Politics

Fernández’s judicial reform led by VP’s former rivals

5th March 2020

By Luciana Bertoia

Fernández’s judicial reform led by VP’s former rivals

Though the bill to legalize abortion took the headline, President Alberto Fernández’s announcement of a judicial reform is also silently shaking Argentina’s political landscape.

During the presidential campaign, Fernández took aim in particular against the country’s federal criminal courts, whose work in recent years was focused on investigating President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and his former officials.

His reform, however, is being drafted by officials that were strong rivals of the Kirchners, including an official that left the country in 2005 after a fight with intelligence agencies and a prosecutor whose ousting was pushed forward after investigating alleged Kirchnerite-era corruption in 2014.

</p> <h2><strong>The Twilight of the Courthouse</strong></h2> <p>In his State of the Union address, President Fernández finally announced that he would send Congress a bill to reform both the federal criminal justice system and the administrative, civil and commercial justice systems.</p> <p>The courts that attract the most attention are the criminal ones, as they <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2019/09/05/judges-mauricio-macri-administration-kirchnerite-corruption-cristina-kirchner-argentina-fernandez-election-courts">hear corruption cases against government officials</a>, as well as other federal crimes such as crimes against humanity, human trafficking and drug trafficking. Since their creation in the early 1990s, the Comodoro Py Avenue courthouse has been a powerhouse. It has also been marred in scandals, accused of steering investigations according to which group is holding to power.</p> <p>Shortly after the creation of these courts, Domingo Cavallo, former economy minister of Carlos Menem, reported that Interior Minister Carlos Corach had written down on a napkin how many federal criminal judges were loyal to him – one of the men they were tasked with investigating.</p> <p>Since then, those twelve federal judges have been accused of promoting or shelving sensitive investigations against current or former officials according to political and personal convenience – who else has power, who they want to target and who they don’t. This turned them into a powerful political actor of their own, with connections to security forces and intelligence agents, as well as showing wealth that was often hard to justify.</p> <p>Today, the twelve judges dealing with federal corruption are down to ten, after the death of Claudio Bonadio and the resignation of Sergio Torres, who moved to the Buenos Aires Province Supreme Court of Justice.</p> <p>Fernández wants to dilute the power of the federal criminal judges by merging them with 30 more courts that are currently tasked with investigating common crimes in the city of Buenos Aires. At this point, it is not yet clear how far the merger will go, but the president said he wants to end the “oligopoly” of the Comodoro Py federal criminal courthouse.</p> <h2><strong>More than just Comodoro Py</strong></h2> <p>After Fernández&#8217;s announcement, judges and officials working in those federal courts said they did not know the scope of the reform, although many expressed doubts. &#8220;I don&#8217;t understand why they are going to appoint more judges if they are also going to implement an accusatory system in which the investigations are now led by prosecutors,&#8221; a federal prosecutor said.</p> <p>A new criminal procedure code was approved in 2014, which establishes an accusatory system to conduct judicial investigations – similar to the in place in the United States, where judges do not lead the procedures. But the implementation of the new code was postponed by Mauricio Macri when he came to office. To move forward with the new system, President Fernández will have to appoint a new attorney general. The government has nominated Daniel Rafecas, one of ten investigative judges working in the Comodoro Py courthouse. Rafecas, one of the promoters of investigations for crimes against humanity in the country, successfully passed the first stage of the nomination, but the Executive has not yet sent his sheet to the Senate.</p> <p>In addition, the President announced that he will create a council of notables to discuss reforms in the <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2019/04/11/casa-rosada-fears-peronist-majority-is-emerging-in-supreme-court">Supreme Court</a> and the Magistrates Council, the body responsible for the selection and removal of judges. Fernández said he wanted to modernize the Criminal Code, which has been in force since 1921, and lay the groundwork for the implementation of jury trials.</p> <p>The reform is likely to increase the courts&#8217; tension with the Fernández government, which is also pushing a bill to reduce their pensions.  The absence of three Supreme Court members from the State of the Union address is a sign of that undergoing controversy.</p> <h2><strong>Béliz, the mastermind</strong></h2> <p>Fernández is working personally on the bill, but he is doing so together with two of his most <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2019/12/12/an-in-depth-look-at-alberto-fernandezs-cabinet">prominent advisors</a>: Secretary of Strategic Affairs Gustavo Béliz and legal and technical secretary Vilma Ibarra. In a less noticeable role, prosecutor José María Campagnoli is also aiding Béliz. The three of them are former rivals of the Kirchners, whose careers are worth looking into to understand their role.</p> <p>Béliz was a young but prominent politician during the 1990s, a key part of conservative Peronist Carlos Menem’s government, some of whose most famous speeches Béliz <a href="https://www.lanacion.com.ar/politica/beliz-regresara-al-gobierno-a-10-anos-de-abandonar-a-menem-nid497695">authored</a>. But Béliz and Menem parted ways as the latter was laying the groundwork for his 1994 constitutional reform. Béliz denounced cases of corruption and abuse of power, and joined Menem’s former powerful economy minister Domingo Cavallo as former officials who had turned into critics. President Alberto Fernández briefly worked with Béliz and Cavallo before <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2019/05/23/who-is-alberto-fernandez">joining Néstor Kirchner</a> as his campaign chief in 2002, and Béliz joined Kirchner’s cabinet after his presidential win in 2003.</p> <p>Béliz is said to be the real mastermind of the judicial reform. All the sources consulted agree that the project on which President Fernández is working is a version of the one promoted by Béliz during the first years of Néstor Kirchner&#8217;s government, which failed after pushback from the Kirchners.</p> <p>At the time, Béliz was planning to reduce the power of the Comodoro Py courts, but met resistance from the director of operations of the Secretariat of Intelligence (SI), Antonio &#8220;Jaime&#8221; Stiuso, then an ally of Kirchner. Béliz denounced Stiuso and showed his picture on a TV talkshow. It was Alberto Fernández, then chief of staff, who asked him to resign and Béliz ended up leaving for the United States to work at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), a place he aspires to return to.</p> <p>The figure of Béliz was somewhat rehabilitated at the end of Fernández de Kirchner&#8217;s mandate, after the then president confronted Stiuso and the country’s intelligence apparatus, which <a href="https://gettheessential.com/politics/2020/01/16/nisman-death-more-questions-than-answers-murder-suicide-amia-prosecutor">accused her</a> of covering up the 1994 bombing of the Amia Jewish center due to her promotion of a Memorandum of Understanding with Iran to interrogate the suspects.</p> <h2><strong>Kirchnerite critics</strong></h2> <p>Béliz is not the only Kirchnerite critic working on the project. Multiple <a href="https://www.infobae.com/politica/2020/01/17/el-fiscal-campagnoli-asesora-en-silencio-a-gustavo-beliz-en-la-redaccion-de-un-proyecto-de-reforma-judicial/">media</a> reported that Béliz summoned prosecutor José María Campagnoli, one of the emblems of the opposition to Fernández de Kirchner, to work on the reform.</p> <p>An impeachment against Campagnoli was promoted after his investigations on public works tycoon and Néstor Kirchner friend Lázaro Báez in 2014, during Fernández de Kirchner’s last term in charge, prompting successive mobilizations denouncing the then president for pulling the strings to remove him. Béliz and Campagnoli have a long-term relationship and the son of the secretary of Strategic Affairs works with Campagnoli at his prosecutor’s office.</p> <p>Also crucial is the role of Vilma Ibarra, a progressive lawyer known for authoring the same-sex marriage bill, which Fernández de Kirchner’s government promoted and helped pass in 2010. Despite that agreement, the relationship between Ibarra and the then president was not the best, with Ibarra publishing a book called “Cristina versus Cristina” in 2015, in which she exposed her contradictions.</p> <p>Although Fernández de Kirchner does not speak with Vilma Ibarra, she does have a good relationship with her brother, former Buenos Aires mayor Aníbal Ibarra, whom she asked to represent her in the legal case of the Memorandum with Iran.</p> <h2><strong>Intelligence ties</strong></h2> <p>President Fernández today published a <a href="https://www.boletinoficial.gob.ar/detalleAviso/primera/226271/20200305">decree to modify the intelligence law</a> (2001 &#8211; 2015) and prevent members of the Federal Intelligence Agency (AFI) from participating in judicial investigations.</p> <p>In January, Cristina Caamaño, who currently chairs the AFI, issued a resolution along the same lines. In June last year, the Supreme Court had ordered the judges to restrict the participation of spies in wiretapping to a minimum after a series of leaks.</p> <p>Fernández intends to break with the action of spies in the justice system, which began with the investigation of the 1994 AMIA bombing and was consolidated after Kirchner became president. In a recent <a href="https://www.elcohetealaluna.com/el-divorcio-de-justicia-e-inteligencia/">interview</a> with journalist Horacio Verbitsky, Fernández said Kirchner also began to rely on the Intelligence Secretariat when he asked them to investigate a series of extortive kidnappings that were taking place during the early days of his presidency.</p> <p>Caamaño, who will oversee Argentina’s spies until June 21, is working on a reform bill with a group of jurists and academics to rethink the practices and mission of the intelligence agency.</p> <p>

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Luciana Bertoia

Luciana Bertoia is a journalist specialized in judicial, political and human rights issues. She has published in Ámbito Financiero, Página/12, the Buenos Aires Herald and the International Justice Tribune.