The trial against former Argentine president, Carlos Menem, began on Thursday 16th October.
Menem, who represented the Justicialist Party as president, is accused, along with 17 others (including former cabinet ministers), of having been involved in the illegal sale of arms to Ecuador and Croatia between 1991 and 1995.
It is alleged that Menem, who governed Argentina between 1989 and 1999, authorised the sale of arms to the two nations at a time when both countries were undergoing weapons embargos. The Organisation of American States (OAS) had barred arms trading with Ecuador as the country was involved in a month-long conflict with neighbouring Peru in 1995, while the UN outlawed the sale of weapons to Croatia because of its role in the turbulent break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
Between 1991 and 1995, Ecuador received 75 tonnes of arms while Croatia received 6,500 tonnes, the latter costing US$100m according to Clarín. The weaponry sold to Croatia included 36 cannons, 805 missiles, 38,000 automatic rifles and 87,000 grenades. Diego Palleros, a former Lieutenant Colonel heavily implicated in the arms-trafficking allegations, stated the operations were worth a total of US$50m.
Menem, who still represents the western province of La Rioja as senator, insists he is innocent, declaring that he believed the arms were being sold legally elsewhere. Omar Daer, Menem’s lawyer, told The Argentina Independent: “[Menem] is not guilty. He signed decrees during the ‘revolución productiva’ to allow the sale of arms to Venezuela and Panama, countries at peace. He did not know the ultimate destination was to be altered. He signed the decrees, so he is responsible, but he is not guilty.”
While Menem’s pledge of ignorance to the shipments’ final destinations is viable, the uncovering of financial evidence is posing more questions about his role in the dealings. Daniel Santoro, Clarín’s political editor and the journalist who uncovered the illegal arms sales, is not convinced by Menem’s claims: “Perhaps he didn’t know the details. But, then why did Emir Yoma (his former brother-in-law and advisor) receive US$600,000 from Diego Palleros?”
Indeed, a complex web of transactions between the supposed players in the arms deals is being excavated as the courts analyse their accounts. The protagonist in these transactions is Alicia Barrenchea, former wife of Diego Palleros, as Santoro explains: “Every time that one of the seven boats or three aeroplanes left, carrying the arms, between 1991 and 1995, payments would enter Barrenchea’s Uruguayan accounts and she would circulate the money around the accounts of the others involved. This money totalled at US$18m.”
No money was deposited in Menem’s accounts by Barrenchea. However, according to Santoro, Yoma was receiving the payments. Clarín has also suggested that Menem’s private secretary, Ramón Hernández, transferred US$6m into a Swiss bank account, but the courts haven’t managed to find proof of the transaction.
Daer was cool on suggestions that transactions from Barrenchea to Yoma’s accounts might link his client to the illegal trafficking: “I can’t comment. I haven’t seen these alleged transactions. We are currently going through hundreds of accounts and nothing like that has turned up. Only the media seem to have seen these transactions.”
So who can be blamed?
With Menem washing his hands of any knowledge of the arms shipments going to Ecuador and Croatia – rather than Venezuela and Panama – there has been media speculation over where down the hierarchy the alternative plans were hatched.
His lawyer is quick to point the finger: “It must have been someone within the arms company who organised the illegal sale.” Although Daer was unable to recall the name of the company he was accusing.
In fact, according to Santoro, Menem himself has laid blame upon Palleros and says that the former Lieutenant Colonel engineered the illegal deals through his businesses Debrol and Hayton Trade.
However Santoro, who finds it hard to believe that Menem knew nothing about the sale to Ecuador and Croatia, said: “It is impossible for 6,500 tonnes of arms and munitions to have been moved from the army barracks in Córdoba to the port or to Ezeiza without the president knowing the details. It was a gigantic operation.”
Santoro also denounced the idea that blaming the state arms company, Fabricaciones Militares, would clear Menem’s name, adding: “Luis Sarlenga (who works for Fabricaciones Militares and is amongst the accused) declared that he was taking orders from Menem’s brother-in-law and advisor, Emir Yoma, concerning the arms sale.”
This is not the first time that Menem has been charged with the trafficking of weapons. In 2001, he was accused on similar charges for the same illegal arms deals and remained under house arrest for eight months. He was eventually acquitted by the Supreme Court, most of the members of which had been appointed during his presidency.
After changing the Supreme Court’s panel of judges, President Néstor Kirchner, who served from 2003 to 2007, filed the case again. More recently, Menem has come out labelling the Kirchner government as the ‘most corrupt in history’. Poor Menem-Kirchner relations and this sustained persecution of Menem have fuelled media suggestions of a Kichnerist vendetta or an anti-Menem conspiracy.
But Daer rubbished the idea, saying his client is just everybody’s favourite political punch bag: “This is not a conspiracy against Carlos Menem. The Kirchners are just taking responsibility for public justice. The fact is Menem is constantly a victim of politico-judicial persecution, as we are seeing here.”
As yet, Menem, 78, is still to make an appearance in court, ill health having prevented his attendance thus far. He was diagnosed by his friend and physician Dr. Carlos Santander as having ‘stress, severe anaemia, diabetes and allergies’. The courts have sent a doctor to verify whether Menem is well enough to attend the trial.
If he is deemed unfit to attend the trial, it is possible that the case will continue without him, with the judges having to travel to La Rioja to complete the procedure. Alternatively, he could be forced to come to the trial by the police, although this would require a special motion being passed by the Senate as, still being a serving senator in La Rioja, he is immune from arrest. In the case of the latter, it is estimated that it would take seven months to complete the trial, were Menem to be condemned to stand.
Menem could face up to 12 years in jail. However, if were the former president found guilty, the same immunity would prevent him from going to jail until his term expires or a similar special motion was passed.
Daer insists his client is innocent while Santoro believes, ‘there must be a conviction’. Either way, it could be a long time before justice is done.