In a country where payoffs, kickbacks and government corruption are a part of everyday life, recent accusations that half this city's municipal inspectors took bribes to overlook zoning and safety violations initially came as no big surprise.
Bribes are so commonplace that motorists are regularly seen slipping police officers $20 to avoid traffic tickets.What has shocked investigators, consumer-advocacy groups and even the most cynical observers of city government here is that a judge has demanded that hundreds of the inspectors account for their actions, and that many are expected to be convicted and receive jail terms.
Corruption cases in Argentina, especially those involving high-level government officials, are usually not resolved and almost no one is convicted because of poor prosecution and an inefficient justice system.
But the case of the municipal inspectors was pursued by a city ombudsman, Antonio Cartana, and an investigative judge, Raul Irigoyen, who invoked a rarely used law that requires Argentines to explain how they acquired their material goods.
Investigators said that although the inspectors are paid about $700 a month, many own several homes and other properties.
"In Argentina, the judiciary is very politicized and the outcome of cases is often swayed by judges who are influenced by the political machinery that appoints them," said Adrian Ventura, a journalist for the newspaper La Nacion. "This is one of the very few instances where we have an honest judge who was willing to use the full force of the law to go after corrupt municipal workers."
Investigators said the municipal inspectors, who issue business licenses and inspect restaurants, factories and offices for safety and health violations, had demanded that merchants pay them large sums of money to avoid citations.
In exchange for payoffs, whose amounts have not been disclosed, the inspectors also issued licenses for businesses to operate in areas not zoned for their specific commercial activity, the investigators said. The inspectors also reportedly demanded payment for issuing licenses to businesses that qualified to operate in zoned areas.
After receiving hundreds of complaints, the city's ombudsman began investigating the municipal inspectors' office, in which the ombudsman said supervisors and inspectors had been taking and demanding bribes for more than 20 years.
"We have no explicit proof that bribes were taken because nobody is stupid enough to write a receipt for a bribe," said Cartana, the ombudsman. "It's always in cash. But what we do have are a lot of inspectors with a lot of valuable stuff and a law that if used forces them to explain how they acquired this stuff."