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

by Sebastian Rotella ProPublica, Feb. 11, 2015, 10:35 a.m.

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 2013 it took his bodyguards 10 hours to enter his apartment after he failed to answer phone calls 2013 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

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