It was the odd uniformity of the suitcase's contents that tipped off the baggage inspector: six thick, identical rectangles. They could have been books, but then again, they could have been six bundles of cocaine. And in August 2007, security was tight at the airport in Buenos Aires; the country was in the midst of a presidential election. It was worth taking a closer look. The suitcase's owner, a Venezuelan businessman just in from Caracas, hesitated briefly when asked to open his suspicious luggage. Out tumbled $800,000 in cash. It was, according to U.S. investigators, an illegal campaign contribution from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez intended for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, wife of Argentina's former president and a candidate for the presidency herself. What better to grease the countries' friendship, investigators alleged, than a suitcase full of cash?
Such tales of bribery and corruption are as old as politics. Try as we might to rid officialdom of crooks, however, extorting senators, vote-buying presidents, and judges for sale remain all too common. Whether it's the $90,000 in cold cash that turned up a few years ago in a U.S. congressman's freezer, the "Versailles in the jungle" built with the billions embezzled by Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko, or the bank balances of oil autocrats in Central Asia, venality and excess remain the scourge of modern global politics.