Podcast: U.S.-Argentine relations hit a rough patch

An incident surrounding the contents of a U.S. military plane has Washington’s relations with Argentina in crisis. Adam discusses the episode, and its context, with Lucila Santos of WOLA.

See below for a fact sheet about the incident prepared by Lucila Santos.

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Argentina and the United States have been struggling for the last week with a diplomatic dispute over a U.S. Air Force plane that landed in Buenos Aires’ International airport on February 9th. Below is a fact sheet on the dispute.

The plane: On Thursday February 10, a U.S. Air force plane C-17 Globemaster III, license 77187 was delayed in the Bs As’ International Airport (Ezeiza) due to alleged irregularities. It was bringing weapons and equipment for a U.S.-funded training exercise to be conducted with Argentina’s Federal Police.

The course: The course, previously approved by the Argentine government, was to be taught to the Special Operations Special Group from the Federal Police (Grupo Especial de Operaciones Especiales de la Policía Federal– GEOF, similar to a U.S. police SWAT team), which was to take place during February and March. La Nación reported that these security courses have taken place since 2009 with the Federal Police. The courses train local agents in rescue of kidnappings, anti-terrorist techniques, and marksmanship. It was to be taught by 12 US Special Operations’ officers.

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The course was initially set to take place in August of 2010, but due to a similar incident, in which the plane bringing the equipment also landed with items that had not been declared, the course was postponed to February 2011. On that occasion, U.S. Ambassador Vilma Martinez sent the plane back to North Carolina. The weapons’ serial numbers did not coincide with the numbers on the Ambassador’s list. The Argentine government estimated that the total cost of the equipment’s transportation, and of the course, was approximately 2 million dollars.

The equipment: The Argentine government stated that the plane was carrying undeclared “sensitive material.” Apparently, there were machine guns and rifles and ammunition, in addition to a strange suitcase, which had not been previously declared. The military and defense attaches, Colonels Edwin Passmore and Mark Alcott, were waiting for the plane. All boxes were stamped with the insignia of the U.S. Army 7th Special Forces Group, with headquarters in North Carolina. Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman stated that the plane contained a range of weapons and drugs, including doses of morphine. It also, he said, contained equipment to intercept communications, various sophisticated and powerful GPS devices, technological elements containing codes labeled secret, and a trunk full of expired medicine.

The dispute: The State Department requested an explanation of the Kirchner government about the incident, and communicated its discomfort with the situation. The Argentine Foreign Affairs Ministry replied that it would send a formal protest to Washington and that it would require the U.S. government’s cooperation in its investigation. The Argentine ambassador in Washington was called to the State Department, and later Valenzuela called Timerman to express again the U.S. government’s discomfort and unease with the situation.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that his department was “puzzled and disturbed by the actions of Argentine officials.” Crowley stated that the plane’s search was “unusual and unannounced” and that minor discrepancies in the manifest “were the kind of thing that could have been cleared up on the ground by customs officials.”

Subsequently, Matthew Rooney, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs, statedthat that it was a misunderstanding. The Argentine Foreign Ministry appreciated Rooney’s words. Rooney explained that even though there might have been discrepancies with the aircraft’s load, there was no intention to import into Argentina undeclared material. Argentina understood this as a positive sign towards reconciliation.

However, Frank Mora, who talked to the Argentine news channel TN, said that the information given by Timerman was false, and requested that the items retained by the Argentine Customs agency be returned to the United States immediately, in order to resolve the dispute. Aníbal Fernandez, the Chief of Cabinet, asked Mora to apologize for having accused the Argentine Foreign Affairs Minister of lying.

A U.S. State Department official told the Associated Press that all the key materiel in the shipment was properly declared and authorized by Argentina, describing the undeclared equipment as a minor problem with the plane’s manifest that could have been resolved privately. For example, the official said, according to AP,

each machine gun and related equipment was declared. But extra gun barrels brought to replace barrels that overheat during live-fire exercises were seized because they lacked matching serial numbers (…) Also seized was a U.S. medic’s kit, brought along in case anyone got injured. While the kit was declared, all the drugs inside weren’t individually listed (…) The purported spy equipment is simply satellite phones, which the nine-member Special Forces training team carries with them in the field in case they must communicate through secure channels to their U.S. commanders (…) Only one of the three phones listed in the manifest was declared, and the inventory didn’t specify all the related computer equipment or classified codes used to make the calls. All were seized. (…) Stretchers, bandages and military rations make up most of the rest of the undeclared equipment. Argentine officials told the Americans during planning for the training course not to worry about declaring such material, the official said.

This has been the only detailed explanation heard so far from the US side.

Argentina continues to insist that its laws were made to be enforced, and since Argentina respects the laws of other countries in their territories, any country should respect Argentina’s laws as well. This was emphasized by the Interior Minister, Florencio Randazzo. During a public presentation, President Fernandez de Kirchner also alluded to the importance of defending national sovereignty. Finally, Chief of Staff Aníbal Fernandez has said that under Argentine customs laws, Argentina can destroy the equipment seized. Meanwhile, an Argentine federal judge is demanding a full accounting from the foreign ministry, and some lawmakers vowed to hold investigative hearings.