What would you do if you were a witness at a death scene—the death of a man scheduled to report on findings of a government cover-up the next day? Would you stay out of the public eye until you testified? Would you barricade your door and keep the curtains closed? Would you move to a safe house and hide in fear that your end was near? Or, would you go on a months-long bender and have government-issued bodyguards follow you around town?
In the convoluted case of the death of Argentine lawyer and Federal Prosecutor Alberto Nisman, Natalia Fernández—known as “La Testigo” (“The Witness”)—decided to party down. She got wasted while waiting to give her official testimony and during the chaotic aftermath of Nisman’s “suicide.”
It was during this time, five years ago, when I was in Buenos Aires. I just so happened to be introduced to “La Testigo” and partook in some copious drinking with her and her entourage.
Netflix recently released the docuseries: “Nisman: The Prosecutor, the President, and the Spy”—shedding light on this movie-like murder plot/cover-up and thrusting the story once again to center stage in Argentina and across the globe. Nisman was found dead in the early hours of Jan. 18th, 2015. It was initially reported as a suspected suicide. Nisman had been investigating the deadly AMIA Jewish Center bombing in Buenos Aires 1994, which killed 85 and injured hundreds, where subsequently those who perpetrated the terrorist attack were shielded from persecution.
According to the Buenos Aires Times, Nisman, in 2006, “accused the government of Iran of directing the terror attack and the Hezbollah militia of carrying it out.” They also stated that in 2015, after years of digging, Nisman had discovered that President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and other members of her cabinet, “had agreed to create conditions that would guarantee immunity for Iranian officials involved in planning the AMIA bombing in exchange for the trade of oil and grains.”
And then, the day before making his statement, Nisman was lifeless on the bathroom floor of his apartment, lying in a pool of blood, with a gun by his side and a bullet in his head.
“La Testigo” left the restaurant where she worked at around 2:30/3:00am on Jan. 18th, 2015, in the Puerto Madero district of Buenos Aires—part of the city with light foot traffic at night. Puerto Madero consists mainly of upscale offices and refined high-rise apartment buildings. So when “La Testigo” was walking to a bus stop coincidentally near Nisman’s building, she was randomly selected to be an impartial observer of how the evidence was handled (or rather grossly mishandled). “La Testigo” saw that the scene was not preserved properly, and that certain tests had been neglected during the collection of evidence.
I had arrived in Argentina on Jan. 11 to study Spanish. On Monday, Jan. 19, during my morning walk to class, all of the TVs in the shops and restaurants were tuned in to the coverage of Nisman’s death. The majority of the stations were broadcasting that it looked like he had taken his own life. Buenos Aires was a buzz of the news of Nisman’s conveniently timed demise, and the word on the street was that then President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner had ordered a Mafioso-style hit on him.
That evening after classes, I wandered down to the Plaza de Mayo to check out my first South American protest. Thousands upon thousands of people gathered in the square in front of the Casa Rosada (location of the seat of the Argentine national government and president’s office). The energy of the protesters was a mix of somber silence, frustration with government corruption, and raucous rage.
The bitterness of the crowd was palpable. People held candlelight vigils and held signs saying, “I am Nisman,” as a show of solidarity.
About a month after the whole Nisman death debacle, I made fast friends with an American gal (who prefers to remain anonymous) while I was traveling in Southern Argentina. When I made my way back to Buenos Aires, my American friend was staying in the capital as well, and we met up to paint the town red. We went out dancing and drinking way too much Fernet (an Italian digestive akin to Jägermeister, but more herby and less syrupy, that Argentinians seemingly guzzle by the bucketload mixed with Coca-Cola).
One night my American friend invited me to an eloquent speakeasy-style establishment. We walked into a sparkling flower shop with orchids and other sexy blossoms arranged atop crystalline shelves. We said the secret word and were shown through the refrigerator downstairs to an opulent, velvety, gold-encrusted basement bar. The bartenders were wearing suspenders, and I’m pretty sure they all sported hipster beards as they poured stiff drinks infused with lavender or burnt cinnamon in swanky glasses. We saddled up to the crimson bar and ordered a couple of delicious, over-priced elixirs. It was here that I met “La Testigo.” She had a larger than life persona, and rockabilly style—with thick cat eyeliner and a mess of dark hair piled on top of her head a la Amy Winehouse. “La Testigo” and her friend had started the night before us and were well on their way to being inebriated when we ran into them.
I recently caught up with my American friend to help fill in the holes of my hazy recollections from five years ago. She affectionately referred to “La Testigo” as “Putita” (“Little Bitch”). “La Testigo” was a friend of hers that she had met when she’d been living Buenos Aires in 2011, she’d come back in 2015 to visit friends and travel around.
“Those were crazy times!” My friend said about Buenos Aires in the start of 2015. “It was like two days after my birthday and we’d been partying and I was hung over and I woke up… and on the TV was, ‘The lawyer, Nisman committed suicide but, did he not?’”
She continued, saying that nobody commits suicide when they’ve been working for ten years on a case, and writes “Justice will be served in the morning,” via text. “He said he had what he needed to take Cristina down, and then, ‘Oh ya, I guess I’d better kill myself!’”
“For me it was, such a gripping time to be in the city,” my American friend said. She and her Argentinian roommate would sit in the kitchen, glued to the TV in the days following Nisman’s death, in awe as they watched the story unfold. “Every day I would wake up,” she said, “and I was like, ‘What’s going on?!’”
When “La Testigo” told my friend and her group of local amigos in her involvement in the Nisman case, they all thought she was making it up. “We were like, bullshit,” said my friend, “but then she [La Testigo] shows up with a picada (a snack to share) and some wine, and two security guards at the front door…and I was like, no Fucking way!!”
Nisman’s death was later determined to be a homicide by federal police, but the national forensics team who led the primary investigation, to this day, claim that there is no concrete evidence. Even though his autopsy revealed that he had suffered blows, broken bones, had been drugged, and had no gunpowder residue on either of his hands.
That night that back in 2015 when I met “La Testigo” I didn’t understand exactly what role she played in the whole Nisman thing. I just knew that people around us were staring and pointing. I heard numerous murmurings of “la testigo, la testigo.” She was basking in the attention. She didn’t appear to have an ounce of fear. This lack of concern may have been due to the liquid courage she had coursing through her veins, or more likely, due to the two large government-issued bodyguards that stood with their immense arms crossed about fifteen feet away maintaining a watchful eye.
After a spell at the ostentatious speakeasy, we sashayed to the trendy yet somewhat seedy San Telmo neighborhood to get our drink on in more affordable, divier bars. The bodyguards shadowed us every step of the way. “La Testigo” explained that it had been unsafe for her to work, so she had taken advantage of the forced staycation by partying to the max, with bodyguards accompanying her from fancy watering holes to more nefarious parts of town. As the night wore on to the twilight hours, my vision blurred and my speech slurred. I was unable to communicate in my freshly acquired Spanish and my mother tongue of English wasn’t much better. So I said my goodbyes as my American friend, “La Testigo,” and her crew continued on.
My American friend said they went to a house party and ended the night drinking wine in a plaza as the sun came up.
Some things might not look so great in retrospect—like Trump recently ordering a strike on a top Iranian military general, or the death of Nisman being staged as a suicide, hours before revealing damning information on President Kirchner. Or when you find yourself, as my friend did, at the end of a night of hard partying, dying of thirst and you are trying to drink from water from a fountain where pigeons bathe. As you hear “La Testigo” say, “Don’t drink that. It’s dirty.” All the while in the misty morning sun, government-issued bodyguards watch over you, watch over the debauchery.