BUENOS AIRES, Argentina - Police Cpl. Mariano Lewicki has made a habit of looking over his shoulder.
Seated in an upscale cafe in a suburb north of Buenos Aires, the 31-year-old Lewicki glances nervously at passing waiters and a handful of other customers. When a dark-haired man enters the cafe and sits behind him, Lewicki stops in mid-sentence, slowly cranes his head sideways to get a glimpse of the suspected eavesdropper, and then motions with his eyes to move to another table.
Lewicki, a short man with a boyish face, takes no chances.
In the last three years, he says, he has been knifed in a train, threatened at gunpoint in his house and beaten and burned with cigarettes in a police station. He rolls up his sleeve to show a nickel-sized lesion, which he says was inflicted last month when two men grabbed him and pressed his forearm against a motorcycle exhaust pipe.
Such is the price one pays for turning on one of the most powerful criminal organizations in Argentina: the maldita policia, a network of corrupt police officers who patrol the dense urban sprawl in Buenos Aires province, which surrounds the capital.
In April 2000, Lewicki blew the whistle on a ranking officer, whom he suspected of masterminding a bank robbery. Within two weeks, Lewicki was charged with driving a stolen car, suspended indefinitely from the police force and thrown in jail for two months.
The maldita policia "is the biggest mafia in the country," according to Ricardo Ragendorfer, an Argentine journalist who has written two books about corruption and abuses in the Buenos Aires provincial police force, nicknamed La Bonaerense.
"The police profit from every crime in the penal code. The narcotics police deal drugs, the police that watch for auto thefts steal cars, the police that deal with robberies rob, and so on," says Ragendorfer. "In other countries in Latin America, parts of the police force are on mafia payrolls. Here, it's the other way around."
Not even the president, it seems, is immune from the gangster-like tactics of the maldita policia, which literally means "damn police."
Within days of publicly accusing the Buenos Aires provincial police of complicity in a rash of kidnappings, President Nestor Kirchner told reporters that his family had received threats.
Kirchner has coasted relatively unscathed through his first seven months as president of this crisis-torn nation, winning broad popular support by leading an assault on an entrenched political elite dominated by his Peronist party. He has purged the top ranks of the military and federal police, launched an investigation of the state-operated pensioners' health fund and forced the ouster of three Supreme Court justices suspected of malfeasance.
But analysts say his latest move, attacking corruption among La Bonaerense, could be his riskiest yet.
"You've got 45,000 people, armed, and many of them are used to profiting off their relationship with crime," says Raul Kollman, a reporter for the left-leaning daily newspaper Pagina 12, and an expert on security issues. "Of course, there could be reprisals."
The move also threatens to unleash a power struggle within the political party that brought Kirchner to the presidency and that, until now, has provided him with critical support.
The profits the provincial police receive from rake-offs and direct participation in criminal activities provide a major source of financing for Kirchner's own Peronist party, the dominant force in Argentine politics, according to former police officers and political analysts. The party wields a large vote-harvesting apparatus in the province, where 38 percent of the nation's 36 million people live.
Kirchner's candidacy was possible in large part thanks to the backing of outgoing President Eduardo Duhalde, a Peronist and the unquestioned chief of the party's immense political machine in the province.
But now, for the first time since Kirchner assumed the presidency, a rift appears to have developed between him and Duhalde, who once called La Bonaerense "the best in the world" while governor of the province in the 1990s.
Most of the province's 14 million people and about half of its about 46,000 police officers are concentrated in the conurbano, a vast urban area with three times the population of the capital itself. Once an industrial hub, the conurbano is now a slum-strewn haven for organized crime that has been swept by a spate of headline-grabbing kidnappings in which ransoms are demanded.
In one recent highly publicized case, a kidnapping victim's severed finger was sent to family members to pressure them into handing over the ransom.
According to a Buenos Aires-based think tank, Nueva Mayoria, 95 percent of the kidnappings in Argentina occur in the province of Buenos Aires, where the number of kidnappings has soared from less than two dozen in all of 2001, to nearly one a day in the past two years.