Reportage. Local communities have been fighting for 17 years against the ‘parallel state’ of British billionaire Joe Lewis, who has cut off access to public lands with his illicit property.

How Joe Lewis stole a piece of Patagonia for himself

It is a struggle that has been going on for more than 17 years, in defense of Argentine sovereignty over Lago Escondido in Patagonia’s Río Negro province. It began, as always, with an offense, one of many that Patagonia has been subjected to at the hands of foreign billionaires. The perpetrator, in this case, was Joe Lewis, now 85 years old and the sixth richest man in the United Kingdom, with a fortune amounting to more than $5 billion, ranking him No. 302 on Forbes’ list of billionaires in 2019.

Famous as the owner of Tottenham, one of the Premier League’s most important soccer clubs, and, as part of his Tavistock Group, of several businesses in various parts of the world, Lewis owes his wealth to a significant extent to the speculative attack on the pound he carried out together with George Soros on September 16, 1992, which went down in history as Black Wednesday, when the British government had to withdraw the currency from the European exchange rate mechanism. Some think he gained even more than Soros on that occasion; it is certain that the operation was so successful for him that he did not hesitate to repeat it in 1995 with the Mexican peso, increasing his haul even more.

Bolstered by these successes, in 1996 Lewis decided to buy himself a little piece of paradise in Argentine Patagonia. To do so, he turned to local real estate agent Nicolás Van Ditmar, the current administrator of his estate, who had already facilitated the sale of endless amounts of land to the Benetton group (which owns nearly 900,000 hectares in Patagonia alone). It was through him that Lewis purchased the Montero family property around Lago Escondido, a beautiful mountain lake nestled in a protected area (the Río Azul-Lago Escondido Natural Area) that is home to many animals including the southern huemul, a rare species of deer native to the Andean regions of Argentina and Chile.

The purchase should never have been allowed to take place, as Argentine legislation prohibits the sale of property close to the border to foreign nationals for reasons of national security – and the Montero property is located just 20 km from the Chilean border.

But it would take more than a law to discourage the British tycoon, who circumvented the obstacle by resorting to an Argentine company, H.R. Properties Buenos Aires SA, which, once the purchase was completed, sold the property to Hidden Lake SA, controlled by the billionaire. It was thanks to these maneuvers that Lewis, although a British citizen, was able to buy 7,800 hectares close to the border, containing a lake that by law is public property (like all the bodies of water in the country), later managing to add another 2,700 hectares and also building himself a private airport in the Río Negro with a runway almost 2000 meters long, but without a radar station, so as to guarantee himself the utmost confidentiality on takeoffs and landings (and from which it would take him two hours by plane to get to the Malvinas).

Since then, for the locals, reaching the lake became an adventure in itself. The only way to access it is now through a steep and in some places dangerous path – passable only in summer – that requires at least two days of travel, despite the fact that there is a dirt road, the Tacuifí path, that would allow one to get there in a few hours. And even though the Río Negro Superior Court of Justice has ordered Lewis’s company to allow passage through the Tacuifí path back in 2009, and then again in 2013, the authorities have never done anything to ensure that the rulings were respected, so access to the lake continues to depend on the whims of Lewis’s private security guards, whose power is said to be greater than that of the provincial police.

A new verdict was expected in early June from the Bariloche Court of Appeals, which was expected to rule on Lewis’s failure to comply with a 2013 ruling by Judge Carlos Cuellar, who had given the Río Negro government 90 days to guarantee free access to the lake.

It has been nine years since then, and the new verdict is also getting delayed, as a collection of more than 50 social, labor and political organizations have denounced in a statement. They also demand that the judiciary authorities enforce Resolutions 393 and 503 issued on April 18 and May 5 by the Inspección General de Justicia, Argentina’s corporate oversight body, which had ordered the liquidation of Lewis’s company and its assets, thus including the land surrounding Lago Escondido.

The resolutions came for two reasons: failure to comply with the 2013 ruling and the nature of Hidden Lake SA as a shell company, not aimed at any production of goods or provision of services, but used just “to hide Lewis’s substantial assets in Patagonia.” A company which, according to Resolution 393, is being used by the tycoon “for his own and exclusive interest, which is nothing more than to live in a paradise-like place, surrounded by mountains and lakes, without allowing access to anyone except a small circle of friends and guests, and without offering any access path to admire these natural beauties, the enjoyment of which cannot be his exclusive privilege.”

But it’s hard to see this “parallel state” he has built, as MintPress News reporter Whitney Webb called it in 2019, coming to an end any time soon. Indeed, in the ongoing tug-of-war, Lewis has full control over local political power, as El Bolsón journalist Reynaldo Rodríguez has reported. And Governor Arabela Carreras certainly has some connection to the issue: she first called the conflict “an ideological issue,” and later made it quite clear that ensuring access to the lake was not among her priorities.

The tycoon’s power was also apparent in an obvious way on the occasion of the sixth march for sovereignty over Escondido Lake, held in February (another one has been announced for September), when a group of demonstrators demanding access to the lake was stopped and violently assaulted by Lewis’s private security guards, who, they say, were led by Nicolás van Ditmar himself. After all, it was clear from 2011 that the tycoon’s right-hand man was no stranger to making threats, when he had publicly declared that he was ready to prevent locals from accessing the Tacuifí path, which passes a few meters away from Lewis’s main residence, “with a Winchester rifle in his hand.”

One of those who has enjoyed access to the lake all this time has been former President Mauricio Macri, who, already accused in 2016 of receiving campaign financing from Lewis, has now been subject to a criminal complaint by Frente de Todos deputy Rodolfo Tailhade for having unduly favored the British tycoon. Through Decree 820/2016, the former president amended Law 26,737, which placed a limit on the “growing process of ceding large areas of land in our country to foreign nationals.” Not coincidentally, the drafting of the decree was entrusted to the law firm Brons & Salas, whose domicile is the same as that of Hidden Lake SA.

According to Rodolfo Tailhade, this means that “through his lawyers, Joe Lewis himself drafted the decree from which he was set to benefit.”

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