A Region Entangled in Webs of Deceit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's like the Kennedy assassination: Everyone in Rio Tercero remembers that apocalyptic November morning six years ago.

At 8:57 a.m. on Nov. 3, 1995, the townspeople discovered that they live in a world where conspiracy theories resemble common sense. A world where everything seems orchestrated by puppeteers and only fools believe in coincidence.

For centuries, Latin America's epic injustices have made for sad history and great literature. The past decade brought big changes as many nations tried to strengthen their democracies and modernize their economies.

But Latin American society remains profoundly unjust. And that makes the region's reality melodramatic, fantastic, the stuff of fiction: Gabriel Garcia Marquez meets Raymond Chandler meets "Blade Runner." You find labyrinths of scandal wherever you go.

Even in Rio Tercero--with its population of about 50,000, the well-kept streets and cafes, the mist shrouding vast pastures on the edge of town.

On that November morning, Rio Tercero was transformed into a war zone. Explosions erupted at the government munitions factory. Artillery shells and shrapnel rained from the sky. Houses crumbled, trees disintegrated. Columns of smoke darkened streets filled with the dead and wounded and hysterical survivors fleeing on foot and in vehicles.

The blasts went on for hours, killing seven people, wounding 300, destroying neighborhoods. Enough munitions were consumed to supply three days of combat in World War II.

The authorities said it was an accident. Many traumatized residents refused to believe it. They became convinced that the disaster at the arms plant, Fabricaciones Militares, was the work of scheming, malevolent rulers.

Those suspicions seem increasingly plausible: Former Argentine President Carlos Menem, his former defense minister, army chief and other top officials were charged recently in an arms-trafficking scandal in which the factory played a key role.

The devastation here was so bad, according to investigators, because the plant was being used to stockpile thousands of tons of armaments that the Argentine government was allegedly smuggling to Croatia and Ecuador. Investigators are examining allegations that the explosions were part of a cover-up of an operation that lasted from 1991 to 1995.

The arms scandal has grown into a classic Latin American web of mystery. It has all the elements: Jet-set gunrunners. Alleged CIA involvement. The suspicious deaths of a general, killed in a helicopter crash, and of a key witness, a right-handed navy captain who supposedly shot himself in the left side of the head.

A crusade by lawyer Ana Gritti, whose husband died as a consequence of the blasts, has contributed evidence to the arms investigation and a criminal-negligence case against former factory directors. Although her suspicions about the explosions haven't been proved, Gritti feels vindicated by the arrests of Menem and others in the smuggling case.

"The idea that the maximum leaders of the government were involved in arms trafficking is the biggest scandal you can imagine," Gritti said. "It turns out I wasn't so crazy. They were just a big mafia."

Mafia. Disgusted Argentines use the term as streetwise shorthand for a cultural malady. Politicians are a mafia, Argentines say. The police protect crooks and gun down bystanders--just another mafia. So are the gangs of cabdrivers who stick up passengers, the soccer hooligans who extort players and serve in political goon squads. Not to mention the business elite, foreign and domestic.

Mafia is a Sicilian word, but you hear it all over Latin America. In Peru, former spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos allegedly led a "mafia" that stole billions. In Colombia, piratical guerrillas and death squads make money off the drug trade. Mexicans are recovering from 71 years under the oppressive Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. During the bedlam in Tijuana after a gunman assassinated PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994, tearful witnesses shouted, "It's a mafia!"

It's about more than corruption. It's fear that your life is being manipulated. As Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a Mexican novelist, once wrote, "A paranoid Mexican is someone who is sure he is being followed . . . and he is right."

Free-Market Gospel Proved Disillusioning

This feeling unites millions of Latin Americans. Rightly or wrongly, they see themselves as victims of thieving leaders and arcane, remote forces: Wall Street, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the CIA and Pentagon, corporate executives in Madrid and Paris.

During the 1990s, Argentina and other fledgling democracies converted to the gospel of free markets and embarked on a spree of privatization, deregulation and modernization. There was progress. But overall, the experience was painful and disappointing.

The political institutions that oversaw economic reform remained antiquated. There was often no real justice system, no watchdog to protect the weak from a hyper-corrupt parody of capitalism.

In Argentina, Brazil, Peru and elsewhere, inflation declined but unemployment rose; roads and telephones improved, but crime and poverty persisted or got worse. The benefits were limited mostly to millionaires and the well-educated or well-connected. The advent of globalization exacerbated the cruel social contradictions, the distances between modern comfort and medieval misery.

Peru is a textbook example. With a few exceptions, foreign diplomats and business leaders defended the 10-year regime of former President Alberto Fujimori until shortly before his fall last year. Fujimori's free-market reforms generated record economic growth at first, but the euphoria and profits evaporated as spy chief Montesinos built a rapacious police state.

Let's not get carried away, the establishment Peru-watchers said for years. If you believe the stories, they chuckled, Montesinos is a comic book supervillain: a partner of the CIA, drug lords and arms traffickers. A gangster who has the country wired with surveillance technology, who controls politicians, bankers, newspapers, prostitutes, even trashy talk shows!

Tapes Confirm Some of Wildest Fears

Today, some of the wildest tales have been confirmed by Montesinos' library of secret videotapes and by revelations about his escape tunnel, retinue of starlets, hoards of Rolexes.

Argentines can identify. Although their democracy is healthier than Peru's, Argentina suffers the legacy of a 1976-83 dictatorship during which the armed forces behaved like crime syndicates. The past decade was a whirl of scandal surrounding President Menem, who was nonetheless a favorite of U.S. diplomats and international financiers because of his neoliberal economic policies.

The recurring themes of the Menem years were guns, drugs, gangsters, outrageous enrichment, unsolved political crimes.

A snapshot: In 1992, Monzer al Kassar, a notorious Syrian arms trafficker with alleged ties to terrorism, speedily received an Argentine passport after meeting with the president and, allegedly, having his passport photo taken while wearing a suit jacket lent to him by Menem. In a related case, the customs chief at the Buenos Aires airport was a reputed Syrian intelligence officer who barely spoke Spanish and fled the country after he was accused of laundering drug money with his wife, who happened to be Menem's sister-in-law and appointments secretary.

When the official crime fighters are missing in action or working for the wrong side, ordinary citizens sometimes become avenging sleuths. Like Ana Gritti.

The 56-year-old widow shields her sorrow behind determined good cheer. She sits down for an interview with well-tended blond hair, an elegant black blouse, a crimson pedicure. The angel figurines on her necklace represent her daughters, ages 9 and 12, who play on the adjoining patio.

"The fundamental thing is not to lose faith," Gritti said. "You get tired. After six years, it's hard to stay in the fight. But I'm going to keep fighting as long as I can."

Gritti and Holder Dalmasso got married in their 30s--late for small-town Argentina--and were delighted to have found each other. They liked to stay home listening to music. They splurged on vacations to Europe. And they worked hard. She had her law practice; he taught chemistry at a high school only a few hundred yards from the arms factory.

On the morning of the explosions, Gritti was at a conference in a nearby town. Her husband suffered a fatal heart attack while evacuating students from the school.

Gritti had immediate doubts about the official version. Strangely, no one died inside the plant. The first blast occurred in a loading area on a payday during breakfast break, just when most employees were on the other side of the plant in the cafeteria or picking up paychecks. Gritti also found it hard to believe that a cigarette or a spark from a forklift caused such a fast-growing blaze.

The ensuing judicial investigation converged with the arms-trafficking scandal. The factory director, an army colonel, was a suspect in both cases. Witnesses came forward to describe suspicious behavior by soldiers and strangers lurking on the factory grounds before the blasts. Factory officials broke ranks and accused their bosses.

"I don't doubt that the explosion was intentional," said Omar Gaviglio, the former supervisor of the loading area, who was lifted off his feet and hurled to the ground by the blasts. "My suspicion is that it was done in order to conceal the missing armaments."

The testimony of Gaviglio and others revealed that Rio Tercero was the hub of a scheme to smuggle 6,200 tons of cannons, mortars, machine guns, munitions and other arms to Croatia and Ecuador in violation of international treaties. (Argentina was mediating peace talks between Ecuador and Peru at the time.)

Arms from military bases all over Argentina were hurriedly stockpiled at the plant and repainted to conceal their origin before being shipped out. Factory technicians went to Croatia to instruct troops there in the assembly and use of the artillery.

"We all knew the material was going to Croatia," Gaviglio said. "It was an open secret."

Menem is accused of being the ringleader because he signed decrees authorizing arms shipments to Venezuela and Panama, allegedly to conceal the real destinations of weapons. Witnesses accuse Menem's former brother-in-law and top advisor, Emir Yoma, of being the shadow boss of the national arms agency. Yoma, a perennial target of accusations involving corruption, was jailed this spring on charges of funneling multimillion-dollar kickbacks through a front company involved in the deal.

Menem denies wrongdoing and says he is the victim of political persecution. Suspects have hinted at another defense: U.S. intelligence officials are alleged to have orchestrated the Argentine arms sales in order to balance the firepower in the war-torn former Yugoslav federation. The State Department has denied any U.S. role.

As for Gritti, she believes that the arms factory conspirators, fearful of discovery after the smuggling scandal broke in 1995, came up with a desperate plot to conceal tons of armaments and destroy the scene of the crime.

"It's very sinister, the magnitude," she said.

About 80% of the residents here think the truth will never be known, according to polls. Nonetheless, as the arms probe intensified recently, the federal prosecutor in Buenos Aires obtained the Rio Tercero file to study the connections. Gritti said she hopes the two probes will be merged.

Here in Cordoba province, the investigation into the explosions brought ambiguous results. Some technical experts agreed with the victims; others concluded that the cause was accidental. There were charges of biased forensic tests and mishandled evidence.

The factory executives face trial on charges of criminal negligence. There seems to be considerable evidence of lax safety conditions and the clandestine presence of an explosive cocktail of armaments.

"Beyond the question of accidental or intentional, if the arms deal hadn't existed, there wouldn't have been all those materials in there," said Fernando Colautti, a local journalist.

On a recent afternoon, Colautti drove slowly through the neighborhood of Las Violetas next to the factory, ground zero of the biggest story of his career. The neighborhood was working-class and quiet. The air was hot and humid, as on the day of the disaster.

Colautti rolled past a religious shrine built next to the fenced, tree-lined factory grounds. The stretch of sidewalk is known as "Miracle Lane," a tribute to the victims and an offering of thanks from the survivors.

At first glance, the landscape looked unremarkable, rows of sturdy houses on narrow lots. Then the ghosts of 1995 appeared: Shell craters. Skeletal ruins pockmarked by shrapnel. Tall weeds beneath boarded-up windows. Walls and faces scarred by powerful and mysterious forces.

"All of this," Colautti said, "was a battlefield."

Colautti, 35, has an easy small-town manner, thoughtful and quietly professional. He tries to stay objective despite the fact that he grew up here, despite the superheated political environment in which the arrest of a former president makes almost anything seem possible.

But Colautti admits it's tough. When you look into the eyes of the victims, you start to understand why they cling to their conspiracy theories.

From Rio Tercero to Rio de Janeiro, from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego, the story repeats itself. The powerful get away with pillage and murder. Crimes become a tangle of politics, fear and ambiguity. There are plenty of versions, but few facts. And even less justice.

Until the powerless get a measure of justice, they will continue to believe in plots and miracles and the limitless capacity of organized evil. And sometimes they will be right.

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Rotella is ending a five-year assignment in South America.

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