Murder riddle of Menem's son

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The Independent Online
LIKE his father, the President of Argentina, Carlos Menem Jr lived fast - driving rally cars, dating film stars, and brawling in bars. When he died after crashing his private helicopter three years ago, his father accepted the official version that it was an accident, that his 26-year- old son had flown into high-voltage power cables. Now, Mr Menem is not so sure: he has called for a murder investigation.

Who killed Carlitos (Little Carlos) has become the big question in Argentina, with speculation ranging from a cuckolded husband to Lebanese Islamic fundamentalists. The President's ex-wife, Zulema Yoma, insists that a murder plot was hatched in the presidential palace itself by aides involved in drug trafficking. She has accused the President of launching a cover- up to protect friends she described as "mafia-style narco-terrorists".

Ms Yoma, nicknamed "Hurricane" by Argentinians because of her brash style, believes her son's body was secretly dug up and his head cut off and attached to another body to hide evidence that he was murdered. "This murder was plotted in Olivos (the presidential place). Carlitos had seen too much for his own good," the 55-year-old former First Lady said without explaining exactly what she meant.

Mr Menem, 67, initially ridiculed his divorced wife's claims, attributing them to "the pain of a bereaved mother". She responded that he and his "mafia-like" aides were trying to have her put away in a mental hospital.

But Mr Menem was said to have been shocked recently by new evidence, including photographs, that appeared to show bullet holes in the wrecked helicopter. Ms Yoma had hired a team of private investigators to seek new evidence after the Argentine air force concluded that the crash was an accident.

Carlos Jr, accompanied by a motor racing driver, Silvio Oltra, was flying the small Bell helicopter home to Buenos Aires in March 1995 when the aircraft crashed on to a highway 124 miles north of the capital. Many Argentinians believed the President's son had been showing off, "buzzing" cars on the highway.

Ms Yoma, locked out of the presidential palace by Mr Menem in 1990 after a dramatic public fight, said immediately she believed her son had been assassinated. She said it took almost an hour to get him, still alive, to a hospital only eight minutes' drive away. His life-support machine was later turned off without any consultation with her or her ex-husband, she said. "And most of the wreckage was quickly smashed up as scrap to hide the evidence," she insisted.

She said she, her son and the Menems' daughter Zulemita, 28 - who now acts as First Lady - had all received anonymous death threats in the weeks before the helicopter crash. Ms Yoma's lawyer, Franco Caviglia, said the apparent bullet holes discovered in the wreckage appeared to have come from a Winchester rifle and a light automatic assault weapon. Experts had also found traces of lead in the wreckage which could only have come from spent ammunition, he said.

Some Argentine newspapers have speculated that the helicopter may have been shot down by the Lebanese Islamic fundamentalist group Hizbollah as a warning to the President to drop investigations into two earlier bomb attacks against Argentine Jews. Investigators have said some evidence in the bombings pointed to involvement by Hizbollah and by Iranian agents.