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12/01/2007 | Drugs played role in Isabelita's fall (First published April 1, 2002)

Martin Edwin Andersen

Evidence suggests that Isabel Peron's alleged ties to drug traffickers gave Argentine military leaders the upper hand they needed to seize power in 1976

 

Drug trafficking and use of narcotics in Argentina's Casa Rosada presidential palace may have been contributing factors in the March 24, 1976, military coup that toppled then-president Isabel Peron, according to a senior U.S. law-enforcement agent who served in Buenos Aires during most of the 1970s.

The former FBI legal attache, who conducted police and intelligence liaison work throughout southern South America, said that the Argentine Federal Police, an institution then under control of the generals, tape-recorded conversations between "Isabelita," the widow of Argentine strongman Juan Peron, and an intimate friend, detailing the drug use, at a time when the military was preparing its assault on power. The use of tape recordings by the Argentine military, police and intelligence services has been prevalent in recent history, with extortion playing a role in gaining and holding power in Buenos Aires.

According to the late Robert W. Scherrer, Isabel, who was Peron's third wife and successor to the presidency following his death in 1974, and Raul Lastiri, a former doorman who briefly served as Argentine provisional president in 1973, shortly before the Peron-Peron ticket swept into office, joked during the police-monitored calls about using cocaine. "The Federal Police had taped conversations of them talking about it by telephone," Scherrer said.

Scherrer, who died in 1994, was celebrated in both law-enforcement and human-rights circles. His detective work uncovered that the Chilean dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet had masterminded the September 1976 car-bomb assassination of a former Chilean foreign minister -- with ties to Cuban intelligence -- and his American assistant barely a mile from the White House. As the person tasked by then U.S. Ambassador Robert Hill to monitor regional terrorist activities and the vicious repression of these and other dissidents being undertaken by the region's military regimes, Scherrer knew numerous police, military and intelligence chiefs intimately.

By the time she was overthrown in a seemingly bloodless coup, Isabel Peron, a one-time cabaret dancer who met Juan Peron in 1955 while he was in exile in Panama, presided over an increasingly violent and dispirited country. Although the left-wing terrorists plaguing the country remained a threat that could have been dealt with by the police (despite the overheated rhetoric of the generals, who pressed for a military role in internal security), they were capable of conducting scores of killings. These included several high-profile assassinations, most of which targeted military officers and the police.

At the same time, death squads organized by Isabel Peron's Rasputin-like former social-welfare minister, Jose Lopez Rega (Lastiri's father-in-law and a devotee of the Santeria cult), rampaged throughout the country, occasionally killing guerrilla suspects, but more often murdering nonviolent opponents of the Peron government. A bout of Weimar-like hyperinflation, union thuggery and rampant corruption reaching into Peron's inner circle also contributed to her downfall.

Scherrer, who conducted a series of written and oral interviews with this reporter in 1987, said that Lopez Rega frequently used the guerrilla threat as an excuse to murder people who got in the way of his drug and gun trafficking. "It was well-known that Lopez Rega and the thugs who worked for him were conducting extensive extortion and drug operations," Scherrer said. "When the target of the extortion or the drug trafficker refused to pay off, he was eliminated by the Social Welfare Ministry people and the assassination attributed to the [guerrillas]."

Isabel Peron's 1975 appointment of retired brigadier Raul Lacabanne as a military overseer of Argentina's second-most-important province helped consolidate the hold the drug traffickers had there, Scherrer said. (A silly turf war between Lacabanne's provincial police and the Federal Police headquartered in Buenos Aires had contributed to the 1975 abduction and murder by left-wing guerrillas of the U.S. honorary counsel in Cordoba, John Patrick Egan, he added.) Lacabanne's associates, Scherrer said, "were deeply involved and conspired with major narcotics traffickers in the Cordoba area who paid off Lacabanne's people for protection."

One of these was Francois Chiappe, a major player in the fabled French Connection heroin-trafficking ring, who was wanted in the United States. Mistakenly freed during a tumultuous release of political prisoners, including jailed terrorists, that accompanied the military's retreat from power and Peronism's entree into the Casa Rosada presidential palace, Chiappe had become a local potentate with serious sway over local law enforcement.

It wasn't until after the March 1976 coup that the U.S. Embassy could get the Argentines to move against Chiappe, something that also had been a U.S. priority during the presidency of Isabel Peron. "I was present at a meeting in [Gen.] Harguindeguy's office at the Ministry of Interior," Scherrer recalled, "accompanied by Ambassador Robert C. Hill, Deputy Chief of Mission Max Chaplin and the Agent in Charge of the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency] in Buenos Aires, where Gen. Harguindeguy was requested to cause the expulsion of Chiappe et. al.

Insight Magazine (Estados Unidos)

 


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