Keep the gloves on.

Photographer: Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images

One More Unsolved Mystery in Argentina

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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This much is certain.

On Jan. 18, Argentine star prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead, with a bullet wound to his head, in a pool of blood on the bathroom floor of his apartment in an upscale Buenos Aires neighborhood.

Almost everything else about the demise of the chief investigator into the worst terrorist attack on Latin American soil -- the time of death, whether it was a murder or suicide, and how a team of bodyguards missed the action -- remains a mystery.

Yet just when the nation seemed to have resigned itself to that enigma, a new twist to the tragic plot promises to keep the Argentines in gossip and conspiracy theories for many news cycles to come.

This week, a police video surfaced suggesting possible tampering at the scene of Nisman's death. The footage shows police investigators in Nisman's apartment handling evidence without protective latex gloves and, at one point, using tissue paper to clean the blood-smeared .22 caliber Bersa pistol that fired the fatal bullet.

Viviana Fein, the lead inspector on the Nisman case, has denied any official mischief or bungling, claiming that the scene of his death "was not contaminated." But the video, which aired on a popular news program and became an Internet hit, has revived chatter about a case that most Argentines -- not least President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner -- thought had gone cold.

Recall that Nisman in early January had accused Fernandez of obstructing his probe into the 1994 bombing of a Jewish Community Center, which killed 85 people. He died the day before he was scheduled to lay out his findings to Congress. Those charges sparked public outrage, a media frenzy, an instant book and a parallel forensic investigation by Nisman's ex-wife.

Fernandez fiercely denied any wrongdoing, airing suspicions that the prosecutor had been murdered by "dark forces" looking to incriminate her. Argentine courts summarily dismissed Nisman's charges.

The whole tragedy might have faded there to be spun into a poignant tango, but in Argentina, where even ghosts are partisan -- think of the two decade-long battle over the remains of Eva Peron -- the bandoneon plays on.

The death-scene video "shows how not to do things," Ernesto Duronto, vice president of the national forensic association, declared.  "This way they wipe everything, not just the blood but the finger prints that could have been underneath."

On May 31, La Nacion, a major Buenos Aires daily, reported that Nisman's computer had been used after his death.

Investigators are looking into allegations that his Samsung PC was hacked and some documents altered remotely.

For Fernandez, the timing is awkward. Argentina's economy is contracting, while inflation, debt and unemployment are rising. A nasty battle with bondholders, which has frozen Argentina out of the international credit market for a decade, rages on, a clear sign that hubris still runs deep on the Rio Plate.

Presidential elections are slated for October and although she is ineligible to run, Fernandez is counting on a win by the Victory Front, her faction of Peronismo, the country's leading political brand.

The new twist in the Nisman tragedy is unlikely to revive his allegations against her, which three judges have refused to hear. Fernandez's preferred candidate, Daniel Scioli, the governor of Buenos Aires province, has been gaining in the polls.

But Argentines may need something more to quiet their ghosts. The country's last big case of famously bungled forensics was the Amia bombing that Nisman was investigating, which has yet to be solved. Now, the mystery of Nisman's death risks ending up the same way.

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