Ms. Telpuk Scanned Bags
At Buenos Aires Airport,
Uncovering a Big Scandal
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Until a fateful morning last August, María del Luján Telpuk was an anonymous 27-year-old airport policewoman here. Then fate swooped down in the form of a Cessna Citation jet arriving from Caracas, Venezuela.
Inspecting the passengers' luggage as it passed through the X-ray machine, Ms. Telpuk noted that one suitcase contained the shapes of "six perfect and very dense rectangles." They turned out to be about $800,000 in cash carried by Guido Antonini Wilson, a mysterious businessman with U.S. and Venezuelan passports and an apartment in Key Biscayne, Fla.
Ms. Telpuk, a former nursery-school teacher, thus turned over the first rock in a major scandal here. Last month, U.S. prosecutors, investigating alleged Venezuelan agents operating in Florida, said that the money in the suitcase was a contribution from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to the presidential campaign of Argentina's leftist leader, Cristina Kirchner. Mr. Chávez and Mrs. Kirchner strenuously denied the accusations.
In Argentina, Ms. Telpuk is now famous as the "suitcase girl," and doors are opening for her in show business. At the same time, some Argentines, suspicious of police and skeptical about anything the U.S. says, doubt Ms. Telpuk's story and wonder whether she is a pawn in some gringo plot to discredit Latin leftists.
Ms. Telpuk's celebrity has been a mixed blessing. There has been talk of her hosting a TV show, and she has received anonymous phone calls telling her to keep her mouth shut. There have been invitations to join opposition political parties and emails saying "something's going to happen to you." She now has a theatrical agent, but for a month she had police protection. She has quit her police job for an administrative position at a charter airline that gives her more time to pursue a show-biz career.
In a December issue of an irreverent political magazine, Veintitres, Ms. Telpuk posed for a cover shot under the headline "The Bombshell Behind the Suitcase." Standing behind a suitcase, she was wearing a police cap and that was about it. Another headline asked, "Is She the Key Piece of a Plot Designed by Washington?"
"She's a little angry about those photos," Ms. Telpuk said, nodding toward her mother, Yolanda, who was seated at a table in their middle-class brick house outside the capital. Angry is too tame a word to describe Mrs. Telpuk's reaction to another modeling proposal that her daughter says she has from Playboy's Argentine edition. Playboy wouldn't comment.
Mrs. Telpuk says that she's very proud of her daughter's vigilant police work but nervous about the cloak-and-dagger world they've stumbled into. Looking out the window, Mrs. Telpuk became suspicious of a red car she saw passing by for the second time in 30 minutes. "All of this has me afraid," Mrs. Telpuk said.
Ms. Telpuk insists more good than bad will come of her new fame. She wants to parlay it into an appearance on "Skating for a Dream," a hit Argentine TV show that pairs a celebrity with a novice in an ice-dancing competition.
Ms. Telpuk got interested when Marcelo Tinelli, the Argentine TV impresario who created the skating show, came by the airport to congratulate her and say that he would like to see her strap on the blades sometime. That was all it took for Ms. Telpuk to buy her first pair of skates and a bodysuit, hire a trainer and start spending three to four hours a day practicing at a rink here.
Mr. Chávez's many Argentine admirers probably wouldn't mind seeing Ms. Telpuk fall on her face. Denouncing the suitcase affair as a Central Intelligence Agency disinformation operation, about 200 leftist demonstrators recently burned cardboard suitcases decorated with American flags in front of the U.S. Embassy here.
Nadia Martinez, one of the demonstrators, says she's convinced Mr. Antonini was working for the U.S. and that airport police were in on the scheme, too. "The only people benefiting from this are the U.S. and this policewoman," she said, ducking her head as other demonstrators tossed around a big effigy of Mr. Antonini.
Conspiracy theorists maintain that the U.S. wants to create friction between Argentina and Venezuela, leftist governments that are working together on policies such as a regional development bank to make them less dependent on wealthy countries.
Ms. Telpuk laughs at such theories as "illogical." Indeed, even some Argentine political analysts note that Brazil is also participating in the development-bank project and its relations with the U.S. are fine.
Ms. Telpuk says she "wouldn't hazard a guess" as to the intended use of the money. The ex-cop says she's more concerned about her entertainment career, which seems to be going great guns, and her romantic life, which she says hasn't fared so well. "I think men are afraid of me now," she says.
Ms. Telpuk grew up in a small town in the province of Santa Fe where she taught nursery school. About three years ago, she moved to Buenos Aires after passing an entrance exam for the Airport Security Police.
On that eventful Saturday, Aug. 4, a plane chartered by the Argentine state energy company Energía Argentina SA, arrived behind schedule, at about 2:45 a.m. The plane carried five Venezuelans and three Argentines, mostly involved with their respective governments' energy companies. Mr. Antonini has been a partner in business ventures led by Franklin Duran, one of the men arrested last month in Florida for being an alleged Venezuelan agent. One of their ventures involved selling arms and police equipment.
When Ms. Telpuk asked Mr. Antonini to explain the suspicious rectangles that appeared when she scanned his bag, he told her they were papers, she recounts. Then she asked him to open the bag. Staring at the petite, 5-foot-5 policewoman, Mr. Antonini didn't say or do anything, she says. Ms. Telpuk says she asked him again to open the suitcase. Finally, he complied, and money started spilling out. The total amount in the bag was $790,550.
Since Mr. Antonini hadn't listed the money in a customs declaration, it was seized by Argentine authorities. Mr. Antonini was allowed to leave Argentina, though, and he returned to South Florida. His lawyer told reporters that Mr. Antonini is innocent of any wrongdoing.
Despite "suitcase-gate," Mrs. Kirchner won the election handily. Two days after her Dec. 10 inauguration, U.S. prosecutors in Miami announced the arrest of three Venezuelans and a Uruguayan who allegedly schemed to silence Mr. Antonini about the Venezuelan contribution to the Kirchner campaign. An indictment charges the men -- and a fifth who is a fugitive -- with operating as Venezuelan agents unlawfully, without having notified the U.S. attorney general. In a court hearing, a U.S. attorney said Mr. Antonini is now cooperating with the investigation and wore a wire to record subsequent encounters with the alleged Venezuelan agents, who offered him $2 million in hush money, while also threatening his family if he didn't keep quiet.
--José de Córdoba in Mexico City contributed to this article.
Write to Matt Moffett at firstname.lastname@example.org