By Charles Newbery
BUENOS AIRES (AA) – A former high-ranking government official was arrested Tuesday as he was tried to hide nearly $10 million in cash.
Police apprehended Jose Lopez, a 55-year-old member of parliament in the South American Mercosur trade bloc, with six bags of cash and a semi-automatic gun at the Our Lady of Fatima Nunnery in General Rodriguez, a city in the urban sprawl outside Buenos Aires.
According to local media reports, a neighbor called 911 to report that a man had stopped his car in front of the convent and was unloading suitcases and taking them into the property.
The first officers on the scene found Lopez at the convent with the bags full of dollars, euros, yen and Qatari riyal.
Lopez did not resist arrest and told officers that he wanted to donate the money to the nuns, the police said.
One of the nuns, who asked not to be identified, said on Radio La Red that Lopez had visited the previous day.
“He was kind of crazy,” the nun said. “He told us, ‘I stole money to come here to help.’ Today he wanted to come in but they arrested him. I told [the police] that he was a very good man who came here once a year and would help us with tea, coffee and other things, but not money.”
Cristian Ritondo, Buenos Aires province’s minister of security, said during a televised press conference that Lopez tried to bribe the officers to let him go. He estimated that the total amount of money was more than $8.5 million.
Ritondo said a witness told investigators that the convent was frequented by “many ex-officials of the previous government,” including Lopez and former Planning Minister Julio De Vido.
Lopez was already under investigation for illicit enrichment during his 12 years as the country’s secretary of public works.
He was the right-hand man for De Vido, a close confidant of President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her husband and predecessor, the late Nestor Kirchner, who together ruled from 2003 to 2015 with a populist-left brand of politics.
Since losing power last December, Fernandez de Kirchner, De Vido and other former officials have come under investigation for alleged acts of corruption and illicit enrichment.
A close associate of the former president, Lazaro Baez, has been detained for alleged money laundering after accumulating a fortune in the past decade.