ProPublica

Journalism in the Public Interest

Alberto Nisman and Argentina’s History of Assassinations and Suspicious Suicides

Whether the crusading prosecutor’s death is found to be a suicide or homicide, many Argentines probably won’t believe it. The past has taught them to always look for the sinister explanation.

Protesters hold banners and shout slogans near the funeral procession for Argentine prosecutor Alberto Nisman in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Amilcar Orfali/LatinContent/Getty Images)

A year and a half ago, I talked to Alberto Nisman, the Argentine special prosecutor whose mysterious death has made international headlines.

I didn't know Nisman, but I knew the case he was investigating: the terrorist bombing that killed 85 people at a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994.

As a foreign correspondent, I had done a lot of reporting on the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the history of the hemisphere. I interviewed survivors, investigators, diplomats, spies and shady characters from Latin America, the U.S. and the Middle East about an investigation plagued by corruption and cover-ups. Years later, I had watched from afar when Nisman succeeded in indicting Iranian officials and Hezbollah terrorists and securing Interpol warrants for them.

Nisman's startling death last month left Argentina, a country for which I have great fondness, in turmoil. Sadly, that's not unusual. The history of Argentina, and much of Latin America, is a chronicle of skullduggery: assassinations, massacres, scandals, frame-ups, convenient "accidents," staged "suicides." The Nisman case grows out of a labyrinth of lies and intrigue where almost everything seems possible except establishing facts, and almost nothing is what it seems.

Describing the elusive, chaotic reality of a South American nation, a U.S. law enforcement chief once told me: "The lights are going out in the house of mirrors."

Although he wasn't talking about Argentina, the image applies.

In the summer of 2013, I interviewed Nisman by phone and email. I agreed to meet him in Washington, D.C., where a congressional committee had invited him to testify about Iran's spy network in Latin America and its alleged role in a plot to bomb John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. At the last minute, though, the Argentine government blocked his trip. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had agreed months earlier with Iranian leaders to set up a joint "truth commission" about the case, part of a geopolitical shift toward Iran and Venezuela.

Nisman and many others feared his own government intended to scuttle his prosecution. In an email to me on July 10, 2013, he wrote: "I followed the [Congressional] hearing on the web and I was very sorry I couldn't be there."

His troubles got worse. Last December, the government fired a powerful spy chief who was Nisman's lead investigator. The prosecutor retaliated with a bombshell: He accused the president, her foreign minister and other political figures of conspiring to absolve the accused Iranians in exchange for commercial deals. Iranian diplomat Mohsen Rabbani, a top suspect in the 1994 attack, participated in secret talks, according to Nisman's criminal complaint.

Argentine spies "negotiated with Mohsen Rabbani," an indignant Nisman said in a television interview on Jan. 14. "Not just with the state that protects the terrorists, but also with the terrorists."

The Argentine government denied his allegations.

Four days later, the prosecutor's police bodyguards found his corpse in the bathroom of his high-rise apartment, shot in the head at point blank range with a .22-caliber pistol. He had borrowed the gun from an aide the previous evening, saying he was worried about threats. His death came the day before he planned to testify in the Argentine National Congress about his 290-page complaint.

Suicide remains a possibility. Authorities say there was no sign of a struggle or intruders. The workaholic 51-year-old was under great pressure. But Nisman's family, colleagues and others, including political opposition leaders, say he was murdered. There was no suicide note. He spent his last days preparing his legislative testimony and talking about it with associates, politicians and journalists.

Why would Nisman kill himself at a landmark moment? If he did, was he driven to it by blackmail and threats, or a devastating revelation that hurt his case? If it was murder, did it result from feuds in the intelligence community pitting presidential loyalists against spies aligned with Western agencies? Which faction would benefit from his death?

Enduring Tradition: the 'Liberated Zone'

The persistence of state-connected violence and intrigue in Argentina goes way back. As in other Latin American nations, criminal mafias flourish. They often have links to security forces and roots in the military dictatorship that ended in 1983.

Manipulation reaches extremes capable of causing paranoia. Consider the practice known as an "operetta:" Police team up with hoodlums for robberies, split the loot, then ambush their partners and claim a victory against crime. During a wave of robberies of upscale nightspots in Buenos Aires in 1998, stick-up men killed a police officer guarding a restaurant. It turned out the killers were serving prison sentences. Guards ran a scheme in which they sneaked inmates out long enough to commit robberies, then return with the perfect alibi: They were officially behind bars.

Tactics and terminology of the "dirty war" linger. During the dictatorship, uniformed police assisted death squads by withdrawing from the area around a target and establishing a perimeter to create a "liberated zone." Argentines still use that phrase to describe police involvement in mafia activity. Breakdowns in Nisman's security – it took his bodyguards 10 hours to enter his apartment after he failed to answer phone calls – have led to talk of "a liberated zone."

Looking back two decades, the phrase could describe the landscape in which the terrorist attack that Nisman investigated took place.

After President Carlos Menem, the son of Syrian immigrants, was elected in 1989, he had friendly relations with Middle Eastern governments that included Syria and Iran, launching a nuclear cooperation venture with Tehran. A whirl of scandal soon engulfed Menem's government. Mafias with Middle Eastern links infiltrated government ministries, the judiciary, security forces, border agencies and transport firms to launder money and smuggle arms, drugs, contraband and people.

The notorious Monzer al-Kassar, a Syrian arms trafficker now serving a 30-year sentence in the United States for terrorism, illegally received an Argentine passport in record time and, according to Kassar's testimony to a Spanish judge, wore a jacket and tie for the photo borrowed from President Menem himself. Presidential relatives and top officials fell in corruption cases in the 90s involving Kassar and a shadowy Argentine tycoon of Syrian descent named Alfredo Yabrán.

A "suicide" in 1990 has gotten new attention after Nisman's death. Police found Brigadier General Rodolfo Echegoyen, a customs chief who investigated Yabrán, with a bullet in his head and a suicide note nearby. Police forensic experts eventually determined that someone else fired the .38-caliber pistol that killed the general. Yabrán later shot himself (though some people don't believe it) as police prepared to arrest him for ordering another death that shocked the country: the killing of a news photographer by corrupt cops who tried to pin it on a band of petty criminals.

Fingering Hezbollah and Iran

Menem soon distanced himself from Middle Eastern rulers and grew closer to Washington, seeing strong ties to the United States as key to Argentina's future. Two bombings hit Buenos Aires: The explosion at the Israeli embassy that killed 29 people in 1992, and the attack two years later at the Jewish community center, or Argentine-Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA).

The attacks were a national trauma, evoking a vicious anti-Semitic tradition in the security forces and politics. I began reporting about the AMIA case in 1996 as a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times – the first of many terrorist attacks I would cover. It was painful to relive the massacre with survivors and Jewish leaders, to see their schools and synagogues protected by bomb barriers and police guards, to hear eloquent, tearful speeches demanding justice on each anniversary.

The investigation suffered from inexperience, ineptitude and corruption. A fog of doubt enveloped facts as basic as whether a suicide car-bomb was used. The federal police accused officers of the provincial police, their longtime foes, of providing the van allegedly used as a rolling bomb. The provincial police planted a "witness"– a convicted murderer whom they coached using the case file – to divert investigators. Theories pointed at Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, and neo-fascist military veterans who mysteriously appeared at the blast scene with an ambulance.

Alberto Nisman gives a news conference in Buenos Aires on May 20, 2009. Nisman's startling death last month left Argentina in turmoil. (Juan Mabromata/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Authorities charged Iranian diplomats along with the police officers, but a court acquitted the officers and another accused accomplice in 2004. The original investigators were themselves charged with bribing a witness and obstructing justice.

Then-President Nestor Kirchner, the current president's late husband, decided it was time for a major effort. He appointed Nisman to lead a special prosecution unit with a generous budget and a staff of 80. Nisman worked closely with Antonio Stiuso, a veteran chief of the Argentine Intelligence Secretariat (SIDE) who had strong alliances with foreign services. They traveled to consult with U.S., Israeli and European counterterror agencies about the investigation.

In 2006, Nisman charged senior Iranian officials and leaders of the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah with plotting the AMIA attack, which was allegedly executed by Hezbollah militants and Iranian spies including Rabbani, the former cultural attaché in Buenos Aires. Interpol issued warrants for five Iranian suspects, including the country's defense minister from 2009 to 2013, and Imad Mughniyah, the Hezbollah military chief who died in a 2008 assassination.

Despite many stumbles and defects in the investigation, most of the evidence and intelligence – and the assessment of most U.S., Latin American, Israeli and European counterterror officers I've talked to – points to Hezbollah and its longtime sponsor Iran in the embassy and AMIA attacks. The operations were part of a shadow war with Israel, counterterror officials say.

Argentina was an easy target because of weak law enforcement and a strong terrorist infrastructure in the region. Menem's change in foreign policy also played a role, according to the Argentine charges.

Nonetheless, some Argentine commentators maintain to this day that terrorists connected to Syria – and to Menemist intrigues – committed the attack.

Iran denies involvement. In 1998, I interviewed the top Iranian diplomat in Argentina in the embassy that allegedly served as a base for the AMIA plot. He accused the CIA and the Mossad of framing his government.

"We have nothing to do with this because civilized men, men of culture, have no need to use savage weapons," said Abdolrahim Sadatifar, the chargé d'affaires.

From Favored Son to Demon

In recent years, Argentina's foreign policy became increasingly anti-Western as President Kirchner grew close to the late Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and his Bolivarian alliance. Her government clashed with Washington and, according to U.S. officials, cut cooperation with the CIA, DEA and other agencies. Argentine leaders improved ties with Iran, which expanded its presence in Latin America.

In 2013, Argentina and Iran agreed to the memorandum of understanding proposing a truth commission of third-country judicial experts to advance the probe with Tehran's participation.

Leaders of the Argentine political opposition and the Jewish community criticized the idea of Iran, a longtime state sponsor of terrorism, helping to investigate its own officials. The proposal ultimately fizzled.

Nisman saw the drastic policy shift as a betrayal. He endured increased hostility from pro-government forces as well as anonymous threats to him and his two daughters, according to public statements of Nisman and others and press reports.

"He went from the favorite son to the demon," Daniel Santoro, a respected investigative reporter for the Clarin newspaper, told me in a telephone interview last week. "It was a very brusque ideological change by the government, a swing of 180 degrees influenced by Venezuela."

All the while, feuds heated up in the security forces. In a murky incident last year, a police SWAT team stormed the home of one SIDE chief and killed him in a shootout. A judge charged 10 officers with staging a drug raid to kill the spy, who was close to Stiuso. Political analysts see the ouster of Stiuso in December as a purge of a faction aligned with the CIA and other Western agencies.

Reportedly fearing he would be dismissed next, Nisman returned from a vacation in the middle of the Argentine summer and made his allegations against the president, describing the public agreement with Iran as a smokescreen for a conspiracy.

In the Jan. 14 television interview, Nisman asserted that telephone intercepts revealed a plan to blame the AMIA attack on "local fascists." Nisman said Argentine suspects provided the Iranians with information about his investigation and "personal details" about him and his family. Suspects referred to him with anti-Semitic terms during phone calls, Nisman said in the interview. (The criminal complaint does not include phone intercepts of the president. And Foreign Minister Hector Timerman, who Nisman accused of being a central figure in the alleged conspiracy, is also Jewish.)

Nisman seemed more isolated and embattled than ever, Santoro said.

"He had ended up all alone," Santoro said. "There was an environment of threats, a campaign of denigrating statements and harassment of the prosecutor."

That context fits with scenarios of suicide or murder.

The president's reaction to the death contributed to the uproar. Kirchner quickly took to Facebook to suggest that Nisman committed suicide. In a startling reversal days later, the president speculated that he was murdered and accused Stiuso of manipulating him with "false leads" to undermine her government. And she cast suspicion on the aide who loaned Nisman the pistol, though he has been charged only with the minor offense of giving a gun without legal authorization.

"This is the worst scandal for the president, the worst scandal since the government of Isabel Perón" in the 1970s, Santoro said. "The government has made remarkable errors."

Like a Circus Act

Santoro published a scoop last week about how investigators found documents revealing that Nisman considered issuing arrest requests for the president and the other politicians. The government denied it. The president's cabinet chief tore up a copy of Clarin on camera and called the newspaper garbage. But then the attorney general's office confirmed the story.

Argentines have responded to the case with disbelief. History has taught them to see each detail as sinister. The investigation has moved slowly and key forensic work remains incomplete. Nisman's hands didn't test positive for gunpowder residue, though authorities say that could be explained by the pistol's small caliber. The federal police have opened an internal investigation of Nisman's 10-man protective detail, whose security measures were seemingly lax.

Nisman called Stiuso several times in his final hours, authorities said this week. Prosecutors have subpoenaed the veteran intelligence chief to testify. There is great expectation because Stiuso's 43 years in the spy game make him a feared figure with vast knowledge of the political underworld.

It could be that Nisman was the victim of pro-government forces sending a mafia-style response to his challenge – or of scheming rival forces trying to destabilize the government. The simplest scenario could also be true: He made hasty accusations against powerful people and, in a moment of regret and despair, killed himself.

The pervasive uncertainty reminds me of an experience I had in 1999 with a mysterious witness in the AMIA case. His name was Wilson Dos Santos.

Dos Santos was a fast-talking, green-eyed, 38-year-old from Brazil. He had masqueraded as an Italian engineer to marry a well-to-do woman, fooling her and her Italo-Brazilian family. He had allegedly been a police informant while peddling immigration documents and smuggling contraband at the "triple border" region of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, a base for gangsters and extremists with ties to Hezbollah and other groups.

Dos Santos seemed important because he showed up at the Argentine, Brazilian and Israeli consulates in Milan, Italy, in July 1994 and warned officials of an impending terrorist attack in Buenos Aires. He said he had done work at the triple border and elsewhere for a group of Iranian terrorists who had carried out the Israeli embassy bombing two years earlier and were plotting a new strike. The target, he said, was a building under renovation.

As often happens with "walk-ins" telling tales, no one took him too seriously. Until a week later, when the bomb blew up the AMIA community center, which was under renovation. Dos Santos testified at length in Buenos Aires. Then he self-destructed. He changed his mind, denied everything, was charged with perjury and fled to Brazil.

Nonetheless, his warning stood out as a rare fact in the sea of ambiguity. Investigators believed that foreign spies, perhaps in a Brazilian service, learned of the plot and used Dos Santos to indirectly send a warning.

I tracked down Dos Santos. We had an edgy conversation in the food court of a shopping mall in Sao Paulo. Two men watched us from a distance and one of them followed me to my car; sources told me that Brazilian authorities were keeping an eye on the recalcitrant mystery witness.

Dos Santos wore sunglasses propped on his head and acted skittish. He stuck to his new story. He said he wasn't a spy and didn't know any terrorists. The timing of his visit to the consulates was pure luck – a "bingo."

"I'm a fool," he said. "If I were smart, I wouldn't have made up this story."

As he talked, I remembered the anguish of Luis Czyzewski, the father of an AMIA victim. Paula Czyzewski, a diminutive 21-year-old, was in the lobby when the explosion destroyed the community center and killed her at close range. Her mother survived because, at the moment of the blast, she had walked to the far end of the building to send a fax.

Czyzewski was a gentle, dignified man with combed-back gray hair and haunted blue eyes. In 1998, he had traveled to Brazil to see Dos Santos testify before Argentine prosecutors at a special hearing. As Czyzewski watched, he broke down in tears.

"For the first time, I had the sensation that I was seeing a person who could have participated in my daughter's death," he told me. "More than an interrogation, it was like a circus act. He overwhelmed himself with his own lies."

The Nisman case inspires a similar mix of sadness, disgust and frustration. Argentines have been overwhelmed by lies over the years. No matter what the investigation of his death concludes, a lot of people probably won't believe it.

The prosecutor has become another victim of a massacre that remains shamefully unsolved. Another victim of a labyrinth that leads not to justice, but to new labyrinths.

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