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A political era is collapsing in Argentina in a swirl of corruption cases

The case of José López epitomizes the fall of the once mighty Kirchneristas. The former minister was arrested last month trying to donate $9 million dollars to some nuns in a convent.

by Gaston Cavanagh
Jul 6 2016, 3:55pm

Screenshot vía Youtube/VICE News

The case of a former minister arrested after he tried to give some elderly nuns five bags filled with about nine million dollars worth of cash has come to symbolize the disintegration of Argentina's once mighty Kirchnerista political movement.

José López was appointed public works minister in 2003 by the then recently elected president, Néstor Kirchner. He remained in the post until Kirchner's wife, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, left office last December.

Detained last month, the former minister is now being investigated for illicit enrichment and money laundering.

This week, a judge denied López bail on the grounds that he is a clear flight risk. The judge also said that López's arrest as he disposed of wads of dollars, euros, Chinese yuans, and riyals from Qatar — along with luxury watches and a gun — suggest he may still have the economic means to finance an escape.

Former president Fernández has more direct judicial threats — she was due to appear in court in relation to corruption charges against another imprisoned associate this Wednesday. But the López case more graphically illustrates the growing sense that the political powerhouse she once led is now heading for oblivion.

"The thing with José López was a punch to the gut," the former president said this week in a long and rambling interview on Argentine TV channel C5N. "I felt indignation."

Fernández was also defiant. She called for an audit to find out where López got the money, and insisted that both she and her husband had left an unquestionably positive legacy in public infrastructure.

The first major blow to the Kirchneristas came when Fernández's chosen candidate, Daniel Scioli, lost December's presidential elections to the right-wing former mayor of Buenos Aires Mauricio Macri.

Related: Argentina's Ex-President Wants Everyone to Know She's Not Scared of Corruption Probes

Even so, it wasn't until the circle of judicial investigations into alleged corruption of former high officials began to close, that observers began to discard the idea that Kirchnerismo was so powerful it would be able to stage a comeback in the next elections in 2019.

And none of these cases have proved quite so hard to handle as the accounts of López's apparently desperate efforts to get rid of millions of dollars by chucking them over the walls of the Monasterio Nuestra Señora del Rosario de Fátima in Buenos Aires.

The convent is home to three aging nuns, one of whom, Inés, told the TV program Periodismo Para Todos that she opened the door to López when he started banging on it at 4am.

She said that when he said he had something to donate she assumed it was food and sent him to the kitchen. She recalled that upon finding out that it was money, and hearing him say it was stolen, the mother superior said "if it's stolen we don't want it."

The impact of the López case has also been driven home by the pictures of him being shunted between court hearings looking rather bemused and dressed in a helmet and bullet proof vest. The protective clothing suggests he could be a target for having accumulated damaging information about other former officials during his years of public service, as well as cash.

"This is a complicated case for the Argentine state," said federal investigator Federico Delgado, who has been probing López for alleged illicit enrichment since 2009. "It's complicated because there was a person accumulating a lot of money and the judicial system didn't find out about it for eight years, until that person was throwing it into a convent."

Related: Possibly corrupt official caught throwing millions in cash over a monastery wall in Argentina

While the López case is the most eye catching, the biggest direct threat to former president Fernández comes from the investigation into alleged corruption scams involving construction magnet Lázaro Báez — the case promoting Fernández's call to court on Wednesday.

Báez's set up a construction company called Austral Construcciones just ten days after Néstor Kirchner became president in 2003. The company soon began receiving multiple contracts from the public works ministry under López.

Today Báez is in prison, accused of illegally taking 55 million euros out of the country via a complex network of companies. He is said to also have 60 million dollars worth of properties.

Other associates also falling on tough judicial times include former transport minister, Ricardo Jaime, who has already pleaded guilty to charges of receiving bribes. The leader of the Tupac Amaru neighborhood organization, Milagro Sala, is in prison for allegedly pocketing millions earmarked for social housing.

And, last week, police arrested Estebán Pérez Corradi, the man accused of ordering the murder of three businessmen in 2008 to cover up a state-sponsored ephedrine trafficking ring. Fernández de Kirchner's chief of staff, Aníbal Fernández, has repeatedly been accused of involvement in the ring.

In the meantime, another judge has started an investigation into accounts of money laundering in the campaign that got Fernández elected president for the first time in 2007. And all the while the party bloc in congress is bleeding members to other parties.

"Kirchnerismo, as such, is over," one former member of Fernández's cabinet told VICE News, requesting his name not be printed. "It is the end of a cycle."

Related: These Fugitives Were Caught In Argentina — But We Still Don't Know How They Escaped

Follow Gastón Cavanagh on Twitter: @gastoncavanagh