Is the sun setting on Argentine justice?

Photographer: Alejandro Pagni/AFP/Getty Images

Argentina's Murder Mystery

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
Read More.
a | A

Alberto Nisman had a reputation as an independent and fearless prosecutor. That’s one reason why in 2004 President Nestor Kirchner assigned him to look into the deadly 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires. The attack killed 85 people, but the investigation into the case had been languishing in the courts ever since.

Nisman was found Sunday night lying on the floor of his bathroom, a single .22-caliber bullet wound to the head and a small Bersa revolver by his side.

The mysterious death -- no suicide note, no gunpowder traces on his hands, apparently no witnesses -- shook the nation. This was a national tragedy compounding another. What happens next will determine if it will also be a travesty.

What's clear is that Nisman died in his 13th-floor apartment in Puerto Madero, an upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood.

What's murky is the suicide claim. The door to Nisman's apartment was locked from the inside, and none of the 10 bodyguards assigned to protect him were in the apartment at the time of his death. He'd also taken care to leave a note for his  housekeeper asking her to buy groceries Monday morning, according to one relative. Still, criminal investigator Viviana Fein took barely a day to reach her conclusion: Nisman had committed suicide, she said, though she left open the possibility that he may have been "induced or instigated" by "threats" into taking his own life.

Only last week, the 51-year-old prosecutor had accused President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her foreign minister Hector Timerman of a criminal conspiracy to cover up the probe into the 1994 bombing. According to Nisman, Kirchner and Timerman were trying to stonewall his investigation into the bombing and to shelve criminal charges against the alleged Iranian perpetrators, apparently in order to facilitate a deal to buy Iranian oil in exchange for Argentine grain.

"Sooner or later the truth will come out," he said in a text message sent the day before he died. "I'm very confident. I'll do whatever I can, no matter who gets in the way." He was scheduled to make his case in a closed-door session of parliament on Monday.

News of his death brought angry demonstrators into the streets Monday, banging pots and pans, the nation's preferred display of outrage, and shouting "murder" in the Plaza de Mayo and at the Quinta de Olivos, the official presidential residence. "I am Nisman," read many placards.

Kirchner's own reaction hasn't done much to quiet suspicions. "What drives a person to take such a terrible decision to take one's own life?" she asked on her Facebook page, in a rambling post. Kirchner warned of those who would seize upon the 21-year-old bombing tragedy and its convoluted aftermath to "divert, lie, cover up and confuse," and went on to float a series of conjectures apparently meant to be probing but which sounded merely exotic.

Who, she asked, had ordered Nisman to abruptly end his family vacation in Paris and leave his young daughter alone in the Madrid airport? Who could believe that anyone with such a serious charge against the president suddenly takes off on vacation, then interrupts his holiday, "to submit a 350-page accusation that he must have prepared beforehand?"

But Nisman's death is yet another embarrassment for Kirchner, who has been accused of taking kickbacks from palace friends, building a vault for the loot in her Patagonia home and spending more than a million dollars on jewelry. In flusher days, under a more charismatic leader, Argentines might have been willing to overlook such misdeeds as collateral mischief. Instead they have a reclusive, lame-duck president, whose approval ratings have crashed as the economy skirts recession.

Like most caudillos in autumn, Kirchner hopes at least to plump her legacy by seating her successor in the December elections. She would do much better by stepping up to use what's left of her presidential authority to safeguard the integrity of the Argentine justice system and allow Nisman's replacement, Marcelo Burgos, to do his job.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net