMIA Prosecutor Dies in “Suicide”
2. Argentina: Many Are Suspected in AMIA Coverup
3. Mexico: More PEMEX Contract Scandals Exposed
4. Guatemala: Top Cop Convicted in Embassy Fire
5. Links to alternative sources on: South America, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, US/immigration

ISSN#: 1084 922X. Weekly News Update on the Americas covers news from Latin America and the Caribbean, compiled and written from a progressive perspective. It has been published weekly by the Nicaragua Solidarity Network of Greater New York since 1990. It is archived at http://weeklynewsupdate.blogspot.com. For a subscription, write to weeklynewsupdate@gmail.com. Follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/WeeklyNewsUpdat.

Note: The Update is ceasing publication on Feb. 15. In each of the remaining issues we will try to include some updated information on stories we covered in the past.

*1. Argentina: AMIA Prosecutor Dies in “Suicide”
Argentine federal prosecutor Natalio Alberto Nisman was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment late on Jan. 18 with a gunshot wound to his head. Nisman had filed a 289-page criminal complaint on Jan. 14 charging that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman and eight others, including two Iranians, had acted to cover up the alleged role of the Iranian government in the July 1994 bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires [see World War 4 Report 1/19/15]. The bombing, which left 85 dead and some 300 injured, is considered the deadliest anti-Semitic attack carried out anywhere since World War 2. Nisman’s death came the day before he was to testify to the National Congress about the charges.

Nisman’s body was found in his locked apartment by his mother and agents from his 10-member security detail after the prosecutor failed to answer phone calls; he was lying next to the .22-caliber handgun used to shoot him. Investigators initially suggested suicide, as did President Fernández in a Facebook posting on Jan. 20. But evidence emerged later that undercut the suicide hypothesis: Nisman had not appeared suicidal; there was no note; gunpowder traces weren’t detected on Nisman’s hands; a locksmith disputed claims that two entrances to the apartment were locked; and a previously unnoticed third entrance was discovered. Reversing her earlier position, Fernández wrote on Jan. 22 that the prosecutor had probably been murdered. (New York Times 1/22/15, 1/23/15 from correspondents; InfoBAE (Argentina) 1/22/15)

In October 2006 Nisman--who was appointed to head the AMIA inquiry by former president Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007), Fernández’s late husband--formally charged the Lebanese organization Hezbollah with carrying out the AMIA bombing and the Iranian government with ordering it. In January 2013 Argentina and Iran signed an agreement for a joint investigation into the attack [see Update #1195]. Nisman opposed the deal, as did Jewish community leaders, who felt this would impede prosecution of the Iranian suspects. An Argentine appeals court ruled the agreement unconstitutional on May 15, 2014, although the government has appealed the decision [see World War 4 Report 5/18/14].

In his Jan. 14 complaint, based in part on intercepted phone calls, Nisman accused the presidency and people close to Fernández of working to negate the charges against Iran in exchange for trade deals. In addition to President Fernández and Foreign Minister Timerman, Nisman named legislative deputy Andrés “Cuervo” Larroque; Luis D’Elía, a leader in the leftist Federation of Argentine Workers (CTA) and the piquetero (“picketer”) unemployed movement who is close to the government [see Update #975]; Fernando Esteche, the leader of the far-left group Quebracho [see Update #960]; Héctor Yrimia, a former prosecutor in the AMIA case; Mohsen Rabbani, a former cultural attaché to the Iranian embassy suspected of masterminding the bombing [see Update #1124]; and Jorge “Yussuf” Khalil, an Iranian community leader in Buenos Aires. The complaint included transcripts of phone conversations between D’Elía and Khalil. (Todo Noticias (Argentina) 1/15/15, 1/23/15; NYT 1/22/15 from correspondents)

Fernández supporters noted that Nisman had close relations with the US embassy in Buenos Aires, according to US diplomatic cables released by the Wikileaks group in 2010, and that he followed advice from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the US Justice Department’s Office of International Affairs (OIA). It seems that Nisman regularly notified the embassy in advance about his legal moves. A confidential diplomatic cable dated May 19, 2009, notes that Nisman advised the embassy of his request for the indictment of a new AMIA suspect the day before he submitted the request to the judge in the case, Rodolfo Canicoba Corra. (Buenos Aires Herald 1/16/15)

In related news, at least 10 people were injured the night of Jan. 18-19 when a crowd chanting anti-Semitic slogans attacked a hostel in Lago Puelo in the southern province of Chubut, beating and robbing Israeli tourists. The hostel’s owner, Sergio Polak, said the crowd also hurled rocks and Molotov bombs and fired shots. Attacks on the hostel “started in March or April last year,” he said. “We connect it with the campaign going on for a while on the subject of Israeli tourism. They say [the guests] are Israeli soldiers.” The attack reportedly went on for hours because the local police didn’t have enough agents on hand. There were about 10 assailants, identified as neighbors of the hostel. Initially no one was arrested, but a local radio station reported later that the attackers were “at the disposition of justice.” (La Nación (Argentina) 1/21/15 from Agencia DyN)

*2. Argentina: Many Are Suspected in AMIA Coverup
While the US media focused on the late Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman’s Jan. 14 charges against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, many people have been accused over the years of blocking the investigation into the deadly 1994 bombing of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association (AMIA) building. The people suspected include a former president, a judge, an intelligence chief, and officials of two foreign governments. After an inquiry that has gone on for 21 years under several different governments, Argentine prosecutors have still not won a single conviction in the case.

In May 2008 Nisman charged former president Carlos Saúl Menem (1989-1999) with impeding the initial investigation during his presidency. In March 2012 federal judge Ariel Lijo ordered Menem to stand trial on the charges, along with the judge who headed the original investigation, Juan José Galeano; intelligence service directors Hugo Anzorreguy and Juan Carlos Anchezar; and two commanders of the federal police [see Update #1124]. The trial still hasn’t taken place. Formerly an opponent of President Fernández, Menem is now a political ally and seems to be having a relatively easy time in the courts. He is also implicated in the government's clandestine sales of 6,500 tons of arms to Ecuador and Croatia from 1991 to 1995. In March 2013 an appeals court found him guilty of “aggravated smuggling,” but he currently enjoys immunity as a senator for La Rioja province [see Updates #1097, 1167].

Menem was allied with the US government while he was president, and the US embassy was clearly upset when Nisman filed charges against him in the AMIA case. Nisman apologized for not giving the embassy advance warning, according to a May 27 confidential cable obtained by the Wikileaks group. Then-US ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne, now the ambassador to Mexico, complained in another confidential cable two days later that the Menem charges “could complicate international efforts to bring the Iranian indictees to justice.” “Nisman may still be currying favor from the Casa Rosada [Argentina’s presidential palace] with a view to a favorable judicial appointment in the future,” Wayne claimed. The May 27 cable emphasized the US government’s interest in keeping the investigation centered on Iran and away from Menem: “Legatt officers [legal attachés] have for the past two years recommended to Nisman that he focus on the perpetrators of the terrorist attack and not on the possible mishandling of the first investigation.” (Buenos Aires Herald 1/16/15)

Although never formally charged, another coverup suspect is Antonio Horacio Stiles, better known as “Jaime Stiusso” (or “Stiuso”), the director of operations for the federal Intelligence Service (SI) until Fernández replaced him in December. Stiusso entered intelligence work in 1972, serving under the highly repressive 1976-1983 military junta and then under all governments since the restoration of democracy. He is said to have been close to Nisman, and also to have worked closely with Israel’s Mossad and the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Stiusso seemed to have a great deal of power in the government. Then-justice minister Gustavo Beliz had to resign his post on July 25, 2004 after tangling with the intelligence director. Beliz went on television the same day to charge that Stiusso had “messed up” the AMIA investigation. Beliz also said Argentina’s intelligence apparatus was a “black hole,” a “parallel state” and a “secret police without any controls,” and he described Stiusso as someone “the whole world fears because they say he’s dangerous and can have you killed.” (La Nación (Argentina) 12/18/14; El País (Madrid) 1/25/15)

Although the Iranian government would obviously have reasons to block the inquiry if Iranian officials were involved in the AMIA bombing, there have also been accusations against Israeli officials. In January 2014 former Israeli ambassador to Argentina Yitzhak Aviran (1993-2000) announced that his country had killed most of the perpetrators of the attack. “The vast majority of the guilty parties are in another world, and this is something we did,” he said. Argentine foreign minister Héctor Timerman noted that Aviran’s comments “would imply that Israel hid information from Argentine courts, blocking new evidence from appearing.” Timerman demanded that Aviran tell Argentine prosecutors whether Israel had further information [see Update #1205].

Some Argentines noted that suspect “suicides” like Nisman’s are hardly unprecedented in the country [see Update #454]. Claims of suicide have been questioned in at least five other cases, all of which took place during Menem’s presidency or involved Menem or people close to him. In three of the cases, the victim was about to testify or was considering doing so.

Former Customs head Brig. Gen. Rodolfo Echegoyen (or Etchegoyen) was shot in the head in his studio in December 1990; as in the Nisman case, there were no traces of gunpowder on his hands. Echegoyen was reportedly investigating the Edcadassa company, owned by members of the Yoma family, former in-laws of then-president Menem. Postal magnate and former Menem associate Alfredo Yabrán was found dead of apparently self-inflicted gunshot wounds in one of his country estates in May 1998; he was sought for questioning in the January 1997 murder of photojournalist José Luis Cabezas, who had been investigating Yabrán’s business activities. Naval captain Horacio Pedro Estrada was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment in August 1998; again, no traces of gunpowder were found, and the right-handed Estrada was shot in the left side of his head. Estrada was reportedly considering testifying in the case of illegal arms sales to Ecuador and Croatia. Also in August 1998, Marcelo Cattáneo was found hanging in an abandoned structure on a Buenos Aires university campus; he was charged with paying bribes in a corruption case involving the state-owned Banco Nacion bank and IBM, the US computer giant. His family expressed doubts about the suicide hypothesis. Lourdes di Natale, once a secretary to former Menem in-law Emir Yoma, supposedly fell or jumped to her death from her apartment’s balcony while drunk in March 2003, but no alcoholic beverage was found in her apartment and the amount of alcohol in her blood should have made her incapable of getting on the balcony. She was about to testify in the case of the smuggled arms. (Diario Uno (Argentina) 6/18/12; Página 12 (Argentina) 1/20/15)

*3. Mexico: More PEMEX Contract Scandals Exposed
Petróleos Mexicanos (PEMEX), Mexico’s giant state-owned oil monopoly, signed contracts worth $149 billion with outside companies from 2003 to 2012, according to a Jan. 23 investigative report by the Reuters wire service; about 8% of these contracts were cited by a congressional watchdog, the Chamber of Deputies’ Federal Audit Office (ASF), as having irregularities “ranging from overcharging for shoddy work to outright fraud,” Reuters’ reporters wrote. The problems involved more than 100 contracts with a total value of $11.7 billion.

Reuters’ revelations appeared as Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto was pushing ahead with an “energy reform” program to open up the country’s petroleum industry to still more contracts with private firms. Praised by the US government and media, the program is unpopular with many Mexicans, who see it as a form of disguised privatization. Two major scandals implicating PEMEX contractors came to light last year, one involving Oceanografía SA de CV and the US banking corporation Citigroup Inc., the other involving the California-based technology company Hewlett-Packard (HP) [see Update #1239].

PEMEX officials rarely act to correct the contract problems, according to Reuters. From 2008 to 2012 the ASF sent PEMEX 274 recommendations to take action on the irregularities. PEMEX’s response so far has been to suspend a few employees in just three of the cases; the rest of the recommendations were dismissed or are still awaiting action. The government plans to establish a new independent auditing office for the enterprise to resolve this problem, but past performance by PEMEX auditors leads to skepticism. One example was the case of sales to Brazilian chemical maker Unigel SA. From to 2009 to 2011 PEMEX’s petrochemicals subsidiary sold the Brazilian company a chemical at an unexplained discount that cost the Mexican enterprise $24.2 million. PEMEX internal auditors flagged the problem, but the head auditor advised his colleagues to “work with the director of PEMEX Petrochemicals to attend to and answer [our] recommendations, with the aim of avoiding them becoming definitive issues.” The PEMEX officials who approved the deal weren’t disciplined; one now works for Unigel.

“PEMEX’s taxes and dividends finance about 30 percent of the federal budget,” Reuters noted. “Contract abuse at the oil giant eats into the government’s ability to fund services from healthcare to road building.” (Business Insider 1/23/15 from Reuters)

Meanwhile, PEMEX and the overall Mexican economy are being hurt by plunging oil prices on international markets. As of Jan. 23 PEMEX’s oil was selling at $38.03 a barrel, its lowest price since June 2009. (La Jornada (Mexico) 1/24/15). The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects a growth rate of 3.2% for Mexico this year and 3.5% for 2016, a little below its projections for the world as a whole--3.5% in 2015 and 3.7% in 2016. (Forbes México 1/20/15 from Reuters)

*4. Guatemala: Top Cop Convicted in Embassy Fire
On Jan. 19 Guatemala’s High Risk Court B convicted former police chief Pedro García Arredondo of the deaths of 37 people in a fire at the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City on Jan. 31, 1980 [see Update #1237]. García Arredondo was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the fire and 50 years for the deaths of two students; he is already serving a 70-year sentence for the killing of a student. The fire broke out when police stormed the embassy, which had been occupied by indigenous and campesino protesters from El Quiché department; the police blocked the doors and refused to let firefighters enter. The victims included the Spanish consul, two of his employees, a former Guatemalan vice president, a former Guatemalan foreign relations minister, and 22 El Quiché campesinos; one was Vicente Menchú, the father of 1992 Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum.

The rightwing government of President Otto Pérez Molina, who was a military officer at the time of the fire, said it respected the court’s decision. A note from the Foreign Relations Ministry expressed regret for the deaths of “famous Spanish people and Guatemalans.” “These situations cannot be repeated,” the note added. The Spanish Foreign Ministry wrote that the Spanish government “expresses its satisfaction and congratulates the Guatemalan justice system for having, 35 years later, judged these acts in accordance with the laws and with respect for due process.” (Prensa Libre (Guatemala) 1/20/15 from AFP; Prensa Latina 1/20/15)

As of Jan. 13 Judge Carol Patricia Flores had ordered a medical examination for former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) to determine whether he can attend his new trial for genocide against Ixil Mayans in El Quiché department. He failed to appear at a hearing on Jan. 12 to discuss administrative issues in the trial. Ríos Montt was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 80 years in prison on May 10, 2013, but the Constitutional Court threw the verdict out 10 days later [see Update #1178]. A new trial started on Jan. 5 but was immediately suspended because of a defense challenge to one of the judges, Jeannette Valdez, on the grounds that she had written her 2004 doctoral thesis about the genocide. (La Nación (Costa Rica) 1/13/15 from AFP)

*5. Links to alternative sources on: South America, Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Cuba, Haiti, US/immigration

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