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Sex scandal divides conservative allies in Chile's Congress

VALPARAISO, Chile -- Congresswoman Maria Pia Guzman is a strait-laced conservative who has suddenly and unexpectedly become an outcast at the Congress building here. Sometimes her follow legislators murmur an insult when she comes within earshot: "Witch!"

Guzman did not unleash the sex scandal now rocking Chile's political and social elite, a sordid tale centered around a millionaire businessman and some runaway teenagers.

But she did publicly link a handful of congressmen and senators to the case, suggesting some of her own political allies might be involved in an alleged ring of prostitution and child pornography. And for that, some of her fellow legislators will not forgive her.

When she gets in an elevator with other congressmen, they often step out. "There is a very strong psychological warfare going on," Guzman said in an interview in her Valparaiso office. Lighting a cigarette, she added: "Before this case, I had stopped smoking."

The sex scandal, a topic of daily coverage in the Chilean press, began Sept. 30 when Chilean police arrested 54-year-old entrepreneur Claudio Spiniak. Since then, the controversy has reached far into Chile's legal and political realms.

A Catholic television station, a blackmailed judge, and the front-runner in the next presidential election have all, in one way or another, been touched by the controversy.

Only Spiniak and six associates have been criminally charged in the case, on allegations ranging from rape to "inciting child prostitution." At least two legislators have been questioned by the judge investigating the case but have not been charged.

Still, the case has exposed a deep-seated distrust for the nation's elites. Last Sunday, the Santiago daily newspaper El Mercurio published a poll in which 74 percent of respondents said they believe politicians are involved in the sex ring.

"The public believes all these people are delinquents and thieves and that they're capable of the worst abuses, even though the proof isn't completely convincing," said Cristian Riego Ramirez, a lawyer with the Santiago-based Center for Justice Studies of the Americas.

According to media reports here, Police detained Spiniak after receiving repeated reports of violent and abusive behavior at the parties he organized at various homes in and around Santiago, "orgies" said to involve the entrepreneur, his friends, and young men and women.

Some of the most explicit details have come from a 20-year-old woman who said she became a virtual slave of Spiniak at the age of 16, allegations she made in two television interviews. She also described rapes and other violent acts allegedly committed against youths.

While denying most of the criminal charges against him, Spiniak admitted in an interview in November to living "a double life," one in which he was the respected and married owner of a chain of Santiago health clubs, the other in which he abused drugs and engaged in sadomasochistic sex with other men.

In socially conservative Chile -- the last country in the Western Hemisphere where divorce is illegal -- those revelations were themselves explosive.

The allegations of rape and pedophilia were especially troubling for Guzman, who represents the affluent Las Condes district of Santiago in Congress. For years she has been leading a campaign to toughen penalties for sex crimes in Chile.

In the months before Spiniak's arrest, she had been working on one bill to raise the age of consensual sex from 12 to 14, and another to stiffen the penalties for rape and to broaden the definition of what constitutes rape.

On Oct. 10, less than two weeks after Spiniak was arrested, she publicly weighed in on the case for the first time. Rumors had been circulating that politicians might be part of his "circle," but no one had dared say so on the record.

"There is evidence that in the intimate circle of Spiniak's network there are politicians," Guzman told reporters, sharing information that had come to her from contacts at a shelter for abused youths. "Two of them are from the Alliance for Chile and one from the Christian Democrats."

Those comments opened the media floodgates. A few days later, news reports named Senator Jovino Novoa of the Independent Democratic Union as one of the suspects in the case. Novoa has not commented publicly but has reportedly said in private he is confident he will be exonerated.

Novoa's party is the partner of Guzman's National Renewal party in the conservative Alliance for Chile. The accusations against the politicians came when the alliance between the two conservative parties was showing signs of strain.

Leaders of the Independent Democratic Union accused Guzman of being involved in a "political operation" against their party. They brought a judicial complaint against Guzman, even as the leadership of her own party rallied to her defense.

"There are no politicians, none, involved in the Spiniak case," said Pablo Longueira, leader of the Independent Democratic Union.

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