Netflix docuseries "The prosecutor, the president, and the spy". Photo: Netflix

The prosecutor, the president, and the spy: a Latin-Iranian plot

LABS columnist recalls her news coverage on Argentine prosecutor Nisman case - the theme of Netflix new docuseries

It was early in the morning when my phone rang.

“Our flight was delayed and your vacation, darling, seems to be over.” On the other end of the line, two friends of mine, journalists, who had come to spend the holidays at my invitation in Brazil, took turns to tell me that prosecutor Alberto Nisman had been found dead in his apartment in the neighborhood of Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires. I had left them hours before at Brasilia airport and had a ticket purchased for two days later. Stunned, I hardly believe what they were telling me. “Are you joking?” I asked.

It wasn’t a joke. The warning came from a former newsroom coworker of the newspaper where I had worked for three years, the oldest in the country, Buenos Aires Herald. He was the first to launch a tweet on social media that fell like an earthquake in Argentina. It was Damian Pachter, who left the country as soon as he realized the mess. It really was the early end of my vacation.

A tweet that shook a country

“They found prosecutor Alberto Nisman in the bathroom of his home in Puerto Madero, over a pool of blood. He was not breathing. The doctors are there,” said the tweet, which, five years later, still resonates in Argentina. The tweet was posted at 1h08 am on January 19, 2015.

Damian Pachter’s tweet about Nisman’s death. Image: Twitter

Days earlier, Alberto Nisman, who had been investigating for more than a decade the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) bombing in 1994, had announced he had startling news about the case. The prosecutor believed in Cristina Kirchner‘s cover-up of Iranians involved in the explosion in exchange for a trade deal with Iran. For him, the government had deliberately covered up the culprits.

Four days before his death, the prosecutor was on a well-known local television channel to say he believed he had “overwhelming evidence” of an alleged alliance between Kirchner’s management and the likely terrorist country. A few days later, just hours before Nisman presented his complaint to the Argentine National Congress, he was found dead in the bathroom of his apartment with a gunshot to the head.

Argentine president Alberto Fernández. Photo: Shutterstock

Five years later, after the four-year term of neoliberal Mauricio Macri, Cristina Kirchner returned to power as vice president of Alberto Fernández. However, a lawsuit still weighs on her (and on a number of officials in her second term as president), for allegedly shady connections with Iranian diplomats. The charge: treason against the country.

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Blood on Plaza de Mayo

Two fountains in Plaza de Mayo, on the outskirts of Casa Rosada, the seat of government, spout what appears to be blood. It is Saturday, January 18, 2020. The water tinged with ocher red is part of the protest for what many Argentines believe was the murder of Nisman. One and a half kilometers away, near the Teatro Colón, a tourist landmark in the Argentine capital, in the Vatican Square, thousands of people shouted “they killed Nisman”, in addition to many posters and screams against the vice president. It was not the first time that Argentines took to the streets asking for an answer, both for the AMIA attack and for Nisman’s death.

Among 400 thousand

At the time of Nisman’s death, I worked as a producer freelancer for a major Brazilian TV channel. I remember very well the odyssey that was filming under a torrential rain, among 400 thousand people, the march that became known as 18F, February 18, 2015, a month since the prosecutor’s death, when the case was asked to be clarified. After so many years covering Latin America, I was already quite used to covering large protests.

However, in addition to the rain and the indignation of those present, this manifestation was especially difficult to follow. We were unable to approach the front line of the march–where the prosecutor’s mother, daughters, and ex-wife were–due to the number of people present. So that we could interview them, we took turns with the heavy equipment, trying to avoid it not to be soaked, we made sure that the reporter did not appear soaked in the video, we ran through parallel streets to get to the front of the protest and, later, when we needed to go prepare the material and send it to the newsroom in Brazil, we walked miles until we found some transport. It was one of the biggest protests I have ever seen.

The shark tank

I was already exhausted from covering the case after long vigils at the door of the Le Parc tower, where the prosecutor lived, trying to piece together the puzzle, approaching authorities and family members by news, hanging on the phone night and day. So much so that I became paranoid when an international plot began to unfold, with the possible participation of terrorist cells from Muslim extremist groups, secret services, judicial puzzles, and a game of chess that was far beyond my humble journalistic expertise.

In fear, Pachter had left the country in such a hurry that he abandoned his car in the newsroom parking lot that I once worked. I still remember the embarrassment of trespassing the security of the newspaper where I had once been an employee, against orders from security guards, friends who had so often taken care of me, to film Pachter’s car, long ago in the newspaper yard. Nobody knew what to do with that white elephant.

At that time, I had already made a series of basic mistakes in covering Nisman’s death, such as exposing myself on television programs, signing stories involving dangerous people and interviewing many people who had their phones tapped, in a plot that was far beyond me. I started to communicate with my sources by public telephones and even nowadays I don’t know if I chickened out or if the danger was real.

Shortly after, I decided to quit the investigation There were more questions than I could answer, a lot of inconsistencies, twists and conspiracy theories that gave me the impression that I was just a little fish swimming in a shark tank.

The prosecutor, the president, and the spy

Netflix docuseries “The prosecutor, the president, and the spy.” Image: Netflix

On the first day of this year, I was looking for something to watch on television and I came across a familiar image: Nisman’s face in the Netflix catalog. It took me a few seconds to understand what he was doing there. I’ve been following the platform’s work closely, mainly series based on real cases. I have a passion, sometimes journalistic, sometimes just out of personal interest, for documentaries and series that involve criminal cases. The first thing that caught my attention was my lack of knowledge that such a documentary was in production. I’m not the type of journalist who lives for the scoop, but I usually know in advance if something is happening in my backyard.

While I tried to find time to binge-watch the six chapters, of more than an hour each, and to search for information about it, I followed articles in the Argentine press about the documentary. Nothing. I called colleagues. Most of them were more or less aware of the premiere of the docuseries but, just like me, had not yet found the time to watch it.

On January 2nd, after dinner, I settled in front of the TV with a notepad and a pen, and decided to leave only after finishing it. At about 4:30 am, I read the final credits in disbelief. “This is going to drop like a bomb there,” I told a fellow journalist the next day.

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The first few chapters were tedious for me. I had seen and lived with all that information and people. However, as I progressed, they started to look like the faces of people I had spent a month trying to find at the time. Faces got voices, shapes, and versions of what would have happened.

The merit of the series is to bring out the greatest vicissitude for the victims of this plot: it is very likely that one never knows what happened to Nisman, whether he committed suicide or whether he was killed, and it seems increasingly distant that the perpetrators of the ’94 attack be tried and convicted. Between justice and the solution of cases, there is a catastrophe of the truth, forever buried by politics.

Soleimani and the AMIA

People hold portrait of the Iranian general Qasem Soleimani as they attend the condolence ceremony outside the Iranian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur January 8, 2020. Photo: Shutterstock

The next day, when the newspapers announced increasing tensions between the US and Iran, with the assassination of leader Qasem Soleimani, I came up with a phrase that my memories of 2015 attribute to Nisman: “There are hundreds of active terrorist cells in Latin America.”

The 1994 attack was not the first in Argentine history. On March 17, 1992, at 2:45 pm, a bomb exploded at the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 22 people and leaving more than 200 injured.

Soleimani appears in one of the documents in the AMIA attack investigation process, although he was never formally charged. Many newspapers in Argentina and other countries, including Brazil, have made statements about his possible participation in the 1994 attack. It is yet another piece in the mystery that encompasses a series of deaths. A flood of questions that not only need answers, but also justice.

Another great merit in the Netflix docuseries, besides giving face to many characters of the Argentine secret service (SIDE), is to bring up a testimony of 2015 from the current president Alberto Fernández who, at the time, said he believed that Nisman’s death had been a homicide and not a suicide, unlike what Cristina Kirchner claimed. It is the courage to hit where it most hurts in Argentina’s recent history, at a time as delicate as the present.