Ex-Argentine President Arrested on Trafficking Charges

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former Argentine President Carlos Menem, a flamboyant political boss who presided over a decade of economic transformation and scandals, was arrested Thursday on charges of masterminding an international arms-trafficking scheme while in office.

Authorities took Menem into custody shortly after he entered a courthouse Thursday morning to testify about his role in the alleged smuggling of 6,500 tons of arms and ammunition to Croatia and Ecuador from 1991 to 1995. Menem, 70, is the first elected Argentine president, current or former, to be arrested under a democratic government.

Upon arriving to face questioning by an investigative magistrate, the short, dapper son of Syrian immigrants struggled up the courthouse steps through a mob of photographers and police. He held hands with his wife, a 35-year-old former Miss Universe whom he married in a hasty ceremony last month, and put on a brave front despite the widespread sense that his arrest was imminent.

"I trust in the justice system," said the weary-faced Menem. "I'm very calm."

Once inside, Menem professed innocence and declined to answer questions posed by federal magistrate Jorge Urso, according to a defense lawyer. Menem was placed under house arrest because of his age, according to the lawyer, and a helicopter transported him to a suburban estate that will serve as a gilded jail surrounded by riot police.

The judge's decision was expected; in recent weeks he has jailed Menem's former defense minister, a former army chief and other ex-aides in the labyrinthine case. Nonetheless, the spectacular fall of Menem, an internationally known power broker who counts former President George Bush among his friends, brought Argentina to a stop Thursday.

President Fernando de la Rua said the arrest shows that Argentina's much-maligned justice system functions independently.

"Nobody should imagine this will bring institutional or political problems," said De la Rua, whose own tenure has been dogged by crisis.

Menem reshaped Argentina from 1989 to 1999. He became a favorite of U.S. diplomats and international financiers, orchestrating aggressive free-market reforms that wiped out hyperinflation and produced growth and modernization. He scaled down the armed forces, reducing a longtime threat to democracy. His turbulent private life and flashy tastes--Ferraris, starlets and champagne--were a source of prime-time entertainment.

But the Menem years had a dark side: a litany of scandals involving relatives, allies and government officials who were investigated or prosecuted for alleged ties to arms and drugs trafficking, illicit enrichment, an anti-Semitic bombing by Middle Eastern terrorists and mysterious Mafia-style crimes.

As Argentina sank recently into a malaise caused by unemployment, crime and foreign debt, Menem's ostentatious lifestyle and increasingly dubious legacy made him a target of public anger. He remained president of the Peronist party and vowed to run for a third term, but his power evaporated.

His fall recalls those of two other paradigmatic Latin American leaders of the 1990s, now-disgraced former presidents Alberto Fujimori of Peru and Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico. Like those men, Menem oversaw historic changes that brought economic and diplomatic globalization to his country. But his allegedly undemocratic methods recalled the region's political strongmen of yore, according to critics.

As in Mexico and Peru, the potential benefits of economic reform here have been stifled by weak institutions and pervasive corruption. Menem's critics say he had eluded prosecution because he controlled the courts.

In fact, the arms case languished for about five years. This year, an appellate court ordered the magistrate to intensify the investigation and focus on the former executive branch.

Urso's first major capture came last month: Emir Yoma, Menem's former brother-in-law and top advisor, who has been accused of a variety of shady dealings.

Yoma allegedly received lucrative kickbacks for organizing secret sales by the government's weapons manufacturing company of rifles, cannons, mortars and ammunition to Croatia in defiance of an international arms embargo during a war in the Balkan nation. Argentine peacekeeping troops stationed in the former Yugoslav federation came across the weapons and alerted authorities.

The conspirators also allegedly sold old and defective weapons to Ecuador in 1995--a serious accusation because Argentina was a mediator in Ecuador's border conflict with Peru at the time.

Investigators say a confession by the former director of the state arms company and other evidence points to Menem as the ringleader. He signed presidential decrees ordering arms sales to Venezuela and Panama that allegedly served to disguise the scheme, they say.

Menem responds that he is being charged merely because he was the head of state at the time.

"Everything was legal," Menem said Wednesday on the eve of his arrest. "Absolutely nothing against the law. And what's more, all the mechanisms of control of the state were involved to determine that the decrees were correct and that I was authorized to sign them."

Menem told reporters that he is being persecuted politically, and he denied allegations that he planned to flee the country. He quoted the lyrics of a tango and the words of Simon Bolivar, the hero of Latin America's fight for independence, saying he would accept misfortune "in chains, but in my homeland."

Urso moved up the date of Menem's questioning, which was originally scheduled for July 13, after the former president said he wanted to honeymoon in Syria with his new wife, Chilean television personality Cecilia Bolocco. Syria has no extradition agreement with Argentina. A Menem relative and former customs chief at the Buenos Aires airport took refuge in Syria after being charged in a drug-related money-laundering case in the early 1990s.

If convicted, Menem could face five to 10 years in prison. He has hinted at a defense argument that could prove diplomatically delicate and has been advanced by others, including Lt. Gen. Martin Balza, the imprisoned former army chief. Balza says he believes that U.S. intelligence agencies were aware of or involved in the secret shipment of arms to Croatia.

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