José López: the ex-minister, the nuns and the $9m

José López © Getty images
José López, Argentina’s former junior government minister

One morning last week, just before dawn, an early rising resident of a quiet Buenos Aires suburb was struck by an unusual sight. A middle-aged man was heaving several sacks and bags over
the wall of the neighbouring convent.

He then clambered in after them. Fearing for the safety of the three elderly nuns inside, the observer called the police. Before long, says The Guardian, “what began as a neighbourhood curiosity” had morphed into “a national political drama” which is gripping Argentina.

The mysterious man – whom police eventually found cosily ensconced with the sisters in the convent’s kitchen – turned out to be José López, a former junior government minister, who had served as public works secretary to the ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Officers later found a semi-automatic rifle in his car, but even more extraordinary were the contents of the sacks, says Newsweek. As well as several “expensive watches”, they contained 160 bundles of cash currencies, including pesos, dollars, euros, yen and Qatari riyals. The total stash amounted to $9m.

López at first claimed to be a church official, then allegedly tried to bribe officers with $1m to avoid arrest. The saga continued with a bizarre court hearing in which López’s lawyer, Fernanda Herrera – “best known in Argentina for her career as a glamorous former model” – argued that her client suffered hallucinations and was mentally unfit to testify, although doctors had ruled him fit. “López proceeded to hit himself over the head… and demand to be supplied with cocaine.”

Exactly how López acquired the money, which he apparently intended to bury in the nunnery, is now the focus of the investigation – and it may not bode well for Fernández, or the leftist kirchnerismo movement she heads, says the Financial Times. As well as serving in their governments, López was reportedly “extremely close” to both Fernández and her late husband and predecessor, Néstor Kirchner.

Ever since the party’s narrow electoral defeat at the hands of centre-right President Mauricio Macri last year, Fernández and her circle have been dogged by constant allegations of money-laundering and corruption related to public building contracts – threatening to scupper her hopes of standing again in 2019.

Earlier this year, construction boss Lázaro Báez (allegedly a front man for the presidential couple) was arrested on money-laundering charges, following allegations that he had buried an enormous stash of cash in remote farmland in Patagonia. A huge dig ensued, says The Guardian. Even Néstor Kirchner’s “imposing mausoleum was searched”. But nothing was found.

Fernández has denied any links with the López case. But some in Argentina think this latest soap opera could prove the final nail in the party’s coffin. “José López couldn’t bury the dollars, but he buried kirchnerismo,” concluded La Nación last week.