The 'aguas' tango

Cashing in on Buenos Aires' privatization

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Mario Parravicino, who lives with his family in the dusty city of La Matanza, gets up each morning praying silently that it won't rain.

"When it rains it often floods and the sewage gets into everything," says the 60-year-old factory worker. "You can't use the toilet because it backs up. It's disgusting."

La Matanza is among the poorest districts in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, a maze of tiny cinder-block homes wedged together along dirt roads. There are no sewers, so the rains flood its houses and septic tanks, which often overflow into wells. Boiling is the only form of water treatment, and not everyone can afford the gas to boil the water. Nitrate levels, caused by sewage contamination, are dangerously high and waterborne diseases common. In Argentina, agonizing intestinal bugs cause 20 percent of infant deaths.

Across town in Laferrere, the Rusman family has the same problem. Their well is only two meters from the septic tank, and the water is often suspiciously murky after a rainfall.

"Whenever we can we boil it before drinking," Alejandra Rusman explained. "But we don't often have money to pay for gas." The local church provides drinking water to those who can't pay for gas, but the Rusmans don't wish to be beggars. Alejandra worries constantly about her two sons Pablo and Martin, aged 7 and 4. "This situation is dangerous because we forget and the boys drink this cloudy water and it makes them sick," she said.

In 1993, the government privatized the Buenos Aires water utility under heavy pressure from the World Bank, the IMF and the U.S. government. At the time, it said that private firms would do better at bringing water and sewage connections to poor areas like La Matanza. The sell-off of the water company was part of a wholesale auction of state assets to foreign and Argentine businesses. Privatization was viewed as a magic bullet that could help save Argentina from an economic crisis that had produced hyperinflation of almost 5,000 percent in 1989.

The government granted a 30-year concession to run the water system to Aguas Argentinas, a consortium controlled by two French corporate giants, Compagnie Générale des Eaux (now Vivendi) and Lyonnaise des Eaux (now Suez). The consortium didn't pay a cent for the concession, but promised to reduce water rates and to improve and to expand water and sewage services.

Soon thereafter, the World Bank declared the Buenos Aires privatization an overwhelming success, and made it a model for privatizations of water that followed in the Philippines, Indonesia, Australia and South Africa. But an ICIJ investigation showed that the Buenos Aires water privatization has been plagued by greed, deceit and failed promises. Its success has turned out to be mostly mirage. Furthermore, the investigation revealed that a World Bank employee went to work for Aguas Argentinas under a bank exchange program and helped negotiate higher water rates for the company. When he returned to the World Bank, he headed a team that gave Argentina a $30 million loan.

While millions of people like the Parravicinos and the Rusmans are still waiting for the benefits of water privatization, the move enriched a group of union leaders, crony capitalists and officials in the government of former President Carlos Menem. The private gains of privatization have in some cases been spectacular. Investors have raked off huge dividends and in some cases earned windfall profits from the timely sale of their shares. Some officials are being investigated on corruption charges.

As for the public benefits of privatization, water quality and distribution and expansion of the sewage system have improved under private control. Aguas Argentinas figures indicate that it had hooked up about a million new people to the water system by 2000. But many observers believe that the public utility could have equaled that achievement. And the private water company has failed to live up to other selling points.

Within a year of winning its concession, Aguas Argentinas wanted to renegotiate its contract, claiming financial problems. Over the next eight years, important initial contractual commitments, including promises to extend water and sewerage to millions living in poor districts, eventually vanished like water into sand.

Gérard Payen, senior executive vice president of Suez, told ICIJ that Buenos Aires is a "very big success" because the company is supplying water to 1.6 million people, half of whom live under the poverty line. He conceded that while some services have stopped the "reality is that we are still continuing to perform water delivery, seven days a week, and the people are very satisfied with our services."

Even as the company increased rates and charged large connection fees to customers who could ill afford them, the government gutted its regulatory oversight of the company.

Indeed, the failure of public officials to meet the responsibilities that privatization demanded of them has been a constant theme of Argentina's new water regime.

ETOSS (Ente Tripartito de Obras y Servicios Sanitarios), the government agency created to regulate Aguas Argentinas, has been toothless. In 2002, prosecutors filed an indictment, which was not directed at Aguas Argentinas but which stated that there were "serious and grave deficiencies in the fulfillment" of Aguas Argentinas' concession contract. The country's auditor general in November criticized ETOSS for the "excessive delay in the application of penalties" and for delaying construction works promised in the concession contract. ETOSS has levied $16 million in fines against Aguas Argentinas for missed commitments, but the company disputes the claims and has not paid the fines. The government later canceled $10 million of the fines as part of a new contract.

For many of President Carlos Menem's allies, being invited to the sale of water assets was like getting their own keys to the candy store. Supporters found high-paid jobs as company executives and directors, while others got rich investing in the new firm. Menem's environment minister, Maria Julia Alsogaray, who awarded Aguas Argentinas numerous rate increases and contract concessions, is being prosecuted for illicit enrichment. After the privatizations of power and water utilities, she bought herself a Buenos Aires mansion and two apartments in New York.

Furthermore, the ICIJ investigation has found that Argentine authorities are investigating others for the embezzlement of $2 million in World Bank funds.

Argentina's current economic crisis is having a devastating effect on its people. Government figures showed that in 2002, about 100,000 people dropped out of the middle class each week to become the new poor. A country that only 10 years earlier had Latin America's highest standard of living was now on a level with Jamaica; half of Argentina's 37 million people lived below the poverty level. The government had subsidy programs for about 2 million malnourished Argentines. But millions more got nothing. Some subsisted by scavenging through garbage.

The crisis put pressure on Aguas Argentinas, which obtained at least 75 percent of the money it invested from the World Bank and allied international financial institutions. With last year's major devaluation of the peso, this reliance on foreign capital came back to haunt not just the water company, but the government and people of Argentina as well.

In the spring of 2002, the company defaulted on about $700 million in loans and threatened to reduce water services unless the government guaranteed the loans in U.S. dollars. The government refused, instead suggesting that Aguas Argentinas could save $6.3 million a year by reducing its handsome executive salaries and perks. But when the International Monetary Fund insisted that President Eduardo Duhalde authorize a rate hike as a condition for renegotiating Argentina's foreign debt, Duhalde had no choice, in the summer of 2002, but to grant Aguas Argentinas a 10 percent increase.

The rate hikes meant nothing to the many millions of poor Argentines who long ago surrendered hopes of being hooked up to water and sewer mains. But they threatened to push many businesses over the edge, with trickle-down effects in the rest of the population. "Any increase in electricity or water rates are a great threat to us," said Ruben Manusovich, president of a national small business organization.

Privatize or perish

"Surgery without anesthesia," was how Menem described his policies in 1989 as he set out to make Argentina one of the world's leading models for privatization.

Faced with rampant inflation and reluctant international lenders, Menem won passage of the National Administrative Reform Law, which declared a state of economic emergency and gave him the power to privatize public utilities by decree.

World Bank money came flowing back to Argentina. The bank's Buenos Aires director Richard Newfarmer announced Menem's initiatives showed Argentina had complied with the conditions of World Bank loans. Pieter Bottelier, director of Latin America for the World Bank, suggested the World Bank help Argentina privatize its water.

And indeed it did. On Dec. 18, 1990, the World Bank approved a loan of $300 million. "The new adjustment projects in Argentina," World Bank Vice President Shahed Husain said, "show that the government has decided to keep deepening the economic reforms."

The World Bank's investment arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), opened its South American head office in Buenos Aires. At the official opening, IFC Vice President Wilfred Kaffenberger declared it to be "a suitable moment for investing in Argentina."

World Bank President Lewis Preston visited the country in June 1992. In the luxurious dining room of the Argentine Jockey Club, over plates of smoked salmon and duck à l'orange, Preston declared that Argentina's "process of adjustment" was "an example for all Latin America."

Among the crowd of functionaries and capitalists, none applauded louder than Santiago Soldati, a businessman and close Menem ally who would end up as the lead Argentine partner in the privatization of water.

The World Bank's privatization package included a $100 million loan for the provision of potable water and sewage services. The Argentine delegation that negotiated the loan included Minister of Economy Erman Gonzalez and Secretary of Water Affairs Mario Caserta.

A decade later, Gonzalez had been indicted for trafficking arms to Ecuador and Croatia, and Caserta had been imprisoned for 2 1-2 years for laundering drug money. Gonzalez has pleaded not guilty and is still before the courts. Soldati, meanwhile, had sold his interest in the water company, making a tidy $100 million in the process.

Turning thirst into profit

One of the great ironies of the Buenos Aires water privatization was that the public utility, the National Sanitation Services (Obras Sanitarias de la Nacion, OSN), had been a well-run company. It was not overburdened with debt and in fact had a surplus the year before privatization.

The OSN supplied drinking water to and hauled sewage from all of the city's 3 million inhabitants. But, as in most Latin American cities, the metropolitan area had expanded faster than the waterworks could keep up. Of the additional 9 million people living in the suburbs and shantytowns around Buenos Aires by 1993, only 50 percent were connected to water services, and 65 percent did not have sewer connections.

Capital was needed in large amounts to bring water and sewer connections to the Mario Parravicinos and Alejandra Rusmans of the vast poor neighborhoods around Buenos Aires. But the World Bank refused capital for expansion and upgrades unless Argentina privatized the water system.

"The state does not have resources to undertake billions of dollars of investments in order to avoid a collapse" of the water and sewer network, said OSN's supervisor, Eduardo Cevallo, in 1991. OSN, he added, would be "a model for privatization."

Privatization was opposed, initially, by the labor movement. In 1990, Roberto Pereyra, the firebrand leader of the waterworks union, said he would "fight to the last drop of blood" to keep water public. He disdainfully referred to privatization advocates as "wizards who are rooted like tumors in the government and who take over state enterprises as booty of war."

But Pereyra's fire was quenched by the so-called Programa de Propiedad Participada (PPP), which offered unions a 10-percent stake in the new company. The PPP "was intended to buy the consent of former OSN workers for the concession," an article prepared for the Inter-American Development Bank, stated baldly in 1998.

In fact, about half the waterworks' 7,200 employees lost their jobs as a result of privatization. The PPP was aimed more at the union leaders than the rank and file. But on that score at least, it seems to have worked.

Twelve years after his "last drop of blood" threat, Pereyra was helping to administer his union's stake in Aguas Argentinas, and sat on the company's board. Sporting an expensive suit and silk necktie during an interview with ICIJ in his luxurious Buenos Aires office, Pereyra was not apologetic about his change of heart. "We agreed to rent our house, not to sell it, because the state did not have the necessary capital to invest in OSN to maintain and to expand the service," he said.

The government announced that the concession winner would be the bidder who promised the greatest reduction in water rates — with the proviso that it not increase rates for 10 years and make commitments for greater investments in public works.

Buenos Aires was the biggest prize ever to be offered the world's major private utility companies. To land the Buenos Aires deal, Suez and Vivendi joined forces in 1992 with Menem supporter Soldati to create Aguas Argentinas.

Suez had the dominant share, with 25.3 percent, and Sociedad General de Aguas de Barcelona, a company partially owned by Suez, had another 12.6 percent. Vivendi had 8 percent while Anglian Water, a British company, held 4.5 percent. The remainder went to Argentine companies, including a 20.7 percent share to Soldati's company, Sociedad Comercial del Plata. The Bank of Galicia got 8.1 percent and Grupo Meller, a textile company run by Sergio Meller, a Menem supporter, got 10.8 percent. Soldati paid $50 million for his stake.

There were other bidders, including Aguas de Buenos Aires, a joint venture headed by Thames Water International Services, which later became a subsidiary of RWE; Canal de Isabel, a local Argentine venture; and Union Transitoria de Empresas, led by North West Water of the U.K.

But from the start, the Soldati-French consortium seemed to have the upper hand, thanks in part to forceful lobbying by the conservative French government, which was strongly tied into France's big water companies.

Suez' chief executive, Jérôme Monod, was a leading fundraiser for President Jacques Chirac's party, the Rassemblement pour la République (RPR). A French court in 1994 ruled that a Suez subsidiary had paid millions in bribes to a RPR federal minister in return for the privatization of Grenoble's waterworks. Monod in 2001 left Suez and joined Chirac directly as an adviser working from the Elysée Palace.

A succession of French dignitaries, including France's Minister of Commerce, Bruno Durieux, visited Buenos Aires in the early 1990s to lobby for the Suez/Vivendi bid. Durieux promised France would increase investments in Argentina based on "how many privatizations we win."

"The Embassy of France was hyperactive throughout the concession process," Daniel Chain of Aguas de Buenos Aires recalled. "Every week it invited political leaders to lunches attended by French ministers. However, the Embassy of Great Britain, which supposedly was supporting the bid of the British company, Thames, had a low profile. It was an unequal fight."

"Everybody lobbied," said Carlos Ben, who at the time was a member of the OSN privatization commission and who later became the assistant director-general of Aguas Argentinas. "No one had privileges. ... It was a very transparent bidding process."

The bids were opened on Dec. 9, 1992, at the Postal Palace of Buenos Aires. As Cevallo declared Aguas Argentinas the winner, shouts of euphoria burst from the French group. They had won by a whisker — offering a rate reduction of 26.9 percent, compared to the 26.1 percent promised by Aguas de Buenos Aires.

The concession, covering an area of 9.3 million people (about 2.7 million in the suburbs were left out), was assigned to Aguas Argentinas on April 28, 1993. Over the next 30 years, Cevallo said, Aguas Argentinas had commited itself to invest $4.1 billion and "to connect more than 4,200,000 inhabitants to a normal water supply and almost 4,800,000 to the sewage system."

Private gain, public pain

As soon as Aguas Argentinas took control, the company made good its contractual commitment and dropped water rates 26.9 percent. However, the reduction could be construed as contrived. In 1991, having targeted the waterworks for privatization, the government drove up water rates by 25 percent in February and then another 29 percent in April. The following year, it added an 18 percent sales tax and raised the rates another 8 percent. In effect, the company had partially rolled back huge rate increases imposed just before privatization. (Philippines government officials adopted the same Argentine tactic when in 1997 they privatized Manila's waterworks. Philippine officials claimed it helped garner popular support for the privatization.)

The ink had barely dried on the contracts when many of Aguas Argentinas' important commitments turned to dust. Within a year, the company had asked the government's newly established water authority ETOSS for a rate increase. The company claimed it had invested $300 million and lost $23 million and couldn't continue under such conditions.

ETOSS, which was financed with 2.65 percent of Aguas Argentinas' billings, granted an increase of 13.5 percent in exchange for advancing the dates of the investments agreed upon in the original contract, including the installation of water pipes and sewers in various shantytowns.

"What was said in 1993, that there was not going to be an increase in rates for 10 years, was not meant in absolute terms," Aguas Argentinas' Ben told ICIJ. "It was to indicate to the bidders that they should not put a speculative number [on rate reductions]. There was not a presumption of a freezing of rates."

Menahem Libhaber, the chief water and sanitation engineer for the World Bank in Latin America, said false promises are simply part of the game when it comes to such huge public contracts.

"You get into the business with low rates or high commitments — all the while telling yourself, 'When we are in we will renegotiate,'" Libhaber told ICIJ. "The public sector has to be aware," he said, that companies are disingenuously putting their best foot forward. "Sometimes it's a game to get into the business. ... And they [the companies] have leverage once they are in."

With their "model" privatization in trouble, the World Bank and its International Finance Corporation (IFC) issued loans to Aguas Argentinas worth $911 million between 1993 and 1997 for three sewage and water projects. Also, for $7 million, the IFC purchased 5 percent of Aguas Argentinas' shares. The World Bank was now not only a lender but also a partner in Aguas Argentinas.

After Menem won re-election in May 1995, he was impatient to make an official visit to France. But France had denied him an invitation, among other reasons because his government had refused to extradite Navy captain Alfredo Astiz, sought by a Paris judge for the murder of three French nuns during the military dictatorship of 1976 to 1983.

Political problems were eventually brushed aside. In February 1996 President Chirac welcomed Menem at the Elysée Palace. In the highlight of his visit, the University of Paris awarded him an honorary degree in a ceremony at the Sorbonne. Later, Menem and his Minister of Economy, Domingo Cavallo, met with Suez president Monod, who indicated he wanted to renegotiate the entire water contract in return for speeding up the water and sewer connections, high-placed sources in the Argentine department of External Affairs told ICIJ.

Back home, meanwhile, Buenos Aires residents were beginning to grumble about higher water rates. In April 1996, a protest movement began in the suburban town of Lomas de Zamora and soon spread through the Buenos Aires area. Thousands of new water clients blocked roads into the capital to protest the $800 charged by Aguas Argentinas to connect to the water and sewage systems.

A congressional commission concluded that Aguas Argentinas had "committed serious and grave breaches of contract." The commission ordered the company to suspend the charging of connection fees for 80,000 new users in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area. The commission also concluded that Aguas Argentinas was failing to meet its goals of renovating water and sewage networks and was failing to inform ETOSS of what it was doing.

In November 1996, ETOSS and Aguas Argentinas agreed to reduce the connection rate to $200 while creating a new fee called Universal Service to be paid by old clients. "It was a cross-subsidy for the new clients who were poor," explained ETOSS director Cevallo.

The protests petered out. But the real winner was Aguas Argentinas. It had succeeded in imposing fees not described in its contract.

Meanwhile, Menem was taking steps that would undercut ETOSS' authority and place more power in the hands of a political ally. On Feb. 14, 1997, he signed Decree 149 granting Maria Julia Alsogaray, the secretary of environment, authority over the fulfillment of the contract and authorizing her to renegotiate the contract with Aguas Argentinas.

Alsogaray was one of the most flamboyant, controversial figures in Menem's government, filling the tabloids with juicy stories about her divorce and love affairs, and at one point posing for a magazine at a ski resort clad only in a fur coat. Alsogaray would eventually become a symbol of the greed and corruption that accompanied Menem's neo-liberal economic policies.

Menem was elected in 1989 by allying himself with Alsogaray's father, conservative politician Alvaro Alsogaray. As repayment, Maria Julia was put in charge of privatizing the state telephone company, Entel, and the state steel company, Somisa.

She took over the environment ministry in 1991 and made 13 trips to Paris while in that position. During French President Chirac's visit to Argentina in March 1997, according to Argentine foreign ministry sources, he discussed the water privatization contract with Argentine officials. A short time later, Alsogaray agreed to review it.

The decision worried Cevallo, then director of ETOSS. "I went to the bicameral commission of the Congress and I told the deputies and senators that they were opening a Pandora's box," he told ICIJ.

He said Aguas Argentinas had built only about a third of the new pumping stations and underground mains it had promised to complete by 1997. It had invested only $9.4 million of a promised $48.9 million in sewage networks.

The company was delaying construction of the crucial Berazategui wastewater treatment plant. As a result, most of the city's sewage was being dumped directly into rivers and cesspools, creating serious health hazards and increasing the levels of nitrates in the waters. High nitrate levels reduce blood oxygen in infants and can be fatal. By failing to build the plant, Aguas Argentinas was saving itself about $100,000 a day in costs — which added $35 million a year in profits — according to an estimate from a 1996 World Bank report.

Ben of Aguas Argentinas said the treatment plant was delayed because it required "further investigation."

As negotiations for a revised contract heated up, a senior World Bank water manager joined the staff of Aguas Argentinas. Under the World Bank's Staff Exchange Program, Ventura Bengoechea went to work for Aguas Argentinas in 1997 and continued until a new contract was signed in 2000. His job was negotiating rate increases or, as the Bank says, "preparation of proposals for modifications to existing tariff regime and for their negotiation with the regulatory entity." The World Bank continued to pay his salary. After returning to the bank, Bengoechea became senior water and sanitation specialist for Latin America and was team leader on a $30 million loan made to Argentina in 1999. A spokesperson for the World Bank said that such arrangements were fully consistent with Bank rules.

According to the World Bank's project appraisal document, the Buenos Aires concession, among others in Argentina, was "under significant stress, unless actions are taken to correct the problems." It added that a "major re-negotiation of contract was needed for the Buenos Aires concession."

A World Bank subsidiary had bought into Aguas Argentinas, and now a World Bank employee had become the private company's main rate negotiator. The international financial community was fully invested in the company's success — though by then it wasn't entirely clear that success meant the same thing to Aguas Argentinas and the nation it was supposed to serve.

The French cash in

Santiago Soldati heads a powerful Argentine business clan with interests in oil and gas wells and exploration, gaming, entertainment and real estate. The family's businesses expanded greatly during the 1990s by gaining equity in privatized government utilities for pennies to the dollar. One of Soldati's biggest money-makers was Aguas Argentinas.

In July 1998, Suez offered Soldati $90 million for his 20.7 percent stake in the company. He had bought it five years earlier for $50 million. But Soldati turned down the chance at a $40 million gain.

At the time Aguas Argentinas was in negotiations for large rate increases. In May 1998, the company asked ETOSS for a rate increase of 11.7 percent. When ETOSS authorized only 1.61 percent, Aguas Argentinas appealed to Alsogaray who in turn persuaded Menem to authorize a 5.1 percent increase, which eventually became a 17 percent increase. A judge froze part of the rate hike, but the government successfully appealed and the hike went through.

The new rates represented an even happier windfall for Soldati. On Oct. 9, 1998, the Soldati group sold out to Suez for $150 million dollars.

"I do not know if it was ethical or not," Cevallo said of the rate increase. "What I know is that in the long run Soldati and Suez benefited." Horacio Caló, a spokesman of Soldati Group, confirmed the sale but refused further comment.

Seven days after Soldati's sale to Suez, Soldati and Menem flew off to France where another honor awaited the Argentine president — to speak to the Academy of the French Language. Only once before, with Emperor Pedro II of Brazil in 1872, had a South American visitor been invited to speak to the Academy. Unfortunately, Menem speaks no French. He addressed the august assembly in Spanish.

Once back in Argentina, Menem began renegotiating the Aguas Argentinas contract. Critics claimed Aguas Argentinas had failed to invest even half the $1.3 billion it had promised. The company said its investment plans were on hold pending renegotiation of the contract. Critics charged that Menem had allowed Aguas Argentinas to hold the country ransom.

The company claimed it had increased water connections to 82.4 percent of the population, from 70 percent and thus met its water promises in the first five years of the contract. But at least 30 percent of the increase included the addition to the concession in 1995 of the city of Quilmes, most of whose residents were already connected.

The company claimed it connected 61 percent of its customers to the sewage collection system. This fell just short of its commitment of 64 percent. The amount of actual sewage that is treated remained at about 5 percent, according to a study by Municipal Services Project of Queens University in Canada. Aguas Argentinas still dumps most of the untreated sewage from Buenos Aires into the Rio de la Plata.

On June 20, 1999, Jean Louis Chaussade, the general manager of Aguas Argentinas, promised a new billion-dollar, five-year investment plan, in exchange for another rate increase. He also made lawyer Juan Carlos Cassagne, a Menem ally and former adviser, president of Aguas Argentinas.

The Menem government chose to disregard the company's shortcomings, rushing to sign a new contract on Nov. 29, 1999, just 11 days before the inauguration of a new Argentine president, Fernando de la Rúa.

The new contract basically gave Aguas Argentinas what it wanted. It reduced its investment commitments by allowing it to delay construction of the water treatment plant and a fourth sewer main. It eliminated obligatory investments tied to rate increases and erased $10 million in fines imposed by ETOSS for alleged contract violations. And it pegged rate increases to fluctuations in the U.S. inflation rate, calculated in pesos.

ETOSS's Cevallo told the ICIJ the new contracts "changed the financial equation for Aguas Argentinas." The company's "profit problems were solved."

Not that its profits had ever exactly shrunken away. Aguas Argentinas' own figures indicate it made considerable profits from 1993 to 2001, although the exact amount is in dispute.

Cevallo says that Aguas Argentinas earned between 15 percent and 25 percent each year, and other economists cited by the Inter-American Development Bank put the profit rate as high as 40 percent. In March 1996, the company announced it earned $54 million in just the previous year. However, Ben, the company official, put the profit rate at 4 percent during those years — a total of $427 million of which $109 million was paid out in dividends. The higher profit rate calculations are based on the company's net assets, Ben said, "but we are not owners of the assets."

Whatever the profit rate, government officials involved with water company privatization did not escape the charges of corruption that dogged Menem after he left power in 2000.

Federal Judge Juan Jose Galeano accused Alsogaray of illicit enrichment, noting that her declared assets were worth $300,000 in 1989 and $2.5 million when she left government. Galeano charged that Alsogaray's legal income of $3,000 a month could not justify those assets, which included a Buenos Aires mansion, two apartments on New York's Central Park, and a lifestyle to go with them.

Prosecutors are also investigating allegations that Alsogaray illegally transferred land to France Telecom, one of the concessionaires of the state telephone company Entel; paid illegal consulting fees to lawyers and an auditing company concerning Entel; and overpaid by $10 million a debt owed by Entel to an Argentine company. As of December 2002, these and seven other cases involving Alsogaray were still before the courts.

Alsogaray has denied all charges and claims she is a "victim of the justice system."

Menem and his private secretary, Ramon Hernandez, were also under investigation regarding money in Swiss bank accounts and money laundering.

Neither Menem nor Alsogaray would agree to interviews for this story. Menem is running for re-election in 2003.

Where are the waterworks?

On January 9, 2001, a little more than a year after signing the new contract, the new Argentine government agreed to allow Aguas Argentinas to hike water rates 9.1 percent across the board. In exchange, the company promised to speed up its $1.1 billion spending plans. The government hoped the construction projects would help revitalize the Argentine economy, which had been in recession for more than a year.

Then the bottom fell out of the Argentine economy. Bank accounts were frozen, and the Argentine peso was devalued, sparking renewed inflation.

Ten years earlier, the massive amounts of capital the World Bank ploughed into Argentina were seen as the foundation of a new, rock-solid economy run by private enterprise. By the end of 2001, the debt had become even more burdensome. Aguas Argentinas owed $687 million, including $124 million to the IFC, $297 million to the Inter-American Development Bank, and $78 million to the European Investment Bank.

Facing an imminent peso devaluation, Aguas Argentinas' president Cassagne threatened in February 2002 to suspend certain water services and all of the company's construction plans unless the Argentine central bank guaranteed the company an exchange rate of one dollar per peso to pay its external debt of nearly $700 million.

When the government refused the guarantee, Aguas Argentinas demanded another rate increase, estimated at 42 percent, to compensate for cost increases.

When the government again rejected the company's demands, it threatened to take its claim to the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes, which is part of the World Bank. The World Bank, through its affiliate IFC, owns 5 percent of Aguas Argentinas. The government of Argentina moved to forbid Aguas Argentinas from lodging the claim; France countered by defending it.

Asked if the bank would be in conflict of interest if the case proceeded, Jamal Saghir, the World Bank's water director, said: "I cannot make a judgment. I don't make a comment on that."

In the spring of 2002, Aguas Argentinas defaulted on its loans.

As far as the World Bank sees it, the Buenos Aires privatization is still "very successful," according to Ventura Bengoechea, the senior World Bank water and sanitation expert. Bengoechea acknowledged in late 2002 that the company no longer was making serious investments in new water lines. "Obviously, everything is perfectible. But the balance is pretty positive."

Suez couldn't agree more. "It is absolutely a success," Gérard Payen, a senior vice-president, told ICIJ. He said the company has delivered running water to about 700,000 poor people in Argentina.

"There are big difficulties, as you know," Payen added. "The reality is that we are still continuing to perform water delivery, seven days a week, and the people are very satisfied with our services."

Tell that to Parravicino and his neighbors, and millions like them, who still do not have sewage or city drinking water.

"You just learn to live with not having it so it hardly represents a problem any more," Parravicino said. "What's more serious is the fact we have no sewers and paved streets." "I think that something can be done," he added, "but I still don't know who is responsible for it, the government or Aguas Argentinas."