“I was taken away in a black car, the car that was supposed to run me over. We got to a house in Don Torcuato [a Buenos Aires suburb], and there they started to hit me. I told them that it really hurt, so they gave me a rag to stuff in my mouth. Afterward they gave me an injection. They broke my right leg with two planks and an iron bar. The bone broke through the skin. They wanted to break my arm, too, but I shouted no. I don’t know how I didn’t die from all the pain. Afterward, the driver took me to the car, left me in Beccar [a town north of Buenos Aires] around 7 P.M., and told me to lie down in the road. They told me that they had an arrangement with the local police, and that I had to scream in order to fake the accident. They also instructed me about what to say to the police: that I came out of work and then the accident happened. The police came, and an ambulance, and I was taken to a hospital. I was laid up for a month.”
Olga Ferreyra, 63, a mother of seven from a slum neighborhood in the city of Merlo, southwest of the Argentine capital, remembers vividly the day in 2007 when a neighbor approached her with an offer: a broken leg in exchange for generous financial compensation. “I did it for my disabled son,” Ferreyra told the court in the Buenos Aires suburb of San Isidro last December, after barely being able to hobble to the witness stand. “The neighbor said: ‘Do it, Olga, I got paid [for it].’”
It wasn’t a random offer. According to the authorities in Argentina, the conversation with Ferreyra followed weeks of systematic fieldwork carried out by a ruthless crime organization. Its agents hung around in impoverished Buenos Aires suburbs, identified “candidates” from the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder and persuaded them to take part in a similar deal: be the victim of a fake accident and get payment from an insurance company.
The end of this story isn’t hard to guess. With the exception of paltry sums here and there, the victims never saw the money.
While she was hospitalized, Ferreyra met Federico Schiber for the first time; he seemed to be a positive figure, relatively, in the horror film in which she’d been cast. Schiber gave her small sums of money and organized transportation while she was undergoing medical treatment. “After a few days, Mr. Federico came to the hospital,” she stated in her testimony. “He would give me 100 or 200 pesos [$70 or $140, at the time] to cover my needs. After the hospitalization, the rehabilitation started. When I had an appointment, I would be picked up in a white van that also held a few other women with broken legs and arms. The transportation also took me to the court. There I said what I had been told to say. All in all, I received 400 pesos. They said they would pay me a lot more, but afterward they didn’t give me anything.”
Ferreyra felt cheated, and rightly so. The fee she received, about $280 at the time, was a negligible proportion of the bodily injury claims submitted by the crime organization’s agents in the name of the women involved. The amount of each claim ranged between 600,000 and 1.7 million pesos ($420,000-$1.2 million). According to the documents in this case, which were made available to Haaretz, Schiber was not only stingy about what he gave Olga; he also delayed her recovery in a malicious way, when it turned out she needed a pin to hold together the fractured bone. “It was Federico who obtained the pin that had to be inserted into Ferreyra’s left leg, but he delayed giving it to her so that her condition would worsen and thus the amount of compensation would be increased,” the verdict states.
In any event, according to the indictment filed against him in Argentina, the influence wielded by Federico Schiber, a stocky 38-year-old lawyer, extended far beyond providing medical assistance, handing out pocket money and arranging transportation. He was the top operational figure in the scamming group, second in the hierarchy to his father, attorney Hugo Schiber, 72, who came up with the whole idea and oversaw a network of players. The court found that Hugo also headed the law office that submitted the insurance claims and supervised the acts of fraud from within the firm.
After identifying potential candidates for victimhood, Hugo and Federico met with them in their office and briefed them as what to say depending on the circumstances in each case. They also supervised the administrative side: Their office checked the insurance policies of the drivers who were to be involved in the ostensible accidents, and collected or fabricated every bit of evidence to maximize the compensation.
The ruling in the case, handed down in May, describes a sophisticated and well-oiled system of fraud that included the maintenance of designated vehicles, the use of agents to locate potential female victims and the recruitment of fake witnesses. (The fact that some of them were “witnesses” to more than one accident was part of the evidence presented by the prosecution.) Another element of the scheme was that the organization held on to the victims’ ID cards as a means to exert pressure on them, giving them back only after the women had signed power-of-attorney over to the lawyers. The sums they received in turn were ridiculously low, sometimes amounting to no more than the “assistance stipends” the organization gave them to persuade them not to cancel the power-of-attorney arrangement.
The judgment, covering more than 350 pages, presents the story of eight of the women, who between 2008 and 2011 were persuaded to turn over a leg or an arm, sometimes both, to the whims of the gang operatives. The “hit” squad consisted of Daniel Herrera (aka “Julio”), Francisco Valentin Ortiz (aka “Rulo”), Rodolfo Cañete and Juan Carlos. The four had at their disposal a van that they disguised as an ambulance and a car for staging the accidents. Both vehicles were owned by Federico Schiber.
To prepare for the “accident,” the four would drive the women to various places, usually in the vicinity of their homes in remote areas of the province of Buenos Aires. In some cases the group took them to the home of one of the men, or to a carpentry workshop that they had access to. They injected them with a substance to immobilize them, which the men claimed was a painkiller, held their arms down and stuffed a rag in their mouth. Using iron bars, they pounded the women violently, all the while preventing them from moving, and didn’t stop even if the women changed their minds and begged for mercy. “We need to continue,” the victims were told. Instead of the relatively localized injuries to which the women had agreed, they suffered severe multiple fractures that in some cases required lengthy hospitalization and complicated surgical procedures. Some of the injuries were irreversible.
The four muscle men were sentenced to prison terms of six to 15 years on counts of fraud, aggravated assault and membership in an illegal organization. Hugo Schiber, the “brains” behind the scam, received the stiffest punishment: 18 years.
Federico, who had been indicted on similar charges to his father, managed to escape in the course of the trial, so there is as yet no verdict in his case. In March, he boarded a boat in Buenos Aires, crossed the Rio de la Plata – the estuary in the Atlantic Ocean that separates Argentina and Uruguay – and disembarked in the town of Carmelo. He then traveled by public transportation to the airport in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo, paid in cash for a ticket to Brazil, went on to Barcelona and from there, via Air Europa, arrived in Israel, days after departing Buenos Aires. He entered the country under his real name, as a tourist who had come here to visit relatives.
No warning light flashed as Schiber, who is Jewish, passed through passport control at Ben-Gurion International Airport, even though he is wanted by Interpol. Not long afterward, he applied for new-immigrant status under Israel’s Law of Return, and his application was approved.
A source in the Population and Immigration Authority of the Interior Ministry told me this week that the whole chain of events involving the Argentine fugitive is suspicious in itself.
“New immigrants usually arrange their status in advance [before leaving their home countries],” he said, “because the examination of their eligibility takes time, and meanwhile they continue with their regular routine. The case of a person who prefers to arrive as a tourist and submit his request here, a short time after arrival, definitely gives rise to questions.”
The circumstances surrounding Schiber’s arrival in Israel were public knowledge, given that the Argentine press had tracked his escape route and reported in the spring that he was hiding in Israel. The author of a recent article in the Israeli portal Mako also wondered where the architect of the “broken bones sting” might be found here. However, the Israeli authorities apparently were not especially interested in finding him. In fact, it was only after Haaretz, which was also on his trail, approached the ministry that the Population and Immigration Authority decided to examine whether his citizenship should be revoked.
My search for the South American fugitive began in the Negev, because reports suggested that Schiber was hiding there with relatives. There is a woman of Argentine origin with the maiden name of Schiber was living in Be’er Sheva, but it quickly became clear that she has no connection to the family of the lawyer from Buenos Aires. In the meantime, I received information to the effect that Schiber had changed both his first name and his surname to Hebrew names. The search was then extended to his maternal relatives, the Frischer family. Sources within the community of immigrants from South America helped narrow down the list of possible families. Based on the assumption that Schiber would prefer to melt into the crowd in an impersonal urban setting, Frischer families living on kibbutzim or in small communities were ruled out. Finally, one family remained: the Frischers of Kfar Sava.
Last week, even after I had waited for days next to the building where the family lives, there had still been no sign of Federico Schiber.
‘A rag to bite on’
“My sister-in-law told me that there are people who break your bones like in an accident and pay you. She knew I wanted to buy a car, so my husband would be able to work and get ahead. I met Rulo, Julio and Juan Carlos in her house. They told me that they would give me an anaesthetic, do the breaking, and if all went like it should, I would have to give them 5,000 pesos from the insurance money I would get. I decided to do it out of need. We were living on loans, and I wanted to have something of my own in order to live better. I already had a child then.
“When I agreed, they asked for my ID card, and I gave it to them. It all happened on the same day. They came to get me in a white vehicle like an ambulance, with the words ‘Evacuation Unit’ on it. I don’t know how to read or write, but I remember, because I asked someone what it said. They took me to the home of Juan Carlos. There are no streets in his neighborhood, only dirt paths, open areas; it’s very poor, without electricity. Julio drove. When we got there, they covered my head with a blanket, gave me a rag to bite on, laid me on my side... and hit me twice. I screamed. Then they put me in the vehicle. I was lying on the floor. They brought me to some street corner and told me that if the police came I should say that I had been at a party in the casino there. Juan Carlos stayed with me, and when the police came he said that he had found me there and that he didn’t know me.
“I was put in a wheelchair and taken to a room next to the police station. They took off my flip-flops and my socks, which were soaked with blood. They took me to a hospital and x-rayed my leg. The doctor said I had to be hospitalized, because I had an open fracture. I wanted to go home, because of my son. I was there for 20 days. The next day [after the accident], Hugo Schiber came. He told me he was my lawyer and gave me a blank page to sign. He said it was a power-of-attorney, so he could represent me. After I signed, they gave me back my ID card. I was taken to a different hospital and had an operation. A plate was inserted in my leg.
“When I was let out, they came to get me in the white vehicle that looks like an ambulance. I sat on the floor. We went to the office of Hugo and Federico Schiber. They came out to me, because I couldn’t walk, and Federico said to me: ‘I heard that a police officer came to your house. If he shows up again, say you had an accident and that’s all.’ When I had an appointment with the doctor, to remove stitches or do an ultrasound, I would call attorney Schiber and he would send someone to take me. I asked him to give me money for food. I think they gave me 300 pesos altogether [about $210 at the time]. I wanted to change my lawyer, because they promised me money and didn’t give me anything. So Juan Carlos called me, he said the whole thing was a charade, and that in the same way he had set up everything, he could also undo it. He threatened to hurt my mother or my son, and said I had to go back to attorney Schiber.”
– From the testimony of Patricia Alejandra Blanco, 42
The affair, which became known by the catchy term “Los Rompehuesos” (“the bone breakers”), stirred considerable interest in the Argentine press. This seemingly dreary story of insurance fraud was covered intensively because of the scale of the scam and above all because of the brutality about which the women testified. The media reports focused on graphic descriptions but also generated a dialogue about the vast class differences in Argentina and the people who have become victims of the country’s shattered economy.
However, the story of the Schiber family made waves for another reason as well. “Carancho,” a 2010 film by Argentine director Pablo Trapero, told the story of a failed lawyer who collects clients by means of “ambulance chasing” – rushing to disaster scenes, mostly traffic accidents, based on the likelihood that the casualties will need legal assistance. When he happens upon on a lucrative business opportunity, he bends reality to his needs, from falsifying evidence to fabricating entire scenarios, as he is swept up in a cycle of vicious violence and callous corruption. The film, which starred popular actor Ricardo Darin, was a great success in Argentina and was the country’s entry for the Best Foreign Picture Oscar (though it didn’t make the short list). The saga of the Schibers, both lawyers, became public not long afterward.
“The story shocked people and stayed in the headlines for a long time, because it was as though the story in ‘Carancho’ had come true, and the reality actually overshadowed it,” Gustavo Carabajal, a correspondent for the Buenos Aires-based newspaper La Nacion, told me this week by telephone. But according to Carabajal – who was the first to report on the Schiber story – the essence of the cases themselves outweighs the symbolism of life imitating art.
“People don’t treat animals the way these women were treated,” he says. “Sometimes to kill a person is not the worst thing you can do to them. In some of the cases, the claim was for 100,000 pesos. The woman was promised 3,000 pesos, and she didn’t even get that. In other words, it was a double fraud – both of the insurance company and of the women.”
Carabajal says there’s one clear common denominator among all the victims. “In a word: despair. These are women whom the system had ejected, who found themselves in a situation of having absolutely no alternative, of not being able to make a living and with no social-support system. Some of them also have a child or another relative with a medical problem to care for, but are unable to pay for treatment. They [members of the crime ring] were efficient at locating women for whom this was the last resort.”
Back to Kfar Sava. Occupants in the building where the Frischers live tell me they have not encountered a man of about 40 who answers to Schiber’s conjectured profile – blue eyes, heavy body build – as it appears from the composite image released by the Argentine authorities after his escape. To determine whether he is indeed living in the building, I left a notice stating that an envelope for Schiber from the post office would be delivered to the apartment, with a phone number – belonging to a member of the Haaretz editorial board – included, for more information. The phone rang soon afterward. It wasn’t Schiber, but a woman who spoke Hebrew without an accent; she confirmed that this was the address of the fugitive. A quick check revealed that the number belongs to a senior psychologist in one of the health maintenance organizations, whose maternal relatives are from Argentina and who lives on a kibbutz in the Sharon region in the central part of the country.
“I don’t know who you are, and I am really not interested in providing details about myself or about people related to me,” she said on the phone, adding that she refused to pass on a message to Schiber. “I absolutely do not speak on the phone with people I don’t know or give out information,” she snapped, before hanging up. The connection between the two is still unclear but in any event, since she had confirmed the address, the time had come to knock on the door.
“My cousin Claudia told me that there are some men who stage accidents and you could get money in the trial. One day, Julio, Juan Carlos and Rulo came to my house in a white van that looks like an ambulance. They asked me how old I was and whether I had an ID card, and said I would have to wait until I was 21. On the day before my birthday they came to take me and my cousin in the van. They said they still didn’t have another car for staging the accident, and anyway we had to wait another day, so we slept in the van until the next day, when I turned 21.
“In the morning they got a car and took us to a carpentry workshop. They rubbed our face, arms and stomach on the side with sandpaper, so it would look like we were dragged along the road. The mark on my cheeks is from the sandpaper. I had to wait until they did my cousin, too. She said they were giving her anesthetic. I heard her shouting. When they brought Claudia out I said I had changed my mind, but they said they had already paid for everything. They threw me on the floor and elevated my leg with an iron bar and hit me. After that they put me in the ambulance and took us to the place where we were supposed to be until the car came. When the car got there we lay down on the road, and the ambulance and the police car arrived. They took us to a hospital. I had a miscarriage there – I didn’t even know I was pregnant.
“In the hospital Schiber gave me a power-of-attorney form to sign. They were supposed to give me the nails because of the operation. I waited two weeks. In the end the nails arrived, but the hospital rejected them, because there was something wrong. Julio would come in the van to see if the bone was fixed and to take me to the office. There I met the older Mr. Schiber. He told me to be calm, that everything would be fine. I went to the office two or three more times with Julio to see how things were getting on. I didn’t get any compensation. He gave me money for sedatives, that’s all. I canceled the power-of-attorney to Schiber and switched to a different lawyer. Julio would call me and say that I had to go back to Schiber, because they knew exactly what school my son went to. We didn’t have a choice; we went back to Schiber’s firm. Ten years have passed since then. I regret it all. On days like today I have pains. And I limp badly, I can barely work.”
– From the testimony of Noelia Edith Nuñez, maid, 31
The clue that led to the ring’s exposure was discovered by an alert and persistent lawyer from one of the insurance companies against which the Schibers filed claims. The lawyer spotted lacunae in a claimant’s account of her alleged accident. He pressured her until she broke down and revealed the truth. A special prosecutor was assigned to the case and started to look into previous claims for damages with similar characteristics. It took two years to formalize a case, and the trial dragged on for another eight months – due mostly to the Schibers’ lawyers, who wore down the court with repeated motions for delays, citing procedural pretexts.
At the start of the trial, father and son were placed in detention, but were released a short time thereafter under restrictive conditions.
During the hearings, the Schibers’ lawyers claimed that the cases on which the charges were based were isolated, unrelated incidents and that malice aforethought had not been proved. They also denied any connection between themselves and the four men who broke the women’s bones. In fact, they maintained, they themselves had fallen victim to indigent swindlers who were connected via an extensive family network. The others had concocted the conspiracy together, had staged accidents in order to collect the insurance money and in the course of this had defrauded the Schibers. “The clients cheated us,” Hugo Schiber declared. “They entered into a conspiracy against me and against my son.” A panel of three judges rejected these arguments outright and sent him to jail for 18 years.
According to Carabajal, the reporter, who also covered the trial, the resounding conviction of the father and the severe punishment meted out to him came as something of a surprise. “The father operated behind the scenes,” Carabajal explains, “but Federico was the operational arm. He was responsible for locating the victims and for coordinating between the witnesses. The fake ambulance is also registered in his name. All the witnesses in the trial, and also the victims, talked about Federico, identified Federico or worked with Federico. He realized that things were moving in a bad direction for him and fled. There is expectation in Argentina that he will be apprehended in Israel and be sent back for trial here. This is an open story with high emotions.”
The door was opened by a woman of about 40 in domestic attire who spoke only Spanish. “I am looking for Federico,” I said. “Fede? He is not here,” she replied. “He lives in Netanya.” There was another woman in the living room, very elderly, who said she was Federico’s grandmother, on his mother’s side. The woman who opened the door, apparently the grandmother’s caregiver, suggested we call Federico together. He picked up after two rings.
“I need to consult,” he replied, when I asked him for an interview, “never mind with whom.” Asked why he had fled from Argentina and whether he didn’t want to apologize to the women who had been victimized by him and his father, he mumbled that he had no choice other than to escape and that he has no intention of apologizing, because he did none of the things he had been charged with. Afterward he asked politely to end the conversation. Before hanging up I asked him where he was living. “Where you are – in Kfar Sava,” he said. The caregiver, who had just named a different city, looked flustered. “He really does live here but he’s in Netanya a lot,” she tried to explain, but declined to give an address.
“I want to make it clear that I am totally innocent,” Federico said the next day, in another phone conversation. “The prosecutor forced several witnesses to accuse me and other people, we did nothing of what is attributed to us. We expected that this would happen, and we obtained unequivocal evidence proving that all the charges are false. But when the moment came, the judges refused to consider that evidence. They stuck with the prosecutor’s charges and to the affidavits she submitted.”
Schiber maintains that all the witnesses testifying against him lied to save their skin: “They knew that if our evidence were to be accepted by the court, they would end up in prison. That’s why they are ready to stick to the lies that the prosecutor made them say. We were accused of forming an organization we didn’t know existed.”
He adds that he had no choice but to flee from Argentina, even though he did nothing wrong. “I did everything in my power to prove my innocence, but the judicial system in Argentina is a disaster,” he explains. “The media is nourished by what it gets from the spokespeople in the judicial system, and they make public only what suits them. A lot of proof was given in the trial showing that we hadn’t known about these criminal incidents, and the journalists simply ignored them.”
According to Schiber, three criminals were actually behind the scam – but he refused to name them. “They are the ones who set in motion the criminal events, together with the women. The press did not investigate their motives. There are whole families and neighborhoods who did this and who recommended to one another how and what to do to earn money. They simply looked for lawyers in order to collect the money, and told them that the accidents were real. There are five law firms [that filed claims of a similar nature] and the prosecutor didn’t charge any of them with being the organizers. Only us.”
According to Schiber, “We have photographs from hidden cameras that expose these lies unequivocally. I tried to use the photos, but they were rejected. And these are only some of the huge irregularities in the trial.” I asked him to show me one such piece of evidence. “I have everything,” he said, “but I would like you to wait until I speak to my lawyer. Problems could come up for me from there. They’re anti-Semites there, in Argentina.”
Because Schiber is not suspected or accused of committing a crime in Israel, his detention and deportation to Argentina are conditional on an official extradition request from there. Since Israel and Argentina do not have a mutual extradition treaty, each request of that sort has to be examined on an individual basis. The Buenos Aires police did not reply to queries from Haaretz on the subject.
A spokesperson for the Israel Police provided this statement: “Israel deals with any requests from other countries for arrest or extradition in accordance with the law and in terms of the binding conventions. We cannot comment on the case mentioned in the query or on the question of whether or not any sort of request has or has not been made in connection with it.”
In the meantime, as noted, in the wake of Haaretz contacting the Interior Ministry, the Population and Immigration Authority has begun the process of examining whether to revoke Schiber’s citizenship. He will be summoned for a clarification in the coming weeks.
A spokesperson for the Population and Immigration Authority stated: “We do not customarily give out information about one person or another for reasons of privacy. Despite that, we can confirm that when official, relevant information reaches us that is new and concrete, it is indeed examined.”