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Murder or suicide? A divided Argentina

President Cristina Fernández is at the heart of a high-profile death scandal polarizing the country

Argentine President Cristina Fernández swept to power in 2007, following her husband, Néstor Kirchner, who had been president since 2003.

Supporters praised her for boosting the economy, her rapturous public speaking and her attempts to tackle poverty. They likened her to that other icon of Argentine glamour, former first lady Evita Peron. But opponents blame Fernández for the country’s rampant inflation and accuse her of undermining democracy. 

Argentina's President Cristina Fernandez
Natacha Pisarenko/AP

In equal parts, she's beloved and despised.

Now the firestorm over a prosecutor's death has sharply polarized the country along similar lines and exposed profound weaknesses in its democratic institutions. The daily diet of rumor, speculation and theories in the Argentine media does little to clear the air.

“It’s been an earthquake … for institutions and the rule of law in Argentina," said political analyst Sergio Berensztein. "We had already a fragile democracy, but this is the first time we’ve had such a high profile figure being killed."

At 9:53 a.m. on July 18, 1994, a bomb blast at a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires — the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina, or AMIA —  killed 85 people and wounded hundreds more. It ripped out the heart of Argentina's large Jewish community. The building was reduced to rubble. 

After more than 20 years of failed investigations, scandal, accusations, false leads and speculation, Argentina, it seems, is no closer to naming who's responsible for the bomb.

“At first the pain was unbearable and it continues to be unbearable but one learns to live with the pain," said Sofia Guterman, who lost her only daughter, Andrea, in the attack. "We believed everything they promised us, that within a year all would be resolved.”

Early reports in the local media suggested the Syrians were to blame. One former senior investigator in the case has said that they were ordered, under pressure from the United States, to follow a lead blaming Iran when that country was named part of "the axis of evil." Argentina issued warrants through Interpol for several Iranian diplomats working in Buenos Aires at that time, which were released in October 2006. 

‘We were living in a crisis, but we were not aware of it.’

Sergio Berensztein

political analyst

Fernández expressed her frustration in the slow progress in the bombing investigation, which her husband reopened. Late last year, she announced a fundamental reform of the intelligence service, firing Antonio "Jaime" Stiuso, a powerful figure in the agency with more than 40 years service.

Then last month, prosecutor Alberto Nisman rocked the political establishment by accusing Fernández and Foreign Minister Hector Timerman of trying to cover up Iran’s alleged involvement in the bombing in exchange for cheap oil. Congress requested him to reveal more in a closed-door session. But the day before he was due to appear, Nisman was found dead in the bath of his well-guarded luxury apartment, a pistol shot to the head. An investigation is still trying to determine whether his death was suicide or murder.

Fernández initially posted a letter online stating her belief that it was suicide. Then she posted a new letter, saying she had changed her mind and accused Stiuso of masterminding Nisman’s death.

Opposition congresswoman Patricia Bullrich was one of the last people to speak with Nisman. “It’s very difficult to say he was murdered because I don’t have evidence," she told America Tonight. "But I heard a very alive person thinking about the next day."

The scandal has divided the country, with those who support Fernández generally believing the government version of events: that she wants to get to the bottom of who was behind the attack and to reform the country’s divisive, conspiratorial and some would say dangerous intelligence service. Meanwhile, her opponents generally believe that Nisman was killed to stifle his accusation of a government cover-up.

Argentina's Congress is working overtime to debate reform of the intelligence agency, which has its roots in the military dictatorship that governed in the 1970s and '80s.

“The problem with the Argentine intelligence agency is that it was not properly connected to the transition from military rule to democracy," explained Paula Litvachky of the human rights organization Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, which is involved in those reforms. "They didn't deal with it as they should have done. They didn't open the files they should have. And they have problems today with the way the political and democratic system works in Argentina.”

Berenzstein, the political analyst, said this crisis has revealed that many of the institutions on which Argentine democracy is built — the police force, the judiciary and especially the intelligence agency — need serious reforms.

“We were living in a crisis but we were not aware of it,” he said. “We have this divide within the intelligence community. Things were eventually going to get out of control which is exactly what happened.”

Meanwhile, families of the AMIA bombing's 85 victims continue to protest the investigation's lack of progress, but they're split over how justice should be achieved. Some support the government’s approach, others do not.

Those divides will be laid bare next Wednesday, on the month anniversary of Nisman's death. Many of his former colleagues are planning a silent march demanding, as they put it: justice for the justice system. Opposition politicians and thousands of regular citizens are expected to walk with them.

In rebuke, Fernández has said they’re marching in silence because they have nothing to say. 

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