Mystery in Argentina finds fertile ground for conspiracy theories

January 29, 2015
A woman holds a sign that reads "Justice" and an image of prosecutor Alberto Nisman during a demonstration to demand justice over Nisman's death in front of the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires January 26, 2015. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

A woman holds a sign that reads “Justice” and an image of prosecutor Alberto Nisman during a demonstration to demand justice over Nisman’s death in front of the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires January 26, 2015. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

Last week’s mysterious death of federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman, who was found dead with a gunshot wound to the head, has drawn international attention to the troubling connections between Argentina’s security-state past, and its present.

Nisman died one day before one of the most important days of his life. On Jan. 19, he was due to present to the Argentine congress evidence for his accusations against the country’s president Cristina Fernandez. Nisman accused her of offering the Iranian government a free pass for its alleged role in the bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires in 1994. In exchange for the fabrication of “innocence,” Nisman said shortly before his death, the president asked for Iranian oil.

The case reveals two historical and recent trends that are an open secret in Argentina. The first is the aggressive overstepping of the executive over other branches of power, especially the judiciary. The second is the blurring of lines between the state’s security apparatus and politics.

The current administration, like its predecessors, has extensively used the intelligence services for political and judicial needs. As journalist Carlos Pagni wrote in a revealing article published last week in the Argentine newspaper La Nación, the intelligence agency has been eavesdropping on members of the opposition and the press, conducting smear campaigns against opposition politicians, and influencing judicial investigations for members of the administration.

In the wake of Nisman’s death, rumors, conspiracy theories and even fantasies have proliferated. A more serious conversation has opened about the links between the democratic present and the dictatorial past – which ended in 1983.

Like with the bombing of the Jewish center, few Argentines believe the truth behind Nisman’s death will ever be known. According to a recent poll, 66 percent of Argentines believe that Nisman was murdered. Argentina has a long history of dubious political deaths. Evita Peron’s brother supposedly committed suicide in 1953, after having being accused of corruption, yet her mother alleged foul play. More recently, there were numerous dubious suicides during the administration of Peronist president Carlos Menem in the 1990s. And, of course, the country is also haunted by the countless political deaths committed during the Dirty War, when the military junta killed thousands of Argentine citizens.

It is no wonder that Fernandez wants to deny any suggestion that Argentina is slipping back into its old authoritarian habits. After first stating that it was a suicide, the president now maintains that Nisman was killed as part of an anti-government plot. She has accused Clarín, the most important newspaper in the country, as well as rogue elements in the intelligence services, of being connected to the death.

This move has only increased the scrutiny of the intelligence services. During Argentina’s democratic transition, the military junta stood trial and a robust civil society emerged. However, some key organs of the state were not reformed, notably its intelligence services.

Before the death of Nisman, the Fernandez administration, like previous governments, has been unwilling or incapable of disentangling this state of affairs. La Nación and Clarín have accused the administration of creating a parallel intelligence service, run by the chief of the army, General Cesar Milani since 2007.

Although domestic intelligence gathering by the military is illegal in Argentina, Milani is accused of doing so, anyway. This is particularly troublesome as Milani has been repeatedly accused, by various victims of the dictatorship, of being involved in the kidnapping and “disappearance” of a soldier, Alberto Ledo, in 1976. He has been summoned by a federal prosecutor in Tucuman province to be questioned as a suspect of covering up the abduction of Ledo.

It is against this backdrop that Cristina Fernandez announced, on Jan. 26, her decision to reform the intelligence services. Her proposals include changing the name of one agency from Intelligence Secretariat to Federal Intelligence Agency, and enabling more congressional oversight of intelligence bodies.

Will Fernandez’s plans be able to put to rest these ghosts haunting the country? Some have expressed concern that they will have the opposite effect.

Critics point out that her reform, which would give her attorney general full control over wiretapping, would further politicize the intelligence agencies. Indeed, some have claimed that attorney generals under Fernandez have hitherto acted like the judicial arm of the president, shutting down investigations and firing prosecutors who were investigating alleged cases of corruption in the administration.

It is unclear whether this would change with the proposed reform. In a recent communiqué, legislators from different parts of the opposition said they were “denouncing this project as maneuver that will deepen the politicization of the intelligence sector with the aim of distracting society’s attention from the key problem which is impunity and the lack of truth.”

Argentina’s dark past still looms large today. Unfortunately for Fernandez, her proposed reforms do little to unseat these fears—if anything, they only have made them worse.


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