Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: Cocaine Smuggling Scandal Triggers Purge of Air Force Chiefs

Marcela Valente

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 18 2005 (IPS) - Argentine President Néstor Kirchner named a new air force chief Friday, Brigadier General Eduardo Schiaffino, as a result of a drug trafficking scandal that has thrown into question the country’s air police, who answer to the air force.

The government took direct control of the national air police, which have been in charge of security in Argentina’s airports since 1977, on Tuesday, after the local press reported that 60 kgs of cocaine were found in suitcases on a passenger flight to Madrid.

Although the cocaine was actually discovered by police in Spain last September, the story did not emerge until this week.

Late Thursday, Kirchner decided that Brigadier General Carlos Rohde would be forced to retire, and on Friday his replacement was announced.

But since Schiaffino, until today the air force head of the southern region of Patagonia, was only promoted to brigadier general last year, 17 officers who outrank him will be pushed into retirement.

The purge of the air force is not the first of its kind. Shortly after taking office in May 2003, Kirchner named officers who he personally trusted as the commanders of the three armed forces, forcing into retirement 20 army generals, 13 navy admirals and 12 air force brigadier generals.

Kirchner reached the decision to replace Rohde because despite the fact that legal charges were brought in the cocaine smuggling case in October, the head of the air force failed to inform Defence Minister Pampuro or the president himself.

On Sep. 16, 2004, four suitcases carrying cocaine were sent to Spain on a Southern Winds airline flight from the international Ezeiza airport in Buenos Aires.

A fundamental precept of air security was violated at that time: accepting unaccompanied baggage on a passenger flight.

The Spanish police searched the suitcases when no one picked them up from the baggage claim belt in the Madrid airport, Barajas.

Air force officer Alberto Beltrame, the head of the air police in Ezeiza at the time of the incident, was sacked on Feb. 11.

Beltrame’s son, Walter Beltrame, is one of the main suspects in the investigation into the drug trafficking incident, which occurred when he was working for Southern Winds, an Argentine airline. After spending two months as a fugitive from justice, he finally turned himself in on Thursday.

Two other Southern Winds employees have also been put under arrest.

In its defence, the air police said that each airline hires its own security company, and that its responsibility is limited to occasional surprise inspections on flights.

The air police has a sophisticated surveillance system installed by Israeli experts in the Ezeiza airport, with 160 strategically located video cameras, similar to the technology used in Israel’s Ben Gurion airport.

Nevertheless, the air police claim the airport security tapes are not held for more than one month, after which they are recycled, which means there is no tape showing the suitcases being checked in with the airline and passing through at least two baggage scanners before being loaded onto the plane.

On Wednesday, President Néstor Kirchner ordered Defence Minister José Pampuro to take direct control of the air police, dismiss air police chief Horacio Giaisgischia, and launch an in-depth internal investigation to determine whether air police officials were involved in the smuggling.

Pampuro replaced the head of the air police with Deputy Defence Minister Jaime Garreta, the first civilian to hold the post.

The director-general of the customs service, Ricardo Etchegaray, confirmed that the probe was seeking to determine whether Beltrame was involved in the drug smuggling incident for which his son is under arrest.

“This scandal, like many others in which members of the military are implicated in the trafficking of arms, drugs and other common crimes, shows that the myth that military personnel are more honest than the police is false,” Gustavo Palmieri, an expert on security matters with the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), a local human rights group, told IPS.

Palmieri was referring to a series of earlier scandals: the participation by military officers in illegal arms sales to Ecuador and Croatia in the 1990s; a 1995 intentional explosion in a weapons factory in the central Argentine province of Cordoba; and recent incidents of corruption in the administration of expenses involving the presidential jet and security detail.

Argentina’s Defence Law stipulates that the armed forces are to play no role in internal security matters, and that their duty is limited to protecting the country from external threats, Palmieri pointed out.

However, military influence in domestic security did not completely disappear after the 1976-1983 dictatorship.

The air police itself was created by former dictator Jorge Rafael Videla. This and other vestiges of military influence “create a serious lack of coordination between the security forces that answer to the Interior Ministry, and the ones that still answer to the armed forces, and thus the Defence Ministry – like the air police,” he said.

“In some areas, the different security forces compete for jurisdiction, and in others, vacuums are created, where no one is in control,” said Palmieri.

Elsa Bruzzone, a specialist in defence and geopolitical questions at CEMIDA, a pro-democracy group of retired members of the military, told IPS that the air force should not be responsible for airport security nor provide services like giving the weather report or the official time. “These are holdovers from another era,” she argued.

In Bruzzone’s view, there is no doubt that the air police were involved in the drug smuggling incident.

She said that can partly be blamed on “the impunity” enjoyed by the military since the dictatorship, despite the gross human rights violations they committed, as well as common crimes like the theft of the property of thousands of victims of forced disappearance.

“These scandals are a consequence of the tremendous moral degradation that occurred in the armed forces during the de facto regime,” she maintained.

Bruzzone also said the scandal demonstrated the problems with the U.S. government’s aim to eliminate the line between security and defence and get the region’s armed forces involved in fighting terrorism, drug trafficking, contraband and the trafficking of persons.

The suggestion drew heavy resistance by many South American officials at the sixth hemispheric conference of defence ministers, which was held in Quito, Ecuador in November 2004.

Several ministers, led by Argentine Defence Minister Pampuro, rejected U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s recommendation that the military be given a role in domestic law enforcement, a suggestion that was backed by the Colombian delegation.

In fact, the armed forces are gradually being pulled out of areas that were previously under their control in Argentina, which has a long history of military regimes.

Kirchner named a civilian pilot to fly the presidential jet, and put presidential security spending under the control of the General Secretariat to the Presidency.

These steps were taken after overcharging was discovered in the presidential security detail, and as a result of repeated presidential security slip-ups as well as malfunctioning by the presidential jet, which put Kirchner at risk on more than one occasion.

Some analysts now point to the government’s decision to name a civilian to head the air police as another step in the process of removing the armed forces from certain functions.

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