May 18, 2000

Argentine prisoners stripped stolen cars in jail, report finds

                  BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (Reuters) -- Argentina prisoners ran a workshop to
                  strip stolen cars inside a federal jail and paid wardens who smuggled them in
                  drugs, according to a prison service document quoted by a top official on

                  The government is trying to track down wardens implicated in the report, which
                  was prepared in late 1998 but has only recently come to official attention, said
                  Criminal Policy Secretary Patricia Bullrich.

                  "On obtaining this report not only did we send it to the courts, but we began an
                  internal investigation and are going to be taking decisions about people who are
                  still working for us if we can verify the information," Bullrich told local radio.

                  She said she was horrified by the possibility that wardens could have cooperated
                  in a stolen car scam that used criminals as crooked mechanics inside the huge,
                  maximum-security Caseros penitentiary in Buenos Aires.

                  The grim reputation of Argentina's prison service -- long notorious for violence,
                  rape and mutiny inside its overcrowded jails -- was further darkened in April
                  when a judge told how a prisoner had been let out by guards on a mission to kill
                  him in return for a promise of early release. The anonymous report, which was
                  originally shelved, incriminated more than 20 guards, Bullrich said.

                  "This has come out of the Penitentiary Service itself, which is providing
                  information, and from a lot of people who want to stamp out corruption," she

                  The document described how warders charged $20 for prisoners' relatives to
                  smuggle in cocaine, and $10 for drugs in pill form. For a little more money,
                  warders would pick up the drugs at a nearby bar and smuggle them into the
                  prison themselves, according to the local daily Clarin.

                  For a fee, prisoners were allowed to choose their cells and provided with mobile
                  phones. Guards were often drunk and absent from their posts.

                  The government launched a purge of its prison service in April, removing top
                  officers, after allegations that guards had let inmates out for robbing excursions.

                  Judge Alberto Banos began investigating the prison service after three men
                  supposedly doing time were caught in 1998 in a Buenos Aires restaurant holdup
                  in which a policeman was killed.