TIME Argentina

Argentine President Says Prosecutor Who Accused Her Was Murdered

A woman chants the Argentine national anthem holding a portrait of the late prosecutor Alberto Nisman outside the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Jan. 21, 2015.
Rodrigo Abd—AP A woman chants the Argentine national anthem holding a portrait of the late prosecutor Alberto Nisman outside the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Jan. 21, 2015.

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner previously said Alberto Nisman took his own life

Argentina’s President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner made a dramatic U-turn on Thursday when she said she was certain that prosecutor Alberto Nisman was murdered although she had previously insisted he had taken his own life.

In a rambling 2800-word letter published on her social media accounts on Thursday, Fernández described Nisman’s death as “the suicide that (I am convinced) was not a suicide.” Nisman’s body was found late Sunday night, only a few hours before he was about to present evidence in Congress that he claimed showed Fernández had negotiated secretly to shield five Iranian officials from charges they had masterminded a bombing in Buenos Aires that resulted in 85 deaths in 1994.

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The president’s first claim that Nisman had committed suicide (“What led (Nisman) to take the terrible decision of ending his own life?” she asked on Monday) fell apart in the face of mounting evidence against the suicide theory.

Her government’s first claim that the back door to Nisman’s apartment was locked from the inside was disproved when investigators revealed that the door was not locked and there was also a third entrance to his home. Investigators could not find any gunpowder residue on Nisman’s hands, which would have suggested he had fired a gun.

On top of that, a long list of friends, journalists and even his personal trainer came forward to say that Nisman was eagerly looking forward to appearing before the Argentine Congress on Jan. 19. Nisman had even set up a series of meetings and interviews for the following week.

Both his former wife, 45-year-old Judge Sara Arroyo Salgado, and his mother, 73-year-old Sara Garfunkel, who found his body on Sunday, came out firmly against the suicide hypothesis. “All kinds of things have been said about my son,” Garfunkel said in a brief phone call with the daily Clarín Thursday, answering with a “No” when asked if she thought he had taken his own life.

Nisman’s planned presentation of the evidence to Congress on Monday would have damaged Fernández’s already-beleaguered administration. She is in the last year of a two-term presidency that has been badly shaken by crippling inflation, recession and charges of corruption involving her highest officials.

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The president has not been seen in public since before Christmas, when she sprained an ankle in an accident.

Nisman’s breakthrough in the bombing case came in 2007 when he was able to provide enough evidence for Interpol to issue international warrants for the arrest of the Iranians he identified as his main suspects.

His friends say he felt he was on the verge of a similar breakthrough. “I had seen him in person on Wednesday,” says Waldo Wolff, vice-president of DAIA, the most important Jewish community association in Argentina. “And I spoke to him on the phone on Saturday night after he sent me a photo via Whatsapp of his desk covered with the papers of the presentation he was preparing for Congress on Monday. He seemed well, his usual extroverted self.”

A poll this week showed that 70% of people in Argentina believe Nisman was murdered, while only 12% agree with the government’s hypothesis that he took his own life. The survey by the Ipsos research firm also revealed that 82% believed that Nisman’s charges that President Fernández was involved in secret deals with the accused Iranians are “credible.”

“Just in case, so you know, I have no plan to commit suicide,” says journalist Nicolás Wiñazki, who was in constant communication with Nisman in the days before his death. “Nobody believes the government,” Wiñazki says. “He was optimistic and looking forward to appearing before Congress, he was answering my messages with positive emoticons, thumbs-up and smileys up till Saturday. Then on Sunday he stopped answering.”

The same skepticism was expressed by Nisman’s former wife and mother of his two daughters, Judge Sandra Arroyo Salgado, who appeared in court briefly two days ago. “I don’t believe it was suicide,” Arroyo Salgado said to journalists on the sidewalk outside the courtroom.

MORE Mystery Surrounds the Death of the Prosecutor Who Challenged the Argentine President

Nisman’s aim of bringing the suspects to justice was delayed in 2013, when Argentina’s Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman flew to Ethiopia to sign a surprise agreement with Iranian foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi. The document established a binational “truth commission” to investigate the bombing and agreed to inform Interpol that the two countries were working together to solve the case.

The unexpected deal with Iran was met with protest at home, not least because it seemed to dash whatever hopes remained of bringing the main suspects to trial in Buenos Aires. “It was unbelievable,” says Wolff. “Signing a pact with a country accused of the worst terrorist attack ever in Argentina.”

What Nisman afterwards claimed he discovered was an attempt by Fernández to secure a secret deal trade deal with Iran in tandem with the public agreement. In a 300-page document presented in court last Wednesday, Nisman detailed secret talks between emissaries of Fernández, who communicated through a go-between in Buenos Aires, with Mohsen Rabbani, Nisman’s main suspect. The Argentine government wanted to obtain badly-needed oil from Iran to help Argentina out in exchange for the lifting of the Interpol arrest warrants, Nisman alleged.

Nisman’s evidence, including the recording of the conversations between Iranian and Argentinian representatives, are now in the the custody of Judge Ariel Lijo. He is expected to decide next month if Nisman’s evidence is enough to call Fernández in for interrogation.

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TIME Argentina

Mystery Surrounds the Death of the Prosecutor Who Challenged the Argentine President

Alberto Nisman was due to present evidence of alleged crimes to lawmakers on Monday

The violent death of a brave prosecutor who accused President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina of a secret attempt to cover up Iran’s alleged involvement in the bombing of a Jewish center in Buenos Aires 19 years ago has sent political shock waves through her already ailing government and the rest of the country.

Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, 51, was due to appear before a special committee in the Argentine Congress on Monday afternoon to discuss the evidence contained in a 300-page indictment against President Fernández. The papers were presented to court last Wednesday.

He alleged that Fernández and her foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, had conspired in an “aggravated cover-up and obstruction of justice” involving the Iranians accused of bombing of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) center in 1994 which left 85 people dead.

Nisman was found in the bathroom of his luxury apartment in the Le Parc tower in the expensive Puerto Madero district of Buenos Aires late Sunday, when his security guards forced the door after his mother became worried because he wasn’t answering his phone.

His mother found him dead in his bathroom with a bullet wound to his head and his small-calibre gun next to him. The government moved quickly to say his death was a suicide. “Who knows what went through the prosecutor’s head to take a decision of that nature,” Presidential Secretary Aníbal Fernández told reporters on Monday morning.

Opposition leader Mauricio Macri, mayor of Buenos Aires and a candidate in the October presidential elections, appeared deeply shocked at a press conference on Monday. “I’ve gone from shock to indignation to anger,” Macri said. “The prosecutor who accused the president turns up dead. This can’t have happened.”

Journalist Jorge Lanata, who has investigated and published a book on the AMIA bombing, was also stunned. “People on the street are saying: ‘They (the government) killed Nisman’,” Lanata said in an interview on TV on Monday “If this was a crime story, then the government would be the main suspect.”

Nisman had reported he was receiving death threats since he presented his charges at court last week. “I could wind up dead because of this,” he told the newspaper Clarín. “My life changed today. It’s my job as a prosecutor and I’ve had to tell my 15-year-old daughter that she was going to hear tremendous things about me,” he added, referring to a likely smear campaign from the government following his charges.

The two top trending topics on Twitter in Argentina on Monday became: #MuerteDeNisman (DeathOfNisman) and #CFKAsesina (CFKMurderer) in reference to President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

In 2007, on the basis of Nisman’s investigations into the attack, Interpol issued international warrants against six Iranian officials accused of masterminding the bombing. Among them was Moshen Rabbani, the former Iranian cultural attaché in Buenos Aires when the blast occured, Nisman’s prime suspect in the case.

Nisman’s investigation was stopped two years ago when Foreign Minister Timerman signed a surprise memorandum with Iran setting up a binational “truth commission” to interrogate the Iranian suspects in Teheran, effectively suspending his attempt to have them extradited to Argentina.

Nisman said his indignation doubled when he discovered that a wiretap his investigation had placed on phone calls between Buenos Aires and Rabbani in Iran allegedly revealed that the 2013 agreement had been the result of secret phone conversations between negotiators appointed by Fernández and Rabbani himself.

“Nothing happened without express directives from the president,” Nisman said in a 45-minute interview on TN news channel on Wednesday night, referring to the wiretapped conversations between Buenos Aires and prime suspect Rabbani.

The charges seemed to deal a crushing blow to Fernández in the final year of a presidency already encumbered with a 40% yearly inflation rate, a default on Argentina’s foreign debt last July and a court investigation into corruption charges against her Vice-President, Amado Boudou.

Nisman said he had 330 discs of phone conversations in which the alleged Argentine secret negotiators referred to him as a “dirty Jew” in their conversations with Iran. The calls showed the negotiators passed secret information from his investigation to the Iranians, Nisman claimed.

Under direct orders from the president, three negotiators had conducted secret talks with Rabbani through a mediator since 2011, offering to clear him and the other Iranian suspects of charges, in return for Iranian oil to alleviate Argentina’s chronic energy deficit, the prosecutor alleged on TV.

“You can’t negotiate impunity with anybody, and especially not with the accused. Iran admits and even boasts that it carried out the attack,” the prosecutor said of the intercepted calls. “It’s astounding how the attack is admitted.”

Reports of his suicide were met with disbelief by various journalists, including this correspondent, who had been in contact with Nisman in the last few days. “He seemed confident and ready to appear before Congress today,” said Nicolás Wiñazki on TV, who last
had contact with Nisman on Saturday afternoon. Nisman promised this correspondent an interview on Monday but later brought it forward by one day to Sunday but failed to answer any further emails.

For survivors and relatives of the victims of the still unsolved blast, however, Nisman’s death is just another in a long series of letdowns in a 19-year investigation that has failed to put a single culprit in jail.

“The culprits in the case must be found,” blast survivor Mario Averbuch remarked angrily to reporters Monday morning. “We have cover-ups, charges, versions, but regarding the case itself we have nothing.”

TIME Argentina

Argentine Musician Finds Out His Biological Parents Were Killed by Country’s Dictatorship 36 Years Ago

Estela de Carlotto, Ignacio Hurban
Victor R. Caivano—AP Estela de Carlotto, president of Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo, right, and her grandson Ignacio Hurban, left, hug during a news conference in Buenos Aires, Aug. 8, 2014.

Ignacio Hurban's parents were killed by a ruling dictatorship, and he was raised by another family

It wasn’t until his thirty-sixth birthday two months ago that Ignacio Hurban was told he was adopted. But his was no regular adoption — it transpired instead under the most violent of circumstances.

His real parents, Oscar Montoya and Laura Carlotto, were arrested in November 1977 by Argentina’s ruling dictatorship because of their political activities, disappearing into the macabre system of death camps the military set up across Argentina. His father was secretly executed shortly after his arrest. But his mother, two months pregnant, was kept alive until Hurban was born in June 1978, after which she was also murdered.

Hurban’s case was by no means an isolated one. It’s estimated that some 500 infants suffered the same fate during the bloody 1976-83 Argentinian regime, during which some 20,000 mostly young left-wing political activists were murdered. The military made only one exception during its killing spree: Pregnant women were kept alive until they gave birth. Afterwards, the infants were handed over to military families or unsuspecting couples to be raised according to the “Western and Christian” values the military claimed to defend. These infants grew up completely unaware of their real identities.

“It’s a crime beyond all imagination,” says Robert Cox, a British journalist who lived in Argentina during those years, bravely reporting and even confronting top generals personally about the crimes they were committing. “I still don’t understand how men who are meant to be men of honor, military men, could fall so low. It’s the one crime above all others that wakes us up to the horror of what happened and how terribly evil it was.”

Two former dictators of that regime were eventually convicted for the systematic kidnapping of children. Jorge Rafael Videla died in prison last year while serving a 50-year sentence, Reynaldo Bignone remains behind bars. Various military couples who knowingly took in such children have also been convicted, including cases in which the “adoptive father” played a hand in the killing of the infants’ real parents.

After Laura Carlotto disappeared in 1977, her mother, Estela Carlotto, now 83, moved heaven and earth looking for the grandson she heard from death camp survivors had been born in captivity. In her search, Carlotto started meeting mothers whose pregnant daughters had also “disappeared” at the hands of the military. With them she founded the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo association, a group that has dedicated decades of work to its painful search.

Carlotto’s untiring quest turned her into a major public figure in Argentina. That brought her a notoriety tinged with the sadness, as even though the Grandmothers located 113 grandchildren of murdered parents, she had not been able in all that time to find her own grandson. Last week, then, when it was announced that the 114th grandchild to be “recovered” was Carlotto’s, practically all of Argentina exploded with joy. The story has dominated the country’s public attention ever since.

“I didn’t want to die without hugging him,” Carlotto told the press, practically in tears, last Tuesday after she got a call from the judge handling the case confirming the DNA match.

But in the end it was actually Hurban who found his grandmother. Until last week, Carlotto’s lost grandson had lived under the name Ignacio Hurban, the son of Clemente and Juana María Hurban, two retired farm workers in Olavarría, a small town in Buenos Aires province. Over the years, Hurban and his wife had raised a family of their own, with two small children. He became a music teacher and an accomplished fusion musician, mixing classical, jazz and Argentine folklore musical styles, and has played with some of Argentina’s leading recording stars:

Hurban, who according to Argentine human rights law must now change his legal name to the one his mother reportedly wished for him at birth — Guido Montoya Carlotto — first started having doubts about his identity four years ago.

“There’s a noise in your head, doubts like butterflies outside your field of vision, there are things you don’t know, but you know, and then you start asking yourself questions,” he said Friday at a press conference in Buenos Aires.

When he was told two months ago for the first time that he was adopted, he decided to approach the DNA bank the Grandmothers have set up with samples of their blood, to see if he might be the son of a “disappeared” couple.

“Among the pieces that didn’t fit was my fondness for music,” said Hurban, commenting on the striking resemblance he now sees between himself and the pictures of his father he’s seen since his identity was confirmed by the DNA match. He said he was “shocked” to discover that his blood father, Oscar Montoya, was also a musician, and played in a group called “Nosotros y Ustedes” (Us and You) in his youth.

“I’ve found an answer to a question I get asked a lot: Why are you a musician?,” Hurban said.

The road ahead for Hurban — or Montoya Carlotto if he changes his surname — is not an easy one, says Victoria Donda, the 78th recovered grandchild, who today is a legislator in Argentina’s Congress. “It’s very difficult to process where you were born, how you were orphaned, to rebuild as an adult an entire biological family that you had never met, a different birthday, a different name,” she said in a press interview.

“I’m used to my name Ignacio and I’m going to keep it,” Hurban said at his press conference. “I also understand that there is a family who have called me Guido for 30 years. But I feel comfortable with what I’ve been given. I feel happy and grateful.”

When photographers at the press conference called him “Guido” to pose for a shot, he joked: “Come on, call me Ignacio.”

Still, a shadow still remains over the details of Hurban’s childhood. Carlotto has said that his adoptive parents were probably not aware he was the baby of a “disappeared” couple when they took charge of him. A court case has been opened to investigate the details of that adoption process. Urban described his adoptive parents as an “extraordinary couple” who raised him “with the greatest love.”

The happy ending to Carlotto’s long odyssey, meanwhile, has Argentina ecstatic. “There’s enormous euphoria now,” says Cox. “It seems a very wonderful ending, though it actually is a beginning really, it gives people a lot of hope for the remaining hundreds of still-unfound grandchildren.”

“This restitution is also a symbol,” said Hurban. “It’s a small victory within a big defeat.”

TIME Argentina

Argentina Defaults After Debt Talks Collapse

Argentina's Economy Minister Axel Kicillof speaks to the media at a press conference at the Argentine Consulate in New York, July 30, 2014. Economy Minister Axel Kicillof speaks to the media at a press conference at the Argentine Consulate in New York
Carlo Allegri—Reuters Argentina's Economy Minister Axel Kicillof speaks to the media at a press conference at the Argentine Consulate in New York, July 30, 2014.

The South American nation failed to strike a deal to avert its second debt default in 13 years

The last time Argentina defaulted on its debts it was announced at a packed session of Congress with the nation’s legislators hollering anti-imperialist slogans and singing the Peronist March, the battle hymn of the Peronist political party that has ruled Argentina for 24 of the last 31 years.

That 2001 default of $93 billion was considered a slap in the face of an international financial system that Peronism abhors and that it sees as saddling countries such as Argentina with unmanageable debt levels. But once the cheering died down, Argentina’s economy collapsed like a house of cards. All banks were closed by government order, destroying the life savings of millions and reducing Argentina to a cashless economy that for about a year relied on barter markets for the procurement of essential household essentials such as food and clothing.

By contrast, 13 years later, on July 30, Argentina went into default quietly, with its political leaders in a state of deep denial. “It’s not default,” claimed Argentina’s Economy Minister Axel Kicillof against all evidence at an improvised press conference in a small wood-paneled room of the Argentine consulate in New York.

Argentina’s blue-eyed 42-year-old minister, who has drawn sighs on the internet for his perceived good looks, disparaged the fact that the credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s had earlier in the day downgraded Argentina to “selective default” for failing to meet a payment deadline on its 2001 debt. “Who believes in credit rating agencies at this stage?” Kicillof sharply demanded.

Turning a blind eye to evident economic realities has been the Achilles heel of the Peronist government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who is facing a sharp economic downturn in the last 18 months of her second period in office. When inflation reared its ugly head a few years ago, Kirchner ordered the INDEC national statistics bureau to release grossly low inflation figures. Then she prohibited private economists from putting out their own more realistic estimates.

Similarly, only last week Kirchner remained in sharp denial of the default deadline. “They’re going to have to invent another name for it because Argentina has paid,” Kirchner said.

Yesterday’s default came about after American hedge funds won a lawsuit ordering Argentina to pay them some $1.6 billion for bonds they bought at a low market price after the 2001 default. Some 93% of bondholders accepted a 75% reduction on the Argentine debt they were saddled with back then. But the remaining seven percent who refused the “haircut” took Argentina to court in New York demanding full payment. Two years ago they won the case and last month that victory was validated by the US Supreme Court, which refused to hear an appeal by Buenos Aires.

“That Supreme Court decision was like a lightning bolt out of a cloudless sky,” said Kicillof, who was in New York seeking a last-minute way out of the looming crisis.

President Kirchner has staunchly refused to pay the “vulture funds” that she says prey on weak economies with debt problems. She claims paying them would leave Argentina vulnerable to gigantic claims from the other 93% of bondholders.

“The vulture funds did not lend Argentina a single dollar, a single penny,” said Kicillof. “They are not lenders from 2001 who were cheated.”

Last night’s mini-default could have immediate financial consequences for Argentina, such as a possible devaluation of the Argentine peso and the drying up of investments. But economists expect the jolt for ordinary citizens will be far slower. Although the economy has hit a recession, the situation is nowhere near as fragile as it was 13 years ago.

Meanwhile, a consortium of private Argentine banks has been working on an original solution. At a meeting with the “vulture funds” in New York yesterday, the consortium offered to cover the $1.6 billion awarded by the US court. “I wouldn’t be surprised if a solution was found between private parties, including private bankers,” Kicillof said.

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