by Mike LaSusa
Investigators in Argentina have finally determined, after more than two-and-a-half years, that the gunshot to the head that killed controversial prosecutor Alberto Nisman in January 2015 was delivered by someone other than Nisman himself.
The Wall Street Journal reported that a team of more than two dozen “government forensic experts, toiling at a secret facility for seven months,” worked on the inquest into Nisman’s death, the results of which were submitted to an Argentine federal court on September 22.
According to local press reports, the investigation determined that two attackers beat the prosecutor and dosed him with ketamine, a powerful tranquilizer, before shooting him in the head in the bathroom of his apartment, where his body was found hours later in a pool of blood.
What the investigation did not determine is the identity of the two suspects. Nor did it reveal a possible motive for the killing.
In a sense, this is fitting. Most Argentines believed from the start that Nisman had been murdered. But most also believed that the true killer or killers would never be caught.
This lack of faith can be traced, at least in part, to the still-unsolved case that made Nisman’s career—the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, the deadliest terrorist attack in the country’s history.
Nisman began working on the case in the late 1990s and remained a key figure in the AMIA saga until his death. The prosecutor promoted a theory that is now widely accepted as fact: The Iranian government orchestrated the AMIA attack through its militant proxy Hezbollah.
Nisman was never able to prove the “Iran theory” conclusively, however, and the case remains unsolved.
Following the appearance of media accounts about the inquest into his death, speculation resurfaced focusing largely on the idea that Nisman may have been murdered for coming too close to the truth about the AMIA bombing.
Days before the prosecutor’s death, he had published an indictment alleging that the administration of then-President Cristina Kirchner had made a secret pact with the Iranian government to cover up the involvement of high-level Iranian officials in orchestrating the AMIA bombing. In exchange, the prosecutor argued, Iran and Argentina agreed to boost their trade relationship by exchanging South American grain for Middle Eastern oil.
Those allegations are still working their way through Argentina’s legal system. But the timing of Nisman’s death led many to conclude that he was likely murdered either by the Kirchner government or by the Iranians—or perhaps by both working in concert.
However, as is the case with Nisman’s theory about Iran’s role in the AMIA attack, his accusation of a cover-up by the Kirchner administration deserves close scrutiny.
In both instances, the evidence is weaker than it is often portrayed. And understanding the full picture sheds light on a possible alternative explanation for the prosecutor’s mysterious and untimely death.
Myths About the AMIA Case
Despite being widely accepted as fact, the evidence that Iran was behind the AMIA attack is largely circumstantial and ultimately unconvincing.
After spending over a year researching the bombing, I concluded that the “Iran theory” gained prominence “not for the strength of the evidence, but rather due to [US] political motives; primarily, antagonism toward Iran.”
Nisman’s indictment, originally published in 2006, named former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani along with several military, intelligence and diplomatic officials, as well as Hezbollah leader Imad Mugniyeh.
Although the indictment is considered one of the pillars of the “Iran theory,” it is in fact a rambling compilation of anecdotal information and baseless fear-mongering about a supposed terrorist network operating from Iran’s diplomatic outposts around Latin America. Argentine journalist Jorge Lanata—who co-authored “Smokescreens,” one of the earliest comprehensive journalistic investigations of the AMIA attack—once called the lengthy document “800 pages of nothing.”
Even the US ambassador and the deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Argentina at the time of the attack have publicly expressed skepticism about the “Iran theory,” calling it “flimsy” and without “any real evidence.”
Nisman’s charge that the Kirchner administration made a secret deal with the Iranians is equally questionable.
The Argentine news media provided extensive coverage of the negotiations between Argentina and Iran after they became public in late 2011. And those negotiations ultimately resulted not in a secret pact to cover up Iranian involvement in the AMIA attack, but rather in a public agreement to cooperate on investigating the bombing, for which Iran has long denied any responsibility.
Nisman alleged that the public announcement of this deal in 2013 was meant to hide the true nature of a cover-up negotiated on the sidelines. But official trade data does not support his contention that the Kirchner government promised impunity for the Iranian perpetrators in exchange for oil.
Nisman argued that this was because the Argentine government wasn’t able to hold up its end of the bargain. The Iranian officials accused of orchestrating the AMIA bombing stayed on Interpol’s list of “red notices” for individuals who are sought for international crimes.
Still, it seems unlikely that the Iranians would enter into such an agreement with the expectation that their Argentine counterparts could actually get the Iranian officials off the list. Both parties undoubtedly knew full well how vigorously the United States had campaigned to have the controversial red notices reinstated in 2007 after Interpol rescinded them in 2005 following allegations of judicial misconduct by an Argentine judge working on the case.
In sum, it would seem an odd motivation for a murder. Nisman had been accusing the Iranians of plotting the AMIA attack for more than a decade at the time of his death. And speculation about a Kirchner administration cover-up was nothing new either. Major media outlets in Argentina aired this charge repeatedly at the time of the negotiations.
Certainly, if either the Iranian or Argentine governments—or both—were behind Nisman’s demise, the operatives must have realized that assassinating the prominent prosecutor just before his blockbuster presentation would invite throw intense international suspicion upon them (which it did). And it would not erase the evidence that he had compiled. Would such purportedly wily actors really take this huge risk?
An Alternative Explanation
The answer to the question of who killed Alberto Nisman could lie in an oft-overlooked aspect of the late prosecutor’s life.
As I reported for LobeLog last year, before Nisman’s death US authorities were investigating a New York bank account held in his name for indications of possible money laundering. Nisman’s ex-wife told Argentine authorities about the bank account shortly after the prosecutor’s killing and stated that she believed he had been murdered for “economic motives.”
Notably, one of the individuals who gave money to Nisman met a similarly suspicious—and yet unknown—end.
Damian Stefanini, an Argentine entrepreneur who deposited $150,000 in Nisman’s account in October 2012, vanished without a trace almost exactly two years after making that transfer—in October 2014, just three months before Nisman’s death.
Stefanini’s car was found abandoned near his accountant’s office in Buenos Aires, close to an address tied to another entity that had made a suspicious deposit to Nisman’s New York account. In fact, it was the single largest suspicious deposit to Nisman’s account that authorities examined: a $134,975 transfer from a corporation called “RODFA Limited,” which is based in Hong Kong, an increasingly popular money-laundering center.
I was unable to contact the registered founders and owners of RODFA. But the Buenos Aires address that company director Rodrigo Martin Ferreiros listed in incorporation documents is just blocks away from where Stefanini’s car was found.
In the course of my reporting for LobeLog, I discovered that many of the suspicious deposits to Nisman’s New York account identified by US investigators seemed to coincide with important moments in a heated legal dispute related to Argentina’s national debt that was playing out in the US court system at the time.
This could be a simple coincidence, or it could suggest the involvement of powerful interests seeking to collect huge profits on sovereign debt they bought dirt-cheap during Argentina’s early-2000s financial crisis. These interests were open and explicit about their desire to “do whatever we can” to tear down the reputation of the Kirchner government, presumably in order to better their chances in court.
Although it is virtually never discussed, particularly in the so-called Western media, it is plausible that Nisman’s death may have been related to his involvement in money laundering. Perhaps he was skimming some of the dirty cash for himself, or perhaps he had become a liability for reasons related to his work or his personal life.
This theory certainly deserves at least as much serious scrutiny as the weakly substantiated speculation that the Kirchner government or Iran had Nisman killed.
Keeping Iran “in the Dock”
The ramifications of determining the identity of Nisman’s killer or killers are far-reaching. The AMIA saga, and Nisman’s death by extension, have long been used to demonize Iran and to stir up overblown fears about Islamic terrorism in Latin America, despite a lack of hard evidence backing these theories.
This has been a pattern in the AMIA case from the beginning. In fact, the title of my research paper comes from an excerpt of a cable written just over a month after the AMIA bombing by US Ambassador James Cheek—the same man who would say many years later that “there was never any real evidence” that Iran was involved in the attack:
The battle for public opinion has been, at its heart, an effort to demonstrate that Iran deserves condemnation for its state-supported terrorism even without hard, physical evidence of its involvement in this specific attack … Despite the relatively weak Argentina case against Iran in the AMIA attack and vociferous Iranian denials, a steady campaign to keep Iranian complicity in global terrorism in the public eye has kept the Iranians in the dock where they belong.
This campaign to keep Iran “in the dock” has been taken up by various political figures in both the United States as well as Argentina over the more than two decades since the bombing. The reasons for this are myriad, but the effect is the same: Iran is treated as a threat, and countries that develop ties with Iran are viewed with similar suspicion.
Venezuela is perhaps the best example of this dynamic. For years, conservative media, think tanks and politicians used the close relationship between the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and then-Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to stir up fears about possible Venezuelan government support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah.
Earlier this year, CNN en Español released a two-part report that got the channel banned from Venezuelan airwaves. The series claimed that a “confidential intelligence document” tied Venezuela’s Vice President Tareck El Aissami to “173 Venezuelan passports and ID’s that were issued to individuals from the Middle East, including people connected to the terrorist group Hezbollah.” However, experts noted that the thinly sourced allegations made in the report should be viewed with some skepticism, as they come within a context of increasing US antagonism toward both Venezuela and Iran under the administration of President Donald Trump.
Indeed, the transition from former President Barack Obama to Trump has seen a racheting up of the pressure on both countries. The Trump administration has levied sanctions against numerous top Venezuelan officials, including President Nicolas Maduro and Vice President El Aissami. And it has threatened to back out of an agreement struck under the Obama administration with Iran regarding the country’s nuclear program, despite strong domestic and international criticism.
Insinuations that Iran has nefarious intentions in Latin America are not always tied directly to the AMIA attack. But that tragic incident always looms large in the background as one of the central reasons to fear what one think tank recently described as “the growing influence of extra-regional actors … as well as the convergence of criminal and terrorist networks in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
It is time to move past passive acceptance of easily believed and oft-repeated myths. In order to understand what really happened in the AMIA and Nisman cases, it is necessary to critically examine the totality of the evidence—even if it points in unfamiliar and uncomfortable directions.
Mike LaSusa is an independent journalist and researcher. He focuses on foreign policy, national security, and human rights issues in the Americas. Twitter: @mikelasusa. Photo: Alberto Nisman