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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

A Region Entangled in Webs of Deceit

Despite recent progress, millions of Latin Americans see themselves as victims of forces beyond their control. Often, they are.

July 11, 2001|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RIO TERCERO, Argentina — 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.

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