A series of police raids in a strategically located town in Argentina seeking evidence of ties between drug traffickers and officials from the governing party shows the country's judiciary could be growing in independence, but this new autonomy could face resistance.
Argentine Federal Police on May 8 executed search warrants on the homes and offices of top municipal officials of the city of Paraná, the capital of the northeastern province of Entre Ríos, a key corridor for drugs entering Argentina from Paraguay.
According to local media accounts, the raids were seeking evidence of drug trafficking-related corruption on the part of local officials, including Mayor Sergio Varisco, who belongs to Argentina President Mauricio Macri's political party, known as Cambiemos.
In particular, authorities seem to be zeroing in on Varisco's connection to Daniel "Tavi" Celis, a local businessman currently imprisoned on assault charges whom authorities accuse of involvment in large-scale drug trafficking.
A local journalist had reportedly alleged links between the local government and drug trafficking groups in 2015, when Varisco became mayor of Paraná. In 2016, after being jailed for the assault, Celis published a message on Facebook describing himself as a "political prisoner" and threatening to tell "the whole truth about how [Varisco] came to be mayor of the city."
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The investigation deepened in May 2017, when authorities intercepted a drug-laden airplane and arrested two men close to Celis, including his brother, Miguel Ángel "Titi" Celis. In a search of Miguel Ángel's home, authorities reportedly found a piece of paper with the names of Varisco and other officials listed next to different amounts of money.
Over the next several months, secretly recorded conversations emerged suggesting Celis had supported Varisco's 2015 bid for the mayorship and had contributed 100,000 Argentine pesos (roughly $4,400) to his campaign.
The mayor and other officials who are being investigated have denied any wrongdoing. Varisco even seemed to praise the probe into his alleged criminal ties, saying that it shows that "there is an independent judicial branch and that there is no interference from the political branch."
InSight Crime Analysis
The long-running investigation inching toward Varisco (who has not been formally charged with any crime) is a sign that Argentina's judiciary is developing the independence to go after powerful figures associated with the governing party. But in other cases in Latin America, increasing judicial independence has been met with strong pushback from entrenched elites.
To be sure, judicial authorities have also aggressively targeted opposition politicians suspected of drug trade-related corruption. But going after all sides risks uniting them. As has occurred in several recent instances in Central America, such an alliance could put up significant political resistance to well-intentioned efforts to root out graft.
The scandal swirling around a member of Macri's Cambiemos party could also spur the administration to pressure party colleagues to keep their noses clean, in order to reap the political rewards of Macri's much-trumpeted commitment to fighting graft while avoiding embarrassing insinuation of hypocrisy.