In the domain of the Rodriguez Saa brothers is a town that dared to defy their rule. The brothers had it erased from official maps.
The brothers have changed the course of a river during their quasi-omnipotent reign. They ordered a new airport built in the middle of a stretch of pampas, a gleaming terminal that is empty because no airline will fly there.
When the younger brother, Alberto, took over as governor of San Luis province last year -- succeeding his brother, Adolfo, who had served five terms -- he decided to eradicate unemployment. Now thousands of poor people with $100-a-month make-work jobs rally round a new flag designed by the chess-playing governor: It's made up of blue and white squares.
For almost a decade, the brothers' scandals have been fodder for the news media in Buenos Aires, the capital 500 miles away. And there are many people here who say that Adolfo and Alberto have made San Luis their fiefdom. But you won't read any such criticism in the province's two daily newspapers. The brothers own both.
Alberto and Adolfo Rodriguez Saa have ruled San Luis, a province of 360,000 people in central Argentina, since the country's military rule ended two decades ago. Adolfo, now a member of the National Congress, even became president of Argentina for a week in 2001, bringing national attention to the province.
The brothers are colorful examples of a breed of politician that has flourished in South America since the region's dictators fell a generation ago: charismatic populists who have manipulated the tools of democracy to transform themselves into autocrats.
"San Luis is Latin America in microcosm," said Juan Jose Laborde Ibarra, a notary public who blew the whistle on a series of corruption scandals involving the brothers. "It's the law of the jungle, the rule of the strongest. And in the face of their omnipotence, civil society has practically ceased to exist."
From the Brazilian state of Bahia to the Miraflores presidential palace in Caracas, Venezuela, the region has no shortage of leaders who, like the Rodriguez Saas, have rewritten constitutions and reshuffled supreme courts, or dished out patronage until their control of all three branches of government became unassailable.
Often, Argentina's caudillos, or strongmen, have built power by appealing to the poorest members of society, a potentially dominant voting bloc in a country where voting is obligatory. Alberto Rodriguez Saa says the 40,000 formerly unemployed people now on the San Luis government payroll are the backbone of his support.
"In the very marginal areas, in places far from the cities, everyone has work," Alberto said in an interview. "Sometimes I go to these places and they've raised a banner that says: 'Zero Unemployment. Thank you, Alberto.' "
A faint smile crosses Alberto's ruddy face as he tells the story. At 54, he is the more taciturn brother. Adolfo, 56, is more voluble, a heavyset man given to warm embraces. When the legislature appointed Adolfo president in the wake of unrest that caused his predecessor to resign, his first official act was to default on the country's $132 billion debt. Six days later he quit the presidency, flew back to San Luis and threw a big party.
Alberto won the last gubernatorial election with 90 percent of the vote. In some small towns, results showed that 100 percent of registered voters had cast ballots for him, prompting accusations of fraud.
Supporters occupy all but a handful of the seats in the provincial legislature. A blistering report by the nation's leading human rights group, the Center for Legal and Social Studies in Buenos Aires, says the brothers have stacked the judiciary with their cronies, making a mockery of the system.
This year, after 21 years of Rodriguez Saa rule, an opposition movement made up mostly of middle-class residents has begun showing strength. At a demonstration in April, protesters launched into a new version of an old chant used against Argentina's military rulers: "It's going to end! It's going to end! The dictatorship of the Saa will end!"
On April 1, the date of another opposition march, supporters planned their own rally.
"A Multitude Takes to the Streets in Support of the Government," read the headline in El Diario de la Republica that morning. But the rally hadn't started yet. "I own the newspaper, but I don't write the articles," Alberto said when asked about El Diario's unwavering pro-government line. "It's not my fault that the guys [the writers and editors] have a lot of love for me."
When Adolfo and Alberto were first elected governor and federal senator, respectively, in 1983, they filed the required financial disclosure statements. Each reported owning a single home. They were, according to people who knew them, just two country lawyers struggling to make ends meet.
Now the men are among the richest in San Luis. A federal judge in Buenos Aires investigating Alberto for alleged "illicit enrichment" found recently that he had not provided an adequate explanation for his "appreciable increase in wealth." According to court documents, Alberto owns -- personally or through proxies -- $23 million in properties.
After the Rodriguez Saas acquired El Diario in 1984, the provincial legislature passed a law requiring that all companies receiving government contracts spend at least 0.5 percent of their budget advertising their project in the biggest local newspaper: El Diario.
Thus, every contract to build a rural school or a flood-control dike brings a stream of revenue to the Rodriguez Saas. The new $15 million airport outside Merlo, for example, brought the brothers $75,000 in advertising revenue. The Rodriguez Saas said the airport would bring in hordes of tourists -- but the airlines quickly canceled service because of a lack of demand.
For years, few in San Luis protested the Rodriguez Saas' power and manipulation of the law. Each election, Adolfo won by larger margins. The 1990s were boom times, and people seemed willing to tolerate suspect leaders.
Luis Barrionuevo, a provincial Peronist party leader, summed up the spirit of the age when he said that in Argentina, "no one gets rich by working." He was later elected to the Argentine Senate.
By the late 1990s, with Argentina's boom fading, the tales of the brothers' enrichment through government power became an amusing provincial sideshow for the Buenos Aires media.
In 1997, one television program videotaped two Rodriguez Saa advisers using euphemisms such as "the toll" when seeking bribes. A similar broadcast in 2000 showed officials telling an undercover reporter how he could bribe someone to obtain lucrative tax breaks.
None of the cases of alleged malfeasance has ever been prosecuted in the San Luis courts. (The current charges against the brothers are being investigated by judges in Buenos Aires, who claim jurisdiction because both brothers lived there when serving in the federal legislature.)
"In San Luis, any corruption charge that involves the people in power is simply filed away to die," Laborde Ibarra said.
The provincial judicial system lost its independence beginning in the early 1990s, with a series of laws promulgated by the Rodriguez Saas and their allies that changed how judges are appointed. An independent panel that had selected judges was dissolved.
Then the provincial Supreme Court was purged. New justices were appointed. They were, according to the Center for Legal and Social Studies, people "without academic qualifications or judicial experience, and with compromising ties to the government."
Alberto steadfastly defends the justice system. "I can tell you categorically that the judiciary in San Luis is independent," he said.
For many in San Luis, the Rodriguez Saa brothers remain heroes. When current governor Alberto addressed the opening of the legislature, Adolfo was in the audience: Both were greeted with rapturous applause. But then there's the resort town of Merlo. Last November it voted for a new mayor and chose Sergio Guardia, an avowed opponent of the Rodriguez Saas.
A series of what appeared to be acts of official retribution followed. Staffing at the local hospital and police station was cut drastically. The city of 11,000, the province's leading tourist destination, disappeared from an official tourism map.
A map detailing the province's budget plan also omitted the city. And when Guardia called the governor's office to complain, it didn't return his calls. "Our citizens are not going to put up with this kind of punishment," the mayor said.
In April, a few days after an anti-government rally in Merlo, several hundred workers of the Plan of Social Inclusion, Alberto's program for the unemployed, descended on City Hall. They insulted Guardia, forced their way into the building and raised the checkered "Social Inclusion" flag from the balcony.
The flag now has quasi-official status and flies from government buildings, becoming as ubiquitous here as the Social Inclusion workers, who are a conspicuous presence at all pro-government rallies.
By all accounts, the workers are grateful to the governor. Thanks to the jobs program, San Luis now has the lowest unemployment rate in Argentina -- 4 percent. In his April 1 address opening the legislature, Alberto read a series of testimonials from the workers.
"The plan gives us what we need to eat," he quoted Medina Fernandez, 73, as saying. "I'm used to working in the fields, with a scythe and with a pitchfork. So cleaning the highways, planting trees -- all of that I can do without any problem."
Later that day, several thousand opponents gathered in San Luis to march. Many hope Argentina's National Congress will vote to depose Alberto as governor and take over the provincial government. Something similar happened recently in nearby Santiago del Estero province after allegations of widespread corruption by the governing Juarez family.
"This is what we've come to," lamented Laborde Ibarra. "Even those in opposition to the Rodriguez Saas are hoping for a nondemocratic solution to our problems."
Supporters of the brothers say federal government spies are fomenting dissent.
For Alberto, it is a conflict between the poor and the privileged.
Opposition leaders say their movement has grown in response to the Rodriguez Saas' rule. Thousands of Roman Catholics joined after the province tried to take over four church-run social service centers. The teachers union joined after the government appointed workers of the Plan of Social Inclusion as school administrators.