A conflict between federal prosecutors and judges overseeing high-level corruption cases in Argentina is generating calls for an independent international body to handle such cases — but these commissions are only as effective as their host countries allow them to be.
Argentina is currently facing a number of high-level cases.
Federal prosecutor Carlos Stornelli, who is in charge of a case involving former government officials including ex-president and now senator Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is being investigated by federal judge Alejo Ramos Padilla.
Stornelli is accused of demanding a bribe from a businessman in exchange for removing him from a sprawling corruption investigation known in the press as “The Notebooks” (Los Cuadernos). Stornelli dismissed the accusation as part of an attempt to halt the investigation against Fernández de Kirchner.
Judge Padilla is also investigating an alleged illegal espionage network involving politicians, businesspeople and journalists that allegedly carried out “intelligence operations” to force people to confess to corruption-related crimes, or implicate others. In a presentation to Congress, the judge said the “confessions” were later used by judges and prosecutors to advance criminal cases.
President Mauricio Macri said Padilla’s investigation is politically motivated and called for his dismissal. This, in turn, has generated complaints of attempted political interference in the judiciary.
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Argentina’s judiciary has faced heavy criticism in recent years, particularly for mishandling or shelving corruption cases.
The head of the country’s Supreme Court, Carlos Rosenkrantz, said the judiciary is suffering from a “legitimacy crisis.”
A report by Argentina’s Council of Magistrates (Consejo de la Magistratura de la Nación), a judicial body in charge of selecting and removing judges, found that 92 percent of corruption cases involving high-level officials in the past two decades never reached the trial stage, La Nación reported.
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Argentina has a long history of high-level corruption scandals involving some of the country’s most powerful political and business elites, but a shockingly low rate of convictions shows that its judiciary struggles to bring political and business elites to justice.
In 2013, President Carlos Menem, who held office between 1989 and 1999, was sent to prison for trafficking arms to Croatia and Ecuador. But the former president, now a senator, never set foot in jail due to the immunity conferred by his office.
Meanwhile Kirschner’s former Vice President Armando Boudou was sentenced to five years in prison in 2018 for bribery and influence peddling. He was a silent partner in a printing company that received contracts from the Ministry of Economy while he led that agency.
Argentina’s current President, Mauricio Macri, was under already investigation for illegal wiretapping when he took office in 2015. A few days after he was elected, the courts discarded the case. High-level officials from his administration have since been accused of irregular campaign funding.
Experts argue that corruption within Argentina’s judiciary is what prevents the country from tackling corruption involving the country’s political class.
“Argentina’s judiciary is a quagmire. Most of those in charge of investigating corruption are questioned: the judges, the prosecutors, the experts,” Pablo Slonimsqui, a lawyer and author of a book on judicial corruption, told InSight Crime.
Slonimsqui says that the way in which judges are selected — they are appointed by the president with approval from the senate — compromises their independence. He also noted that Argentina has a very small number of federal judges to handle corruption cases, and few federal prosecutors.
“Federal judges have a lot of power because they monopolize investigations into political figures and they decide which investigations go ahead and which ones do not. The problem is that they answer to political and economic interests,” Slonimsqui said.
The Macri administration has taken some steps aimed at tackling corruption.
These include a new plea deal law allowing authorities to extend sentence reductions or acquittals to suspects who provide them with information that helps solve corruption or drug trafficking cases.
In April, Argentina’s anti-corruption office launched a program to “prevent, investigate and punish” corruption involving public officials.
A new penal code, currently being debated in Congress, also emphasizes tackling corruption.
While the actions are commendable, the efforts have been clouded by accusations of political bias among those tasked with rooting out corruption.
A recent editorial in the New York Times suggested that Argentina should consider an independent investigative body similar to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (
Lawyer Juan Pappier and journalist Jordana Timerman argued that Argentina could follow the examples of other Latin American countries.
“Having experienced and independent international observers giving their opinion on key cases could provide some transparency to the processes and generate trust among the population … Some international presence could also dissuade officials from committing acts of corruption,” Pappier and Timerman said.
In Guatemala, the CICIG, a UN-backed independent body that acted as an adjunct prosecutorial body assisting the Attorney General’s Office on complex corruption cases, helped uncover deep-seated corruption that ended the presidency of Otto Pérez Molina in 2015.
The CICIG has also helped prosecutors to investigate current president Jimmy Morales for alleged illegal campaign financing. This led to Morales’s terminating the body’s mandate in the country, and leaving its future uncertain.
Other governments in the region, including Honduras, Ecuador and Mexico, have also experimented with international commissions. Nayib Bukele, the newly elected president of El Salvador, said he is keen to support one.
Eradicating corruption is not just important for protecting institutions. It is also key for tackling criminal organizations that rely on corrupt officials to operate.
But not all agree that an international commission along the lines of the CICIG would work in Argentina.
“Knowing the way people in Argentina think, I think it would be very hard for our judiciary to accept something like this. A very specific collaboration would be one thing but something general … I doubt that would work, it would be too complex,” Slonimsqui said.