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Former Argentine Leader Menem To Face Arms Smuggling Charges

By Sebastian Rotella
LOS ANGELES TIMES

BUENOS AIRES

Former Argentine President Carlos Menem, a flamboyant political boss who presided over a decade of economic transformation and scandals, was arrested Thursday on charges of masterminding an international arms-trafficking scheme while president.

Authorities took Menem into custody shortly after he entered a courthouse Thursday morning to testify about his role in the alleged smuggling of 6.5 tons of arms and ammunition to Croatia and Ecuador between 1991 and 1995.

Menem, 70, became the first elected Argentine president, current or former, to be arrested under a democratic government.

Upon arriving to face questioning by an investigative magistrate, the short, dapper son of Syrian immigrants struggled up the courthouse steps through a mob of photographers and police. He held hands with his wife, a 35-year-old former Miss Universe whom he married in a hasty ceremony last month, and put on a brave front despite the widespread sense that his arrest was imminent.

“I trust in the justice system,” said a weary-faced Menem. “I’m very calm.”

Once inside, Menem professed innocence and declined to answer questions posed by federal magistrate Jorge Urso, according to a defense lawyer. Menem was placed under house arrest because of his age, according to the lawyer. A helicopter transported Menem to a suburban estate that will serve as a gilded jail surrounded by riot police.

The judge’s decision was expected. In recent weeks he jailed Menem’s former defense minister, a former army chief and other former aides in the labyrinthine case.

Nonetheless, the spectacular fall of Menem, an internationally known power broker who counts former President George Bush among his friends, brought Argentina to a stop Thursday.