Buenos Aires (AFP) – A trial opened Monday for an Argentine ex-cabinet minister and a nun who helped him hide bags stuffed with $9 million in cash and jewels at a monastery.
The story, which has become emblematic of the country’s corruption, first emerged when Jose Lopez, 57, was caught red-handed tossing 160 suitcases and duffel bags over a wall into the garden of an old monastery outside Buenos Aires.
It took police 22 hours to count the $9 million, 150,000 euros, 425 yuan and 150,000 Argentine pesos in small bills stashed inside.
Celia Ines, an 80-year-old nun, was his accomplice, according to prosecutors, and the entire affair was caught on security camera.
Prosecutors decided not to pursue charges against a second nun, the convent’s mother superior Sister Alba, because of her advanced age. She is 95.
On Monday, Ines — who has denied ever knowing the contents of the bags — gazed downward as she sat in court near Lopez and his wife Maria Amalia Diaz.
With a hearing a week, the trial is expected to last six months.
The former deputy minister for public works, who is also suspected of embezzlement in two other corruption cases, has been in preventive detention for two years in Ezeiza prison near Buenos Aires. He was denied a release last week.
Lopez was part of a group of officials dubbed the “Pinguinos” (penguins) who were close to late president Nestor Kirchner and his successor and wife Cristina Kirchner, having started working with them in Santa Cruz province.
Lopez and his former boss, ex-planning minister Julio de Vido — who has also been jailed for corruption — managed the federal government’s public works projects under the Kirchners (2003-2015).
They were the only two ministers to survive the various cabinet reshuffles across the couple’s 12 years in power.
At the time of Lopez’s arrest, his lawyer Fernanda Herrera — who is better known in Argentina as a cumbia singer and former model — said he was delirious, suffering hallucinations and unfit to testify.
At his first court appearance, Lopez hit himself on the head, shouting and demanding cocaine.
But doctors who examined him said they found nothing wrong besides stress and high blood pressure.
Cristina Kirchner has insisted she had nothing to do with the convent money case, blaming instead companies who may have paid bribes to secure contracts.
Kirchner herself has been implicated in several corruption cases.
Her successor, business-friendly conservative Mauricio Macri, says there was record high corruption over the past decade when the Kirchners were in power, though he has also faced corruption allegations of his own.