Death of prosecutor shakes faith in president, government institutions in Argentina

Faced with one of the biggest crises of her presidency, Argentine President Cristina Fernandez has given her countrymen a confusing and sometimes contradictory view of how her most damaging accuser was found dead, at first seeming to accept the idea of suicide and later describing it as an elaborate murder plot to undermine her government.

Fernandez's response to what reads like a whodunit movie script — prosecutor Alberto Nisman is found dead with a bullet in his head hours before he was set to elaborate on explosive allegations against Fernandez — has deepened a political crisis with wide implications for the last year of her presidency and perhaps even for the future of the country beyond that.

For the first time in her presidency, Fernandez appears to have lost control.

"It's possibly the most difficult moment politically that (the ruling party) has had during its decade in power," said Rosendo Fraga, a political consultant with the Nueva Mayoria think tank. "Cristina's last year in power is not going to be easy."

Many Argentines say the mysterious death has underscored an erosion of faith in the country's institutions and in Fernandez at a time when her administration is struggling to fight economic ills and rising street crime.

"I'm depressed," said Manuela Luis Dia, a 54-year-old maid who supported Fernandez in the last elections. "We don't know who to trust anymore."

The crisis began on Jan. 18, when Nisman, 51, was found dead hours before he was to speak to Congress about his claims that Fernandez had secretly reached a deal with Iran to shield officials wanted in the biggest terrorist attack in the South America country's history. His body was found slumped in the bathroom of his apartment. He was lying next to a .22-caliber handgun and a bullet casing.

Days earlier, Nisman had given a judge a report asking for criminal proceedings against Fernandez over an alleged cover-up of the 1994 bombing of Argentina's largest Jewish center, an attack that killed 85 people and injured more than 200.

Fernandez has made no public appearances since then, but has laid out her response in two lengthy posts on social media sites, bitterly attacking the allegations against her while suggesting that Nisman was a pawn of forces trying to undermine her government, ranging from opposition political parties to a critical newspaper to dissident intelligence agents.

In her first letter on Monday, Fernandez at first suggested that Nisman had killed himself, but later raised the possibility some shadowy figure had manipulated him to make the allegations

Three days later, she said she no longer believed it was suicide. Instead, she suggested he had been killed — she did not say by whom — and that Nisman had been fed false information by the former head of the intelligence services.

"They used him while alive and then they needed him dead. It's that sad and terrible," she wrote.

"She should have come out and called on investigators to solve the case. She should have guaranteed total independence for the justice system to investigate," said Martin Bohmer, former dean of the law school at the University of San Andres. "Instead, she presented herself as a victim of the situation."

Bohmer said the scandal could deteriorate an already charged political atmosphere.

In a national poll released Wednesday, 80 percent said they believed the Nisman case would hurt Fernandez's image and 60 percent said the investigation of his death lacked transparency. The Management and Fit poll interviewed 1,000 people and had a 3.1 percentage point margin of error.

The blow comes as Fernandez's Justicialist Party heads toward national elections in October. Fernandez has yet to designate a successor candidate and increasing economic and security problems have been eroding her popularity.

Nisman's death "falls on a divided society," said Roberto Bacman, director of the Center for Public Opinion Studies, a South American research firm. Bacman estimated that about 45 percent of voters don't support Fernandez's policies while about 30 percent are ardent followers.

"The ones in the middle will decide the elections. How they react (to the crisis) is key," he said.

The case has mesmerized Argentines since word that Nisman's body was found.

"Impotence, anguish, corruption, shame, these are some of the things I feel when I think of the Nisman case," said Ana Mirelman, a 31-year-old architect.

Mirelman, who is Jewish, said the death has particular resonance in the Jewish community because it's a reminder that the bombing has never been solved and makes people even less hopeful that it ever will be.

Fernandez, 61, stands out in a long tradition of charismatic Argentine presidents who have ruled with populist policies and fiery rhetoric. She is the first directly elected female president, winning the 2007 elections to take over from her predecessor and husband, Nestor Kirchner, who died of a heart attack in 2010. Fernandez won a second term the following year.

Both Kirchner and Fernandez have enjoyed wide backing from the poorer classes, a nucleus of support that will likely continue, at least for now.

"What happened to Nisman doesn't have anything to do with the government," said Luis Perez, a 52-year-old newsstand manager, who leaned toward government suggestions of a conspiracy. "We have to look at other political parties that wanted to damage the president."


Associated Press writer Almudena Calatrava contributed to this report.