A Very Argentinian Mystery

Artículo publicado el 23/01/2015 en The New Yorker

Por: Jon Lee Anderson

On Sunday, January 18th, Natalio Alberto Nisman, a fifty-one-year-old federal prosecutor, was found shot dead inside his locked Buenos Aires apartment. There was a gun nearby, and a bullet wound to his head. Nisman had spent the past decade investigating Argentina’s worst-ever terrorist attack—the 1994 car bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, or AMIA, which killed eighty-five people. A few days earlier, he had released a report alleging that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman had engaged in a massive cover-up of Iran’s role in the AMIA case in exchange for trade concessions. In order to investigate the case, Nisman also repudiated a 2013 memorandum of understanding signed by Timerman and his Iranian counterpart. He had been due to present evidence in the National Congress on Monday, the day after his body was discovered.

Nisman’s violent death provoked wild and far-ranging media speculation. At first, President Kirchner posted a letter on her Web site and Facebook page offering her belief that Nisman had committed suicide. Her allies insinuated that Nisman, knowing that he didn’t have the goods to back up his charges, had succumbed to a crisis of nerves. This speculation abated when forensic testing showed that Nisman’s hands did not have traces of gunpowder residue. Friends and family members were insistent that Nisman had not seemed depressed before his death, and that he had reported receiving death threats in the preceding days. On Thursday, President Kirchner posted a new letter, in which she said that she had changed her mind about Nisman’s suicide. Now she suspected that he had been murdered in order to make her government look bad: “They used him alive and then they needed him dead.”

It was Cristina Kirchner’s late husband, Néstor, who preceded her as President of Argentina, from 2003 to 2007, who had ordered the AMIA case reopened and named Nisman as its investigator—an intimate twist that says a good deal about the country’s political culture. Argentina’s scandals, at the highest levels of government, play out somewhat differently than those of other countries— and certainly those of most modern democracies. There is a theatrical mix of Greek tragedy and opera buffa to them. Like the episodes of some long-running telenovela, Argentina’s first families appear as the central actors in epic tales of good and evil, in which the good characters are usually depicted as naïve, trusting, and powerless, while the bad are scheming, nefarious, conspiratorial— and powerful.

In modern times, Argentina has shown a consistent penchant for high-level scandal and conspiracy. In 1955, when Juan Domingo Perón, the grandmaster of twentieth-century Argentine politics, was overthrown in a military coup, the general who had ousted him ordered a team of officers to steal the embalmed body of his late wife, Evita, who had died of cancer three years earlier. Evita’s body, which had been on exhibit at a Perónist union’s headquarters in Buenos Aires, vanished for the next seventeen years, its whereabouts known only to a select few officers. At one point, leftist Montonero guerrillas kidnapped and murdered a former President in a failed effort to retrieve the corpse. Evita’s body was eventually sent to Spain, where Perón was living in exile, and handed over to him.

Perón returned to power in 1973, but he was old and sick, and died the following year. He was succeeded in office by his third wife, Isabel Perón, who had already come under the sway of José López Rega, an astrologer and former police agent known as El Brujo—the Warlock. López Rega served as the Minister for Social Welfare under both Juan and Isabel. With high-ranking police officials as his chief co-conspirators, he formed Argentina’s first death squad, the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance, or Triple A, to cleanse the Perónist movement of its leftists and kill suspected Marxists from a list he had drawn up. This kicked off the country’s so-called Dirty War, which lasted through several Presidencies and involved the abduction, torture, and death of thousands of people. In 1983, the military junta collapsed and democracy was restored.

Then there was President Carlos Menem, who ran Argentina in free-wheeling, free-market style from 1989 to 1999. Menem’s son, Carlos, Jr., died in a helicopter crash, in 1995, after his pilot apparently flew into high-tension electrical wires. The grieving President accepted this version of events, but First Lady Zulema Menem did not. She claimed that the helicopter had been struck by rockets, and that people close to her husband, inside the Presidential palace, had killed her son. As the family tragedy played itself out in the public eye, Zulema sued for divorce. (Last year, after reviewing new evidence, the former President declared that he, too, had changed his mind, and now believed that Carlos, Jr., had been murdered.)

The story of the Kirchners, Argentina’s first family for the past eleven years, is in keeping with many of the country’s traditions. People tend to either despise or adore them. The late Néstor served one term in office and was succeeded by Cristina. When he died of a heart attack, in 2010, Cristina’s grief was as fully and publicly displayed as Perón’s despondency over the loss of Evita. Cristina has crafted herself into something like a telenovela character. There is no one else quite like her in the world, and certainly no one leading a country.

There are few half measures in Argentine politics. You are either a Peronista, for instance—as is Kirchner—or not. She and her late husband have been accused of many failings, from alleged corruption among their associates to efforts to hamstring the country’s media. Their admirers point to the fact that it was the Kirchners, not their predecessors, who finally brought the country’s Dirty War-era culprits to justice. In a region where wholesale impunity continues decades after similar periods of official repression—Guatemala and El Salvador come to mind—the Kirchners’ achievement was no mean feat.

Does it seem likely that Kirchner and her Foreign Minister, Héctor Timerman, engaged in a cover-up in the AMIA terrorist attack? Given the country’s political history and penchant for conspiracy, it is tempting to say that anything is possible, but there are reasons for real skepticism. Timerman, a former journalist and a co-founder of Americas Watch, part of what would eventually become Human Rights Watch, is himself Jewish (as was Nisman). His father, the late Jacobo Timerman, was a renowned newspaper editor as well as a victim of torture and imprisonment by the military during Argentina’s Dirty War.

Is it possible that Nisman killed himself and made it look like a murder so as to lay the blame at the feet of a government he had come to despise? David Grann wrote about a story with a similar twist in Guatemala. But here such a plot stretches the limits of plausibility, especially given the testimonies of Nisman’s friends, family, and colleagues about his state of mind before his death.

Could Nisman’s death have been the consequence of a conspiracy, as President Kirchner has suggested, in which some third party led Nisman to believe she and Timerman were culpable, and then had him killed in order to make her look bad? Again, it’s theoretically possibly. But who would stand to gain from Nisman’s death and the implication that the country’s President herself might be involved?

Unsurprisingly, many Argentines have come to associate power with corruption, Medici-like plots of cunning, and, often, murder. In Argentina, it is sensible to examine such scenarios, and proceed doggedly forward. It seems likely, given the country’s history, that if there are nefarious hands at work, investigators may not have to look very far—perhaps within the more shadowy corners of the structures of the state itself, or at those who work on its edges, as in the days of El Brujo


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