The book topping Argentina's bestseller list is not a thriller or a murder mystery. It’s a crime story of another sort: a blockbuster about political corruption that suggests that bribery is an integral part of the country’s body politic. And neighboring Uruguay is also described as the perfect Swiss laundry for most of the money swindled from Argentina.
“The reality of corruption in Argentina surpasses fiction,” said Hugo Alconada Mon, an investigative journalist and the author of The Root of All Evils, which was published just as the country was shaken by a wave of graft allegations against senior politicians across the ideological spectrum.
The cases include allegations of bags of cash delivered to former presidents Nestor Kirchner and Cristina Fernandez, as well as a plot to allegedly launder under-the-counter contributions to the electoral campaigns of the centre-right party of her successor, Mauricio Macri.
Alconada argues that so many of Argentina’s foremost politicians, judges, journalists and business people are involved in corruption, that it has become impossible to get anything done without it.
“Corruption is no longer an alternative way of conducting business or politics in Argentina – it is the main structure of power, one that has been in place for decades for the benefit of a chosen few,” he said in an interview.
As to Uruguay, no matter who's president, the money laundering mechanism remains intact and ticking, Swiss efficiency. No matter who rules Uruguay, the corrupt Argentines love to hide their money in Uruguay, or use it as a stepping stone for moving further on, the mechanism is designed to steal and insure impunity. All the major Argentine corruption cases in the last decades have involved crossing Uruguay, be it with the connivance, complicity or ineffectiveness of local officials.
The scale of the problem has been hammered home over recent months, with the arrest of a string of high-profile figures, including former vice-president Amado Boudou, former public works minister Julio de Vido and a number of lower-ranking officials who allegedly acted as middlemen.
Last week, Cristina Fernandez herself was indicted on bribery charges accused of receiving sacks stuffed with millions of dollars from construction companies during her presidency and that of her husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner.
According to the indictment by federal judge Claudio Bonadio, some of the cash was delivered at the couple’s Buenos Aires apartment or buried in farmland in southern Argentina.
Fernández has denied all wrongdoing, saying in a statement: “They can follow my movements and those of my family, listen clandestinely to my telephone conversations or dig up all of Patagonia or wherever else they see fit, but they will never find anything involving me – because I have never taken illicit money.”
On the other side of the political divide, Macri’s Cambiemos party is under investigation for allegedly stealing the identities of 2,000 people to launder illegal campaign contributions.
In three separate cases, the courts are investigating some 500 fake contributors to Macri’s 2015 presidential campaign and 1,500 fake contributions to the 2017 midterm elections in Buenos Aires province.
“They stole the names and ID numbers of social welfare recipients, people living below the poverty line, made them fake members of Cambiemos and passed them off as campaign contributors,” says Juan Amorín, a journalist for El Destape website, which discovered the illegal manouver.
As a sitting senator, Fernández remains immune from arrest; Macri has not been named as a suspect in the identity theft cases. But the allegations have electrified Argentina at a time when authorities across Latin America are struggling to confront corruption.
The recent spate of arrests – and the indictment of Fernández – were triggered after La Nacion newspaper obtained handwritten notebooks in which a chauffeur at the public works ministry had detailed his participation in a huge kickback scheme that allegedly flourished under the Kirchner and Fernández governments.
For more than a decade, Oscar Centeno kept records in a set of spiral-bound notebooks, logging the collection of bribes from businessmen who had won government contracts – and their delivery to government officials.
Under Argentina’s 2016 plea bargain law, many of those involved struck deals with Judge Bonadio, and implicated others. But few corruption trials make it to court in Argentina, and those that do often drag out so long that the statue of limitations comes into effect before sentencing.
According to Alconada’s book, only 2% of corruption cases that made it to the federal courts in recent years have produced convictions.
“In every country there’s always some dishonest official who runs off with public money,” he says. “But in Argentina what you have is professionalized, institutional corruption across the entire business sector, all political parties and all areas of government, including the judicial branch.”
“The level of sophistication of corruption in Argentina is amazing and alarming,” he says. “It’s so bad that I am even scared my book will be used more as a guide for corruption than as a warning against it.”