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Thursday, 7 June, 2001, 18:27 GMT 19:27 UK
How arms scandal emerged
Peru army soldiers on border with Ecuador
The scandal over illegal arms has been brewing for a decade
By Americas Regional Editor Robert Plummer

The scandal over illegal arms sales by Argentina that prompted the arrest of ex-President Menem has been brewing for a decade, but the details were slow to emerge at first.

Arms sales
1991: 6,500 tonnes of weapons and munitions sent to Panama, later found in Croatia
1995: 5,000 rifles and 75 tonnes of ammunition sent to Venezuela, later found in Ecuador
In 1995 evidence came to light indicating that the Argentine state weapons company had sold arms to Ecuador during its month-long border conflict with Peru, even though Argentina was one of the guarantors of the peace accord between the two countries.

Some 5,000 rifles and 75 tonnes of ammunition left Argentina in February of that year on their way to Venezuela, but the weapons were subsequently diverted to Ecuador.

However, the scandal took on larger proportions when it became clear that this was not the only unlawful arms transaction linked to Carlos Menem's government.

Four years earlier, in 1991, Argentina had sent 6,500 tonnes of weapons and munitions to Panama, a country that has not had an army since the United States' invasion of 1989 that ousted General Noriega.

Arms embargoes

Those arms found their way to Croatia, which was then subject to a United Nations arms embargo because of its involvement in the conflict that accompanied the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

At the time, Argentina had contributed 800 soldiers to the UN peacekeeping force in the region.

UN soldiers in Croatia
Argentina contributed 800 soldiers to Croatia's peacekeeping force
In the early stages of the investigation by the Argentine authorities, little progress was made, with the government maintaining its insistence that it was the victim of arms dealers who diverted the weapons to third countries.

Various ministers and senior military personnel were implicated in the scandal, along with the head of the state arms company and some of his aides.

However, the scale of the charges against them has increased as the extent of the allegations against the Menem government has widened.

At first, ministers were blamed for failing in their duty as public officials, by not preventing the diversion of the arms shipments.

Now, Mr Menem himself and three of his closest allies stand accused of actually leading a conspiracy to break international embargoes by selling arms to states involved in conflicts.

Mr Menem's nephew has described the allegations against Mr Menem as political persecution - but a conviction would dash Mr Menem's hopes of running for the Argentine presidency again in 2003 and tarnish his reputation for ever.

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See also:

07 Jun 01 | Americas
Profile: Carlos Menem
07 Jun 01 | Americas
Menem held over arms scandal
06 Jun 01 | Americas
Menem protests his innocence
26 May 01 | Americas
Menem marries his beauty queen
01 May 01 | Americas
Menem ordered to answer arms charge
06 Jan 01 | Americas
Why men envy Menem
28 Mar 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Argentina
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