Monday, May 27, 2024

ARGENTINA | 15-05-2024 15:35

Raids on 30 locations as investigation into extortion case continues

Raids on more than 30 locations as investigation into extortion allegations continues; Social and picket group leaders accused of having forced members to attend marches in return for state aid.

Around 30 raids were conducted on Monday within an investigation into possible extortion by several leaders from different social organisations.

It follows a series of claims by government officials that leaders from civil society and picket groups have forced demonstrators to attend protests in order to bolster the number of demonstrators.

Searches were also conducted at several soup kitchens this week, as well as private homes.

The operation was requested by prosecutor Gerardo Pollicita, who received a report from Patricia Bullrich’s Security Ministry detailing hundreds of calls to the #134 telephone hotline opened by President Javier Milei’s government to denounce wrongdoing.

A total of 27 individuals, all linked to civil society groups, have been placed under investigation. Among them are Jeremías Cantero, Elizabeth del Carmen Palma, Gianna Puppo and María Dotti (all of them from Partido Obrero), as well as other figures from Barrios de Pie and other social organisations. 

Pollicita also requested the arrest of those placed under investigation, but the move was not granted by Federal Judge Sebastián Casanello. An intervention by the Federal Court of Appeals authorised the searches as an evidentiary measure.

According to the prosecutor, there were three types of extortion based on the distribution of funds from government welfare programmes. One consisted of charging a “fee” from members used as a contribution for soup kitchens, forcing individuals to sell food received from the state, and obliging members to attend demonstrations.

As a control method, attendance was taken at marches, protesters were punished with “fines” if they did not attend marches or else they were banned from receiving food at soup kitchens, according to the prosecutor.

The prosecution has allegedly obtained messages in which leaders or delegates detail the sanctions to be applied to members. 

The individuals under investigation are accused of a host of offences, including extortion, coercive threats and fraudulent administration to the detriment of the public administration.

“Those charged, by violating the duties in their care, seriously harmed the interests of those entrusted to them, since the public funds granted in the form of subsidies and food, and the goods which the State distributed to soup kitchens, had been allocated in order for them to be used for social aid of those in need and not for the profit which those charged twisted unlawfully,” reads the indictment.

In comments to the press, Bullrich hailed the “political decision to put an end to these false social leaders, who are not very social at all, with organisations that subject the people they claim to lead.”

Several of the organisations linked to the indictment reported threats and intimidation during this week’s raids. At a press conference outside the National Congress building this week, they said they were the victims of “political persecution.”

“They are liars, [they are] vindictive and we will fight this,” warned Polo Obrero picket leader Eduardo Belliboni, who denied the allegations against him.

At an impromptu press conference outside the National Congress building this week, some of the accused claimed the Milei government was submitting them to “political persecution.”

“They are cleaning the ground for drug-dealing networks. Today they intimidated us once again, they broke down our doors, threatened our families, but we social organisations have learned. We’ll give our lives, they won’t conquer us or break us, we will be out there, organised, fighting, defending our families,” said Alejandro ‘Peluca’ Gramajo, general secretary of the Unión de Trabajadores de la Economía Popular (UTEP).

Lawyers for the accused said that the searches were “irregular” and carried out “in the presence of children and with no [third-party] witnesses.”

“There were threats and intimidation when there was no resistance,” they added.


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