By Erika de la Garza, program director, Latin America Initiative
One month ago yesterday, Alberto Nisman, Argentina’s special prosecutor investigating the country’s worst terrorist attack, was found dead of a gunshot wound to his head. To commemorate his mysterious death, a group of prosecutors held a pro-Nisman “march of silence” that brought thousands of people to the streets in Buenos Aires despite the inclement weather. The circumstances surrounding Nisman’s death — and the continuing fallout — are so unusual they deserve reflection.
For over a decade, Nisman was in charge of investigating the 1994 bombing of the Amia Jewish community center building in Buenos Aires, which killed 85 people and injured hundreds more. Four days before his death, Nisman presented a criminal complaint against Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, foreign minister Héctor Timerman and other high-ranking officials for covering up the involvement of Iranian officials in this terrorist attack. He alleged the government wanted to suppress Iran’s involvement in order to secure lucrative trade deals between the two countries. The report included evidence from wiretaps and other intelligence. Nisman was found dead in his apartment just hours before he was due to testify before Congress on his controversial allegations.
Speculation on whether he was murdered or committed suicide grips Argentina to this day. At issue is not only justice for Nisman, if he was murdered, but whether “democracy” in Argentina means that all citizens — including the president — are accountable under the law.
Nisman’s friends and family, including his ex-wife, federal judge Sandra Arroyo Salgado, believe his death wasn’t a suicide. Judge Arroyo asked Congress to urge the International Court of Human Rights to investigate the case. For her part, President Kirchner, through a letter published on her Facebook account, first suggested that Nisman killed himself. She later changed her mind and said rogue government agents had murdered the special prosecutor. According to her theory, Nisman was fed bad information by rogue agents inside Argentina’s Intelligence Secretariat — an agency she recently announced would be dissolved and replaced with a new Federal Agency of Intelligence. She has accused police, prosecutors, intelligence agents, media outlets and others of conspiring to destabilize her government.
A month after Nisman’s death, there is still no reliable evidence to support a murder or suicide claim — and, thanks to reportedly shoddy police work, there may never be. Soon after police were called to the death scene, an individual called to witness the investigation (a common practice under Argentinean law) spent close to seven hours in Nisman’s apartment watching law enforcement officers process the evidence. In an interview with the media several days later, the witness revealed some disturbing incidents that suggested officials paid little attention to detail at the crime scene. Among other allegations, the witness said she was allowed to use a bathroom in Nisman’s apartment without any regard to whether it may have contained evidence relevant to the case, and that officers made coffee using Nisman’s coffeemaker and touched, read and used highlighters to mark some of the documents Nisman had been working on.
No one knows how the scandal will play out, but one thing is certain: This December, as President Fernández de Kirchner steps down after 12 years in office, Argentina will be celebrating 32 years of uninterrupted democracy. Since the fundamental pillars of any democracy are liberty and equality, the courts should treat Kirchner like any other citizen, if Nisman’s allegations are proven to be true. However, in Argentina, as in many other Latin American countries, politicians are rarely prosecuted. Former President Carlos Menem, who was indicted in 2012 for covering up Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in the same 1994 terrorist attack, managed to extend his immunity from prosecution by going directly from his presidency to Congress as a sitting senator. Unless President Fernández de Kirchner comes up with a similar idea, her immunity will end on December 10, and Argentina’s concept of democracy will be put to a test.
Voices of the Americas is a space for Americas Project fellows to share their insights into events unfolding in their home countries and in the region as a whole. The fellows' essays will also focus on economic development, institution building, democracy and the rule of law.