Yes, but what's your agenda?

Photographer: Juan Mabromata/AFP

'CSI: Buenos Aires' Gets More Sinister

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.”
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The Argentine economy is doubled over by debt. President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner's approval ratings are south of Patagonia, and the country's decade-long fight with bondholders has just gotten worse.

One industry on the River Plate, however, is still booming: intrigue. It's been two months since maverick prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead on his bathroom floor with a gunshot wound to the head, and no one has a clue as to what happened. Or rather, everyone does.

Hardly a day passes without some new theory on the mysterious demise of the special investigator into the 1994 bomb attack on the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires – an incident that triggered a convoluted probe putting Nisman on a collision course with the Casa Rosada. And each of the theories on his death comes with an agenda attached.

The official autopsy pointed to an "unassisted" death, a position seconded by a government news agency, which claimed Nisman was drunk at the time, but quickly retracted that version. To Nisman's widow, Sandra Arroyo Salgado, a judge who hired her own private gumshoe, her ex was murdered, "execution-style, on one knee."

Arroyo Salgado all but accused Nisman's former computer technician, Diego Lagomarsino, who lent the prosecutor the gun used in his death. Lagomarsino has denied to prosecutors, and CBS's 60 Minutes, that he shot Nisman, but could he have been raw over the deep cut Nisman took from his salary and deposited in their joint bank account in the U.S.?

President Cristina de Fernandez Kirchner split the difference, asserting that Nisman had taken his own life, then immediately doubling back to suggest he'd been murdered -- perhaps by Lagomarsino -- on orders from a rogue spook out to frame her.

Last weekend, the Brazilian newsmagazine Veja weighed in with a story, drawing on accounts by former Venezuelan cabinet members, on how former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad flew to Caracas in 2007 supposedly to deliver loads of cash to Argentine officials in exchange for their alleged pledge not just to stop pursuing the five Iranian nationals implicated in the AMIA bombing but also to provide Tehran with technology for its clandestine nuclear program.

Two in three Argentines recently said they'll likely never know what happened to Nisman, though earlier opinion polls suggest that most think he was murdered. Instead of clarifying the Nisman mystery, the competing versions of his death have fed the country's gnawing antagonisms, turning a forensic riddle into a shameless cage fight.

Consider presidential cabinet chief Anibal Fernandez's "scoop" that Nisman freely spent state money -- garnished with kickbacks from Lagomarsino -- on "VIP hookers." "We are among many scoundrels, including Nisman," Fernandez told reporters.

Foreigners, too, have caught the Nisman wave. Israel is using the unsolved AMIA case to bash Iran. A Venezuelan filmmaker producing a film on the Nisman story said he was threatened. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank in Washington whose members worked closely with Nisman and whose second biggest funder has been Paul Singer, the billionaire whose hedge fund has battled Argentina over its unpaid bonds, has established a website and award in Nisman's honor. 

Argentine historian Federico Finchelstein, who teaches at the New School for Social Research, traces the clash over the Nisman case back to the aggressive brand of populism inspired by the former caudillo, Juan Domingo Peron. "This is typical Peronismo, which, sadly, allows for no differences of opinion," he said.

Scratch the hype of the Nisman imbroglio, Finchelstein said, and Argentine's dysfunctional democracy pokes through. Though not as brazen as Chavismo's outright capture of democratic institutions, the Casa Rosada has never hesitated to lean on the courts or congress to cow opponents or crowbar the official agenda.

For years, the national statistics bureau was a government boom-box, broadcasting sunny growth and inflation numbers. The Peronist-dominated Congress, with the Supreme Court's blessing, rubber-stamped Fernandez's tendentious media law silencing critics. "It's the populist conceit that one's own position, legitimized by votes, is that of the nation's position, and that your political rivals are enemies of state," Finchelstein said.

This "conflation of powers," as Finchelstein puts it, has generated heat but little light in the Nisman case. So maybe it's no surprise that the man who tried to solve one of Argentine's biggest mysteries has become one himself.

(Corrects description of Paul Singer's role in honoring Nisman in 10th paragraph.)

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