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The Bizarre and Deadly Political Scandal Consuming Argentina

Why did a prosecutor investigating a 1994 terrorist attack turn up dead—with the draft of a warrant for the president's arrest in his apartment?

by Pablo Plotkin
Feb 5 2015, 3:28pm

Photo via Flickr user jmalievi

In the past few weeks, Argentina has resembled a dystopian wonderland where everything can be horribly obvious or ridiculously warped. Or both. A prosecutor accuses the president of covering up a terrorist attack, and a few days later that prosecutor is found dead. Oh, and that prosecutor had recently drafted a warrant for the arrest of the country's president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

If you think this sounds like the plot of a Tom Clancy novel or a multi-episode arc on House of Cards, you're not wrong. But how did Argentina get to this surreal place?

In 1994, a car bomb exploded in the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AIMA), a Jewish cultural organization in the middle of downtown Buenos Aires. Killing 85 people and injuring over 200, this was the worst terrorist attack in Argentine history—and no one was ever punished for it. One of the initial theories about the attack was "the Syrian connection"—basically, that this was the product of a vendetta against former President Carlos Menem for his support of the US-led coalition in the first Iraq War, among other things. But federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman was focused squarely on the "Iranian connection," the idea being that Tehran provided financial and strategic support for a Hezbollah cell that carried out the attack. In 2006, Nisman and the state of Argentina, under the presidency of Néstor Kirchner, issued international arrest warrants for eight former Iranian agents allegedly involved in the intelligence behind the attack.

In January 2013, after years of unsuccessful attempts by Buenos Aires and Interpol to bring the suspects to Argentine court, President Kirchner—widow of the previous president—signed a memorandum of understanding with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that implied, among other things, that the accused could only be judged in Iranian territory. The agreement was presented as a breakthrough in an investigation that seemed to have reached a dead end. But it was strongly rejected by Jewish organizations and was later declared unconstitutional by Argentina's Federal Court.

On January 14, two years after the agreement, Nisman presented a report that accused President Kirchner and her Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, among other officials of the government, of having concocted that pact in order to cover up for the Iranian suspects. They argued the government had made this secret deal in exchange for badly needed oil. The following Sunday, hours prior to his presentation before Congress, Nisman was found with a bullet in his head in his apartment's bathroom. The federal government quickly tried to advance the hypothesis of a suicide through Secretary of Security Sergio Berni.

Nisman's death was caused by the bullet of an old Bersa .22, which had been given to him hours before by his close collaborator, the analyst Diego Lagomarsino. He said Nisman had asked him for the gun because he feared for his safety.

"I don't even trust my security detail," Nisman supposedly said to Lagomarsino on Saturday. At the time of his death, his desk was full of files about the investigation and luminous highlighter pens, and there was a shopping list for his maid, who was supposed to come to work on Monday.

Nicolás Wiñazki, a journalist for the Argentine newspaper Clarín who had been in touch with Nisman while he was preparing his allegations, told VICE, "I met with him the same day he presented his report, and after that we kept talking on the phone, and exchanging Whatsapp messages until Saturday, hours before his dead body was found. I don't think he killed himself. He was super active, energetic. He was very confident in the evidence he had." (Nisman also told VICE News days before his death that his "proof is strong.")

"None of us believe you were the maker of this end," Judge Sandra Arroyo Salgado, Nisman's ex-wife and the mother of his daughters, said at his funeral. His coffin rests in a parcel devoted to martyrs in the Jewish cemetery in La Tablada. One day before the tragic news broke, Salgado received a magazine issue in her home with a retouched picture of her ex-husband. A black (bullet) hole had been drawn over his forehead.

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Photo via Flickr user Global Panorama

At this point, many people in Argentina are convinced Nisman didn't kill himself. Kirchner, who initially encouraged the hypothesis of a suicide from her Facebook account, now says that she's sure that he was killed ("I have no proof, but I don't have any doubts either.") Leaving aside the accusatory, blogger-like tone employed by a president routinely taking to Facebook in the midst of national turmoil, Kirchner's new story implicates Lagomarsino as an undercover spy cooperating with Antonio Stiuso, a local J. Edgar Hoover of sorts who had 100 cell phones despite being ousted from the intelligence services in December. He was also the main source for Nisman's allegations.

According to this story, the assassination of the prosecutor was only the last act of a scheme to corner Kirchner after she was implicated in the coverup of the 1994 bombing. The president, for her part, recently announced a plan to reform the intelligence services.

"It is very serious, and noteworthy, to say the least, for the president to overtly accuse a common citizen. It would be good if she could present the evidence to court," Maximiliano Rusconi, Lagomarsino's attorney, told VICE. On Wednesday, Rusconi formally requested that Kirchner be called to testify as a witness.

In the meantime, prosecutor Viviana Fein, in charge of the investigation of Nisman's death, has not offered much clarity. The crime scene was strangely disrupted in the hours after the body was found by the presence of Berni, the security official. Early this week, Fein announced that she would take her vacation toward the end of the month—which is odd when you are in charge of investigating the greatest political crime in recent memory—but changed her mind, confirming she will stay in charge.

Beneath this tangled mess of intrigue remains the investigation of the 1994 bombing, and lingering suspicion of a coverup operation. For the moment, Judge Daniel Rafecas—a Holocaust expert—will take over Nisman's probe. Although there are plenty of opinions regarding the legal soundness of Nisman's accusations, there's evidence in the form a reported 300 CDs—yes, compact discs—worth of telephone taps of government officials. Some of them have already leaked and spread throughout the media, exposing the sordid political machinations and blackmailing ways of the intelligence services. Nothing to be stunned by, maybe, but it's still unnerving to see our darkest assumptions about powerful figures borne out.

Pablo Plotkin is a writer and editor of the Argentine edition of Rolling Stone. Follow him on Twitter.