When a key witness in a corruption investigation into Argentina’s powerful vice-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was found dead in the southern tourist town of El Calafate on Saturday, the local judge said theft or extortion were the most likely motives.
Four men aged between the ages of 19 and 23 were quickly arrested in connection with the gruesome killing of Fabián Gutiérrez, Ms Fernández’s former top aide who died from asphyxiation after suffering multiple head and neck wounds. One of the arrested men has admitted to an incipient sexual relationship with the victim.
But many believe the truth surrounding the death may remain elusive, with the opposition highlighting the “institutional seriousness” of the killing and demanded a federal judge lead the investigation.
Not only was the dead man a vital witness in a high-profile corruption case — the so-called bribery notebooks — involving Ms Fernández but the prosecutor in the investigation that is taking place in her family’s political stronghold of Santa Cruz province is also her niece.
“There are a lot of very strange and dark things about all this. How are there not going to be doubts?” asked Luis Tonelli, an Argentine political analyst.
Gutiérrez’s killing has sparked uproar among Argentines, who recall the mysterious death of federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman in 2015. He died just before he was due to present his case accusing then president Ms Fernández of trying to cover up Iran’s alleged role in Argentina’s worst-ever terrorist attack — the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people.
Alberto Fernández, Argentina’s current president whose popularity has dived as a strict coronavirus lockdown has plunged the economy deeper into recession, was quick to dismiss an opposition demand that the investigation into Gutiérrez’s death should be transferred to a federal court “immediately”.
“I don’t have to explain to you that we are requesting transparency so that a crime can be solved,” said Patricia Bullrich, an opposition leader, in a tweet.
Mr Fernández, no relation to the vice-president, told a local radio station that “the opposition document sowing doubt about the death of Gutiérrez was despicable”. Ms Fernández has said nothing on the issue.
The opposition’s concerns over the impartiality of the justice system in remote Santa Cruz, where El Calafate is located, is because it has long been a base for Ms Fernández’s family. Her late husband, Néstor Kirchner, ran the southern province for more than a decade before he became president in 2003. The current governor, Alicia Kirchner, is Ms Fernández’s sister-in-law.
The house where the body of Fabián Gutiérrez was found on July 4 © TELAM/AFP/Getty
Gutiérrez, who was 48 when he died, began working as an assistant for the Kirchners in the 1990s, rising to become Ms Fernández’s private secretary from 2007 to 2010 at the start of her eight-year presidency. Argentina’s independent anti-money laundering agency has estimated that Gutiérrez’s wealth increased 15 times from 2007 to 2015.
After quitting his position with Ms Fernández — later complaining that she was an unreasonable boss and that “because of her strong character nobody wanted to work for her” — Gutiérrez withdrew to El Calafate.
Unafraid to flaunt his money, he began acquiring property, including a mansion just a few blocks from Ms Fernández’s home. He set up multiple businesses, from a luxury car dealership to restaurants and construction businesses.
It was not until 2018 that he was caught up in one of the biggest corruption cases in Argentine history, known as the bribery notebooks owing to the publication of a series of journals detailing corporate kickbacks to officials in Ms Fernández’s government.
Accused of being involved in a network of money laundering, Gutiérrez made a plea bargain and gave evidence against Ms Fernández who, he said, regularly took large bags of cash in the presidential jet back to Santa Cruz. He insisted he never saw the money itself, but that he suspected it was hidden under the staircase of her home. Ms Fernández has always denied involvement in corruption.
The question now is whether the killing could deepen the broader political battle in Argentina, which comes amid attempts to steady the struggling economy. Analysts fear it will only aggravate an already deeply polarised environment that could further weaken Mr Fernández, while playing to the strength of the radicals, who include Ms Fernández.
“This high-voltage climate is not what Argentina needs. We already have too much of that,” said Gustavo Marangoni, a political analyst who argues that Argentines are more worried about the economy and the response to the virus than political machinations. “If the more ideological sectors are more comfortable in this situation, that is probably at the expense of the rest,” he added.