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Public Anger Over Slaying Comes to Boil in Argentina

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A crisis triggered by the mafia-style slaying of a magazine photographer spread Tuesday into Argentina’s Cabinet and into the streets, where protesters denounced a meeting between a top minister and a postal magnate who is under investigation in the killing.

Alfredo Yabran, a millionaire whom critics accuse of being a crime boss, met with the Cabinet chief in the presidential palace Tuesday morning as the five-month crisis claimed its first apparent political casualty. Justice Minister Elias Jassan tendered his resignation after telephone records contradicted his claim that he did not know Yabran, according to well-placed government officials.

The murder investigation has revealed numerous phone calls between the magnate and government officials, raising expectations of Cabinet changes in one of the worst scandals of President Carlos Menem’s eight years in office.

Yabran’s meeting with Jorge Rodriguez, the Cabinet chief, angered and mystified opposition politicians, journalists and average citizens. They criticized the government for receiving a man who authorities have publicly declared is suspected of ordering the killing of photographer Jose Luis Cabezas, who was kidnapped, shot and set on fire Jan. 25.

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“Imagine if the president of the United States received Al Capone, who hadn’t been charged with anything but the entire nation knew who he was,” lawmaker Patricia Bullrich said. “I can’t imagine it.”

The rhetoric is partly election-year politics. But it seems clear that Yabran epitomizes the impunity of the powerful to many Argentines. Across this capital Tuesday, drivers honked horns in a deafening protest in solidarity with journalists, who have suffered threats while covering the case.

When the silver-haired magnate left the palace, photographers chased his maroon sedan through traffic as protesters shouted insults and shattered the rear window. Covering the story has stirred emotions, said photographer Daniel Darras, who worked with Cabezas at Noticias magazine.

“I don’t know for a fact that [Yabran] ordered the murder,” Darras said after he caught his breath. “But there are serious suspicions that he did it. . . . We are using cameras to fight against guns.”

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During a visit to New York on Tuesday, Menem expressed disgust at the attack on Yabran’s car. “If these outlaws are the people who want to enter the government via the democratic process, God help Argentina,” he told reporters.

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Yabran has been on the defensive since 1995, when then-Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo accused him of heading a crime gang. Yabran calls himself a victim of a “campaign of defamation” by Cavallo, who was fired last year and is running for Congress.

During his audience with the Cabinet chief, Yabran discussed the damage to his businesses, according to a prepared statement. “We did not discuss questions that are being handled by the justice system,” Yabran said through a spokesman.

A judge questioned Yabran and his reputed security chief last month after phone records turned up multiple calls between the accused gunman and Yabran employees, including a call at the approximate time of the slaying.

Noticias has published exposes on Yabran; Cabezas was the first photographer to take a photo of the reclusive magnate.


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