Sebastian Rotella knows Argentina.
A longtime foreign correspondent who spent five years in Buenos Aires, Rotella has an expert grasp of the country’s history of scandal – and in his eyes, the sudden death of an Argentine special prosecutor last month is just the latest chapter in the country’s chronicle of skullduggery.
Talking with Steve Engelberg in this week’s podcast, he explains that the shooting of the prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, made international headlines because he had recently accused the president, the foreign minister and others of conspiring to absolve Iranians accused in a 1994 attack in exchange for commercial deals.
Suffice it to say, the initial theory, that Nisman committed suicide, has Argentines very suspicious – as they should be, says Rotella, a longtime foreign correspondent who counts Buenos Aires among his former posts.
There’s the fact that Nisman, working at home, had been communicating excitedly about his upcoming testimony to the Argentine National Congress before he was found shot in the head at point blank range, Rotella says. “A lot of people are sort of stunned how someone who seemed so determined and was reaching kind of a landmark moment in their career – and what was really a very personal crusade for him – could have taken the step of suddenly killing himself.”
More than that, Rotella explains, there’s Argentina’s long history of weak criminal justice and rampant corruption. “You have things like cases where police officers will be in cahoots with a band of criminals, allow them – and even help them – commit a series of robberies, then ambush them one day, kill them and claim a victory against crime,” Rotella says. “In fact, there’s even a term for it: it’s called an operetta. It’s like a staged victory against crime.”
Nisman, appointed in 2004 by President Nestor Kirchner, the current president's late husband, inherited an investigation “marred by all kinds of inexperience and ineptitude and corruption and false leads and breakdowns,” Rotella says.
Amid the initial shock of his death, Engelberg points out, conflicting statements from the government only stoked fears of foul play.
Rotella agrees, saying that while suicide is a plausible possibility, “the problem is, in Argentina, there is so much corruption, there is so much manipulation, there are so many cases where there is great suspicion that security forces played a role, that the almost automatic reaction of Argentines is to look for the sinister explanation, to doubt the official version, to see each new detail as potentially a red herring or a trap.”
What’s next? Engelberg asks. “Are there people on the scene who are going to do a professional, proper job here?”
Rotella sees cause for hope: a judiciary that has shown some independence and tenacity, along with heightened public scrutiny. But no matter how diligent the investigation, he says, Argentines can be forgiven for any enduring suspicion.