A camera obscured

The brutal, unsolved murder of the Argentinian photo-journalist Jose Luis Cabezas (left) hints at police corruption, resulting in the biggest public outrage since the 'Dirty War' of the 1970s. By Phil Davidson

Professional photographers usually attach their names to their cameras, to distinguish them when lenses get changed and often-identical equipment gets left around in the scramble for pictures.

Jose Luis Cabezas stuck cartoon characters, particularly Garfield and Mickey Mouse, on the backs of his Nikon F4s. It said a lot about the personality of the jovial 35-year-old father of three, who loved his job as a photo- journalist for one of Argentina's top news magazines, Noticias. The last picture ever taken of him, clutching a Nikon and a beer, showed him grinning from ear to ear at a party, a few hours before he died.

There were no cameras in his rented Ford Fiesta when they found Cabezas' body on 25 January this year. In fact, there was virtually nothing recognisable in the burnt-out car, but for the wristwatch on his incinerated body. They eventually managed to identify the newsman by his teeth.

Police forensic experts in the swanky Argentinian beach resort of Pinamar, Argentina's equivalent to St Tropez, said that smoke in his lungs and other evidence suggested that he had been forced into the car, with his hands handcuffed behind his back, doused in petrol and set alight while alive. His killers administered a coup de grace with two pistol shots, one to the neck.

Through his lenses Cabezas, and his magazine, had upset a lot of people over the years, including the football star Diego Maradona and President Carlos Menem, whose family has lodged nine lawsuits against Noticias in recent years. Maradona once shot at a group of reporters with an airgun, but everybody knows that was an aberration, and the little man is no killer.

If whoever ordered Cabezas dead thought that stopping his shutter for good would solve their problem, they may have miscalculated badly. The murder has caused the biggest expression of outrage in Argentina since the so-called Dirty War by military-led death squads against liberals in the Seventies and early Eighties.

For one thing, the killing was eerily reminiscent of the methods used in those days by the so-called "task groups", widely believed to be off- duty military officers and hired thugs, who "disappeared" opponents of the military regime. In Noticias's bustling news room on Buenos Aires' central Corrientes Avenue, Cabezas's colleagues said they felt "haunted by ghosts of the past".

For another, it has pointed towards one of the country's wealthiest and most powerful businessmen, Alfredo Yabran, a 52-year-old postal tycoon and former close friend of President Menem, publicly accused of being a "Mafia godfather" by one of the country's leading politicians. Yabran, who has estimated his personal wealth at $400m, had been investigated by Noticias for several years over his shadowy business style, rapidly- acquired wealth and links with government officials.

Cabezas had been assigned to Pinamar to seek pictures of Alfredo Yabran and other wealthy or famous Argentinians. He was last seen at a party hosted by Oscar Andreani, another postal tycoon and a friend of both Yabran and Menem, a few hours before his body was found.

While "doorstepping" Yabran, a journalist and photographer were shot at in 1991 from Yabran's luxury villa in Acasusso, next door to the residence of Britain's charge d'affaires to Argentina. "The first shot was in the air. The second came too close to where ideas are born for me not to take it personally," recalls the journalist, Fernando Amato.

Three years later, refusing to let the magazine photograph him during a 1994 interview, Yabran said cryptically: "publishing a photograph of me would be like shooting me in the forehead." Cabezas finally got a shot of the tycoon last year - wearing a swimsuit, walking along a beach with his wife - a picture that is said to have greatly annoyed Yabran when it was published on the cover of Noticias on 3 March last year.

Yabran's past links with Menem and senior government officials are increasingly proving an embarrassment to the President and, together with violent street protests over unemployment, threaten to affect his ruling Peronist party in congressional elections in October. Yabran was considered to be a likely big bidder in planned privatisations of the post office and airports, and even linking his name with the murder has sent jitters through Argentina's business community and investors.

Although the President has denied being close friends with the tycoon, in 1995 he inaugurated a five-star hotel in Pinamar, owned by Yabran, and has been photographed getting off one of the businessman's private planes. Menem took widespread flak last week when he attacked the media for "condemning" Yabran, saying he should be considered "innocent until the contrary is proved".

The plot thickened last week when Yabran, arriving for questioning, was noted to be using three bodyguards normally employed by Argentinian congressmen at taxpayers' expense, and particularly by the President's nephew, Carlos Omar Menem.

Yabran and his chief bodyguard, Gregorio Rios, a former army sergeant, were questioned as "witnesses" by the prosecutor handling the case in the city of Dolores, the judicial capital of Buenos Aires province, in which Pinamar lies. Prosecution sources say Yabran is likely to be recalled for more detailed questioning as a formal suspect, ie as what the Hispanic- speaking world euphemistically calls the suspected "intellectual author", or mastermind, of the crime.

Amid public outcry and street protests, including posters saying "Don't Forget Cabezas", police at first arrested a gang led by a woman drug dealer and convicted killer known as Pepita La Pistolera (Pepita The Gunslinger). The gang were widely seen as scapegoats, and all but one were soon released. He was the owner of the pistol that shot Cabezas, but he insists he was not involved and that the gun had been stolen from him.

Then, in April, the police arrested another group, known as the Los Hornos gang, after the suburb, outside the Buenos Aires provincial capital of La Plata, where they traditionally operated. Four of them confessed their involvement but accused the fifth, 36-year-old former police inspector Gustavo Prellezo, of pulling the trigger.

According to police, when detained Prellezo was carrying a business card from Yabran, including a private number on the back in the tycoon's handwriting. Investigations showed that he and Rios, Yabran's security chief, had called each other 30 times in the weeks before the murder, including a call around the time of the killing and six calls the following day.

Last week, a police psychiatrist, Jose Abasolo, testified to the prosecutor that Prellezo had confessed his own involvement and contacts with Yabran, but that the killing was an accident. "To lean on him, to give Mr Cabezas a fright, not to kill him. That's what was agreed and discussed with Mr Yabran," the psychiatrist quoted Prellezo as saying. "We were beating Cabezas up when somebody's gun went off accidentally." The gang subsequently set fire to the car to cover their tracks, he allegedly added.

Prellezo's lawyer immediately slammed both the police and the prosecution for "forcing" his client to talk to a psychiatrist. He also attacked the psychiatrist, accusing him of violating his professional secrecy.

And when Cabezas's body was exhumed last week for a second autopsy, examiners said he had received two bullets, casting doubt on the accidental shooting theory.

Under the heading, "Yabran: Protected or Persecuted?" the tycoon took out full-page ads in major Argentinian newspapers last week, denying involvement and saying that he was being treated "like Al Capone". He specifically accused the former Argentinian economy minister Domingo Cavallo, one of the country's best known politicians of recent times, of waging a personal campaign against him for political reasons.

It was Mr Cavallo, architect of Argentina's "economic miracle" in the early Nineties, who first accused Alfredo Yabran of being a "godfather" at the head of a Mafia that allegedly controlled postal and customs services. Mr Cavallo was later involved in a vituperative split with President Menem, and he intends to run for President when the latter's term expires in 1999.

In the bustling offices of Noticias, now visited regularly by foreign correspondents, photographers and TV crews from around the world, Cabezas's colleagues are continuing their campaign to see his murderers caught, tried and convicted. They have stuck posters of the dead man's face on lampposts around the capital, have held rallies and minutes of silence, have rung church bells and released balloons. And they promise to hold regular marches so that the case is not forgotten.

In the edition that followed its photographer's murder, Noticias came out with an all-black cover. That space is reserved for the person who ordered his killing, whoever and whenever that may have been.

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