Photo courtesy of The Ministry of Culture of Argentina
Americas / Argentina

The 86th Casualty

On January 17th, 2015, 35-year-old Diego Lagomarsino visited Alberto Nisman’s apartment on the 13th floor of a luxury high-rise building in Buenos Aires. Lagomarsino made himself a cup of coffee and then gave Nisman, the mostly unremarkable yet remarkably driven Argentine prosecutor he worked for, his .22-caliber Bersa. Nisman never returned Lagomarsino’s gun. The following day Nisman neglected to return his bodyguards’ calls and pick up the newspaper lying at the foot of his door. His bodyguards, barred without a key to the apartment, grew concerned and called his family. Nisman’s mother rushed over, tried to open the door, and found her key jammed, somehow failing her at a crucial moment. As she later learned, there was another key wedged into the opposite lock.

One locksmith later, Nisman’s mother and bodyguards finally entered the apartment. No record of their entrance exists – the service elevator and stairwell cameras serendipitously broke in the days leading up their visit – but the gravity of what they found ensured their visit would not be forgotten. As Nisman’s mother pushed open the door to her son’s bathroom, she found the .22-caliber Bersa lying on the floor. Nisman’s fingerprints covered the gun; investigators later found no trace of any other DNA. Nisman lay on the floor, motionless, bullet wound to the head. He left no note. He was 51 years old.

Less than 24 hours later, Nisman had planned to testify before the Argentine Congress concerning the explosive accusations he had made the week before against Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In the almost 300-page report he submitted, Nisman accused President Kirchner and her foreign minister Hector Timerman of playing an integral role in covering up a 1994 terrorist attack. In a shocking discovery, police would later find drafts of arrest warrants for both Kirchner and Timerman in the garbage outside of Nisman’s apartment. As one can imagine, issuing an arrest for a sitting, democratically-elected President was a big deal. Nisman seemed to realize the weight of his accusations though, not simply because he asked to borrow the .22-caliber Bersa. The day before his death he told a reporter: “I might get out of this dead.” Little did he know that his premonition would come to pass, making him the 86th casualty in the largest terrorist attack in Argentina’s history.

Nisman’s story begins on July 18, 1994, when a van packed with explosives detonates at the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, or AMIA) building, a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The bombing kills 85 people and injures hundreds more. At the time, Argentina had a Jewish population approximately 250,000 strong, the largest in Latin America and the sixth largest in the world outside of Israel, and the AMIA attack had an understandably catastrophic effect on the Jewish community. The AMIA bombing is the largest terrorist attack in Argentina’s history. It’s also one of the deadliest, unsolved bombings in modern history, and one of the largest anti-Semitic attacks since World War II.

The president at the time, Carlos Menem, stuck between a rock and a hard place, does not open an investigation into the bombing. A rumor soon surfaces linking the attack to Iran and Hezbollah, and Menem, the son of two Syrian immigrants, finds himself the unfortunate source of attention in Argentina’s search for answers. Certain groups in Argentina speculate that President Menem actually played a role in the bombings, although none succeed in substantiating this rumor. The United States and Israel support Argentina in its blaming of Iran. No one ever really finds a resolution. Despite its deadly toll on Argentina’s Jewish population, the AMIA attack soon falls to the wayside of Argentine politics.

President Kirchner, widely referred to as simply Cristina, has been a polarizing force in Argentina since the beginning of her presidency in 2007. As one of the few exceptions in a world dominated by male leaders, Cristina takes a very different route from her female counterparts, opting to emphasize her femininity rather than masking it with pantsuits and short hair. She never appears in public without her thick, dark hair in perfect, tumbling waves, and her eyes are always flawlessly lined. She wears designer suits and expensive jewelry. Her plastic surgery and shopping sprees are public knowledge in Argentina; after a meeting with French president Nicolas Sarkozy, she spent over $100,000 on 20 pairs of Louboutins before flying home to Buenos Aires. Her heels are so high, her nails so long, and her eyelashes so thick that she seems more like Sophia Vergara than the president of the third-largest economy in Latin America. She is 61.

And yet, despite her feminine appearance, the aggressive tenacity stereotypically reserved for male politicians hides just beneath her perfectly coiffed exterior. Cristina is antagonistic and does not work to build consensus or develop allies. She trusts only a tiny circle of advisors, and fights openly with her enemies, including the press. Like a particularly self-conscious B-list actress, she frequently uses twitter to confront unfriendly journalists. Not one to discriminate in her choice of victims, she posted a tweet mocking the Chinese accent during a recent diplomatic visit to China as well. Within an hour, the message was retweeted over a thousand times. She also used what is evidently her favorite social media platform to share with the world her favorite character on Game of Thrones – the mother of dragons – and to send a birthday message to Bo Obama. If intended to coax the US government into forgiving Argentina’s $1.3 billion dollar debt to New York investors, the birthday message has not yet achieved the desired effect. As an impressively ambitious Plan B though, last year she claimed the US may be behind a plot to overthrow her government and assassinate her. Although unannounced, her price reportedly stands at $1.3 billion dollars.

Despite the controversy she inspires, Cristina is dearly beloved by her supporters, who call her the “Modern Evita” and the “Iron Lady of the South.” In addition, as only the second female president of Argentina and its first to be democratically elected, Cristina has fought extremely hard to prove herself in a country where the culture of machismo still runs strong. She faces an overwhelming wave of criticism every time she makes a move. Nevertheless, Cristina has championed women’s rights during her political career and her government was the first in Latin America to legalize same-sex marriage.

Cristina has only served to spark the controversy surrounding Nisman’s death. On January 19th, the day after Nisman’s mother and bodyguards found his body, she published a tirelessly researched letter in which she presented the well-supported case that Nisman’s death was clearly a suicide; three days later, Cristina abandoned her thesis, apparently now convinced that rogue secret service agents murdered Nisman as part of a plot to undermine her administration.

Unfortunately, as it often goes in Argentina, the most outlandish theories can prove more accurate. In a development better suited to The Departed than real life, investigators found that Security Secretary Sergio Berni arrived at Nisman’s apartment even before the police. In Cristina’s new account of the events, agents fed false information to Nisman and, in a move seemingly inspired by Al Capone, then killed him as part of a plot against her government.

A week later Damián Pachter, the first journalist to report Nisman’s death, fled to Israel, fearing for his life. He was convinced that an Argentine intelligence officer was tailing him, a prospect that apparently makes Jerusalem look like a sleepy coastal town in rural Maine. Cristina, who could only have spent the week in deep personal reflection, Cristina made an announcement: Argentina should probably reform its Intelligence Secretariat (SI).

In a country with a history as dark and shady as Argentina’s, the SI does not disappoint. General Juan Perón – one of the most controversial yet iconic political figures in Latin American history and the dictator of Argentina from 1946 to 1955 – established Argentina’s secret service in a shrewd political move at the beginning of his tenure. The initial purpose of the organization that became the SI was to assist Nazi war criminals in escaping secretly from Germany to Argentina in the aftermath of WWII. This transport occurred at the same time that thousands of Jews fled to Argentina. Once the Nazis had established themselves anonymously in and around Buenos Aires, Perón generously offered many of them positions in his newly created service. This sinister beginning foreshadowed the dark dealings to come.

During Argentina’s Dirty War, the SI participated in one of the most repressive periods of state terrorism in Latin American history which, considering the competition, is quite a distinguished feat. SI agents tracked down and murdered thousands of left-wing opponents of the military dictatorship. Many of the agents responsible for the more than 13,000 ‘disappearances’ remained in power after Argentina’s transition to democracy in 1983. In a tradition reminiscent of Watergate, Argentine presidents and senior members of Congress have since then used the SI to spy on journalists, judges, and opposition politicians. Cristina, after her apparent realization that this might not be the best idea, now plans to drastically limit the number of government officials with access to SI agents.

Antonio Stiuso is one of the most mysterious figures in Argentina, and one of the most feared. Little is known about this enigmatic man, a man who personifies and embodies the SI in many ways, except that he is a 61-year-old communications expert who joined the secret service in 1972–two years before the start of the Dirty War–at the age of 18. Over the course of four decades, he worked his way up to a position of great power and for years ran a vast and terrifying eavesdropping network in Argentina. Western intelligence services including the CIA respect him highly. To add intrigue to mystery, only one blurry picture exists of Stiuso, and for years nobody outside the highest level of government knew his name. However, in 2004, justice minister Gustavo Beliz unmasked him on television and accused him of having manipulated politicians and journalists for years. Beliz was promptly fired and, faced with the threat of Stiuso’s far-reaching power, fled to Uruguay. Antonio Stiuso is the contact Cristina accused of feeding information to Nisman.

Last December Cristina fired Stiuso, reportedly after she discovered that he spent years giving Nisman access to various wire taps after he became disillusioned with her administration, thanks in large part to the many shady political dealings he discovered. It appears that Nisman based most of his report on information he gleaned from tapped phone calls that Stiuso passed on to him. Some people even believe that Cristina’s letter indirectly accuses Stiuso of writing Nisman’s report for him. On February 5th Stiuso was issued a summons to testify about Nisman’s death. His testimony could be key in discovering answers to the mystery surrounding Nisman’s death. However, with the whole country seemingly looking for him, Stiuso has disappeared. Police tried and failed to find him at any of his three known addresses. Even Stiuso’s lawyer does not know where he is. It appears that the search to find Stiuso is as futile as summoning a ghost.

In September 2004, President Néstor Kirchner – Argentina’s former president and Cristina’s late husband – selected Alberto Nisman to lead an official investigation of the 1994 attack. Many groups inside Argentina – understandably furious that after a decade an official investigation into the AMIA attacks had still not been opened – increased their demands for justice for the victims of the bombing and they finally reached a level that could no longer be ignored. Along with numerous other high-profile Argentine figures, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio – now Pope Francis – also pressured the government to open an investigation. The subsequent inquiry unfolded in a rather predictable fashion, albeit with certain problematic drawbacks. In October 2006 Nisman made his first formal charges against Iran and Hezbollah. In March 2007, he convinced Interpol to issue nine arrest warrants, eight of which were for Iranian officials. To this day no arrests have been made. In May 2008 Nisman called for the arrest of former president Carlos Menem for attempting to obstruct an investigation into the attack. Menem was later charged with corruption but has yet to stand trial.

The final blow to Nisman’s efforts came in February of 2013. Cristina discovered that Nisman had uncovered alleged secret negotiations between Argentina and Iran to cover up the attacks. In what proved to be a futile attempt to gain control over the investigation, she announced a joint Argentine-Iranian inquiry into the attacks. Her announcement was highly unpopular and effectively killed Nisman’s search for the truth. However, the Argentine courts later struck it down as unconstitutional, thereby providing Nisman with a window to reopen his investigation. Stiuso, disenchanted with Cristina’s attempts to prevent information concerning the attacks from becoming public, doubled down on his efforts to provide wiretaps to Nisman. In a further attempt to discredit Cristina, Stiuso also began feeding information related to some of Argentina’s numerous infamous corruption cases of the past two years to the courts and journalists. These events, which Cristina considered the ultimate betrayal, culminated in Stiuso’s sacking last December.

It is important at this point to step back and examine the most important piece of the puzzle: Nisman’s accusations. In his report of nearly 300 pages, Nisman lays out the following Hollywood-esque story, complete with a nearly inconceivable plot. In 1994 senior Iranian officials plan and finance the AMIA attack and Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon, carries it out. President Menem then proceeds to stubbornly obstruct attempts to open an investigation into the attack. A rumor circulates that Menem himself may have played a role in the attacks, but nothing comes of it. This dubious strategy succeeds until 2004, when the first President Kirchner can no longer handle the overwhelming criticism and is forced by public opinion to open an investigation. It flat lines until 2013, when Cristina strikes a secret deal with Iran. Here Nisman’s story becomes particularly divisive. According to the report, Argentina agrees to cover up the attack and guarantee immunity to a number of former Iranian government officials. In exchange, Iran promises oil and other favorable economic and trade benefits. Immediately before his death, Nisman disclosed he had obtained intercepts of telephone calls in which Argentine intelligence officers and Iranian officials discuss complex details of the deal. Stiuso fed these intercepts to Nisman. In the face of the intricate layers of information that have come to light since Nisman’s death, Cristina continues to deny everything.

Alberto Nisman’s demise joins a long tradition of suspicious deaths in Latin America’s history. Many years after the fact, experts exhumed the body of Chilean president Salvador Allende, attempting to solve the mystery of whether his death during the 1973 coup was a suicide or a murder. Pablo Neruda, the heroic Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet, presents a similar unknown. Investigators recently exhumed his body to determine whether he died of cancer or crime shortly after the same coup that defeated Allende. In the most dramatic event, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez of Venezuela ordered the corpse of Simón Bolívar, the 19th-century founding father of Latin America, opened on national television. His goal: to establish whether Bolívar died of arsenic poisoning instead of tuberculosis in 1830, as historians had long accepted. In each case, investigators failed to find evidence of foul play.

This suspicious tradition only intensifies when focused on Argentina. Juan Duarte, the older brother of the legendary Eva Perón, committed “suicide” in 1953, nine months after his sister died of cancer. His death came at the perfect moment to remove him from the increasingly tangled web of corruption scandals and accusations of providing assistance in smuggling Nazis into Argentina in which Duarte found himself. Like Nisman over 60 years later, police also found Duarte alone with a bullet in his head. Historians still do not agree on the real cause of his death. In yet another occurrence Héctor Febres, the executive officer of one of the most notorious death camps for political prisoners during the Dirty War, was inexplicably found dead by cyanide poisoning in his prison cell in 2007.

However, the fatal episode that Nisman’s death has most recalled in the minds of Argentines is that of Carlos Menem Jr., President Menem’s son. Menem Jr. died in a helicopter crash one year after the AMIA attacks. At the time, his mother claimed he had been killed, instigating yet another exhumation. Investigators found no answers. Mr. Menem, now 84 and a senator, continues to stick to his wife’s story.

In a more detailed search of Nisman’s apartment following his death, forensic experts identified a second set of DNA on a coffee cup in the kitchen sink. After days in which the only prints found were those of Nisman himself, this came as a shock. The DNA belonged to Diego Lagomarsino. In the wake of this discovery, investigators charged him with providing a firearm to someone not licensed to use it and summoned him to testify. Lagomarsino stated that Nisman asked him for the .22-caliber Bersa because he had lost trust in his security detail. In a drama that has played out more like a Shakespearean tragedy than a political death, and which is littered with dozens of principle characters, Lagomarsino is the only person to testify thus far.

Unsurprisingly, Lagomarsino’s testimony has failed to tip the balance toward any one of the myriad directions this case could go. With Nisman dead and no answers in sight, it is unclear what the next step should be. In the meantime, Cristina’s government, as divisive as it is, continues to find ways to effectively discredit Nisman’s accusations. Simultaneously, conflicting theories circulate. Many are convinced that Cristina is solely responsible for Nisman’s death. Others swear that it was Stiuso, fearful that Nisman had become a threat to his own position in Argentina. Still others assert that the crime belongs to Iran, its last fruitless attempt to end an ongoing crisis that began over two decades ago. A minority cling to the belief that Nisman really did commit suicide, believing that if he did not end his own life someone else would do it for him. All know that waiting around for Stiuso to clear the air won’t help. And so becomes the 86th casualty, hardly forgotten, very much gone.


Post Script:

Almost a month after Mr. Nisman’s death, federal prosecutor Gerardo Pollicita took up the case and alleged that his colleague’s findings merited examination. He requested that federal judge Daniel Rafecas charge Cristina with attempting to obstruct Mr. Nisman’s investigation. On February 26, Judge Rafecas rejected Nisman’s allegations against Cristina, saying there was no evidence of any crime and subsequently closed the investigation. On March 19, federal prosecutor Germán Moldes asked an appellate court to overturn Judge Rafecas’ decision. At the time of the publishing of this article, it is unclear when the court will issue its ruling.