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Argentina In Uproar Deaths

October 10, 1998

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ Marcelo Cattaneo, a prominent businessman, had been missing five days when a fisherman seeking shelter from a thunderstorm found him.

Peering up from an abandoned building beside the muddy Plata River, the fisherman saw Cattaneo’s lifeless body, clad in a blue jogging suit, hanging from an antenna tower.

Police said Cattaneo _facing a likely court appearance in a bribery investigation involving computer giant IBM and Argentina’s Banco Nacion _ had apparently killed himself.

But opposition politicians and a skeptical press haven’t been so easily persuaded. For them, it’s another eerie twist to the scandals that have plagued President Carlos Menem’s 9-year administration.

``In Argentina, we have a habit of returning to these kind of events,″ Graciela Fernandez Meijide, a top opposition party leader, said this week.

Cattaneo’s death is the third this year of a figure linked to a scandal investigation. The death dominated news coverage this week, and like the others, revealed a public weary of scandal and prone to believe government abuses of power are rampant.

``Each time more suspicion″ proclaimed a headline in the daily, Diario Popular. ``With the seal of the Mafia″ added Pagina 12. La Nacion spoke of ``strange deaths involving key witnesses in various scandals.″

Reclusive businessman Alfredo Yabran was found dead May 20 of a gunshot wound at his country estate. He was wanted for questioning in the slaying of a journalist, a case that had gripped the country for more than a year.

Horacio Estrada, a former navy captain, was expected to be a key witness in a suspicious arms sale. He died Aug. 25.

``These kinds of scandals keep coming up. No one is ever charged with anything. If they are, they usually go free,″ said Julio Jorge, a 42-year-old medical inspector. ``I’m getting tired of it.″

More and more, official accounts of these cases are being second-guessed and speculation of foul play is growing.

``In the late 80′s the perception of strange suicides and odd kidnappings was assumed to be leftover from the military’s rule,″ said political analyst Felipe Noguera. ``Now, the perception is it’s related to organized crime with possible links to the government.″

Menem has discouraged a rush to judgment.

``We have to trust the justice system. We can’t jump to conclusions,″ he told the newspaper Clarin. As for suggestions of foul play, he added: ``Those that believe that it was murder, think like the Mafia.″

For years, investigators have been probing accusations that IBM distributed millions of dollars in bribes to government and bank officials to win a $249 million contract with Banco Nacion, the former state-owned bank. IBM denies any wrongdoing.

Cattaneo was cleared of any involvement in that case two years ago. But he had been expected to return to court for questioning on fresh accusations by two former bank officers he implicated.

The public uproar surrounding his death echoed that of Yabran.

At the time of his death, Yabran was the subject of a police hunt in connection with the 1997 slaying of photojournalist Jose Luis Cabezas, who had taken some of the few photographs of the highly private Yabran.

Polls after Yabran’s death showed few people believed government and police assertions that the businessman had killed himself.

As in Yabran’s death, Cattaneo’s was the talk of the country, and many suspected foul play.

``I didn’t believe the Yabran explanation and I have my doubts about Cattaneo,″ said shopkeeper Judy Garcia. ``People have no confidence in what the government says. It all involves so many questionable people.″

Add to that the death of Estrada, who was under orders to appear before a judge probing suspect weapons sales to Ecuador and Croatia, in apparent violation of international embargoes. He was found dead in his apartment, with a gunshot to the head.

Taken together, the deaths have left the Argentine public brooding.

``Who knows if we’ll ever know the truth of any of this,″ said Marcelo Gomez, a clerk at a coin-operated laundry.

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