As a chief investigator of the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center, Alberto Nisman was determined to seek justice over Argentina’s deadliest-ever terrorist attack. After a decade of investigation, he collected evidence from US and Israeli intelligence services, and slowly compiled what he intended to be a conclusive criminal case. However, on January 18th, Nisman was found dead in his bathroom with a gun by his side just hours before he was due to present his findings before the Argentine Congress’s criminal-affairs committee.
The event incurred in 1994, when a van packed with explosives drove into the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) and exploded, killing 86 people (including the terrorist) and injuring 300. Argentina’s Jewish community, the world’s seventh largest, has long protested the government’s inability to find and prosecute the murderers. Ever since, they have held demonstrations on anniversaries of the bombing to demand the trial and punishment of the perpetrators. Argentine prosecutors, Jewish advocacy groups, and the state of Israel all believe that Iran planned the attack and Hizbullah, a Lebanon-based Islamist group, carried it out. In 2013, Argentina announced that it would collaborate with Iran in a joint commission to seek the truth about the attack. The Argentine Jewish community criticized Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, for aligning the government with the primary suspect. In the end, for reasons that are still unclear, the negotiations failed and the deal fell apart.
On January 14th of this year, Alberto Nisman accused Kirchner of obstructing the investigation of the terrorist act by covering up Iran’s involvement. In a 300-page document filed with a Buenos Aires court, he declared that Kirchner, the foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, and other prominent individuals had negotiated and assured the impunity of Iranians in the AMIA case to serve political and commercial interests. As Nisman claimed, the allegations against them were based on “irrefutable proof” from years of investigations and countless wiretaps of conversations between high-level Argentine and Iranian officials. He argued that the president offered to cover up the involvement of any Iranian officials in exchange for increased trade. Argentina would export grain to Iran, while Iran would sell oil to Argentina to ease its severe energy deficit.
After filing his allegations, Alberto Nisman was nervous. He reportedly said to associates, “I’m playing with my life here.” But the conditions in which Mr. Nisman’s body was found seem at first to point toward suicide rather than murder. If it turns out to be suicide, the implications, while troubling, will not be catastrophic. If it is murder, on the other hand, the investigation could trigger political and social turmoil. What matters now is that his death is properly investigated. Argentina’s police and judiciary may be relatively efficient at solving simple crimes. But when power is involved, be it political or economic, their efficiency comes into question. In a region where corruption is part of the culture of a nation’s governing institutions, the integrity of the decision becomes doubtful.
In December, Kirchner replaced the top two officials of the intelligence service, who had helped Nisman, with people loyal to her. That has increased suspicions of presidential interference in the investigation. Initially, Kirchner eagerly endorsed the tentative finding that Nisman may have committed suicide, but later changed her mind. Her new theory suggested that he might have been assassinated as part of a larger conspiracy to threaten her government. She hinted that Nisman’s 300-page allegations were a product of false information fed to him by the national intelligence agency. On January 26th, she announced that she would propose a law to dissolve the spy agency, known as the Secretariat of Intelligence (SI), and replace it with a new body named the Federal Agency of Intelligence whose directors would be appointed by her. The SI was originally created under Argentina’s military government in 1946 and evolved into a secret police force during the 1970s and 1980s. Critics allege that the SI has since been used to monitor the activities of critical journalists, politicians, judges and prosecutors. Kirchner implied that the SI has kept much of the same structure since then, and described her reforms as a way to address a “debt” that has been owned to the country since its transition to democracy in 1983. “They’re not going to extort me. They’re not going to intimidate me. I’m not afraid of them,” Kirchner said. It’s unclear how, exactly, she intends to reform the intelligence agency, when, over the past couple of years, she has been trying to appoint loyalists in as many positions as she can.
The slogan “Yo soy Nisman” (“I am Nisman”) appeared first as a Twitter hashtag and then on signs held by demonstrators on the streets, as they demanded “justice” for Alberto Nisman. The case has increased the tension between the government and Jewish groups, who boycotted the national Holocaust remembrance ceremony last week. Yet the cause of Nisman’s death remains unclear. Perhaps, as the demonstrators believe, he was killed by forces intent on stopping his inquiry into a government conspiracy to cover up responsibility for the bombing. Or perhaps the truth is something else entirely. What is indisputable, though, is that no one has yet been convicted for the country’s deadliest-ever terrorist attack.
Insecurity and unemployment have consistently been substantial problems for many Argentinean citizens. However, impunity, battling corruption, and justice will undoubtedly become the top priorities of all presidential candidates. The death of Alberto Nisman had a negative impact on Argentina, and one that has gone beyond the infamous governance of the Kirchners. For most investors, the scandal is yet another warning to steer clear of Argentina. It has augmented public distrust in institutions and increased feelings of paranoia, vulnerability, and lack of justice. What the country needs now is an investigator such as Nisman- someone who will fight the pressure and the threats of local politicians and international conspirators.