In January 2015, journalism lecturer and political agitator Fernando Esteche received a call on his cellphone that disrupted the calm of the hot Argentine summer. “They just told me that Alberto Nisman has denounced Cristina [Kirchner], [Héctor] Timerman, [Luis] D’ Elía and myself, over the AMIA bombing,” he told his wife.
In a public complaint, the famed prosecutor Alberto Nisman had named him as being among a nexus of individuals who sought to cover up the Iranians accused of mounting a bomb attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association (AMIA) in 1994, which had killed 85 people in the largest-ever single terrorist attack on the Jewish community in South America.
According to Nisman, the 2013 memorandum of understanding that Argentine politicians had signed with Iran was "the centrepiece of a criminal plan that aimed to introduce a new hypothesis about the architects of the attack, armed with false leads, to shift the focus from Hezbollah and Iran. In return, Argentina would buy oil from the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad administration, and sell it grain and weapons."
Esteche had been named as one of the protagonists. According to Nisman, who was found murdered in his own apartment the following September, Esteche’s task had been "to direct negotiations in parallel channels", "to bring 'Yussuf' Khalil [an Iranian spy in Argentina] closer to Argentine intelligence officials" and "to contribute concrete ideas toward redirecting the investigation."
Esteche understood that this accusation was severe, and its implications were incalculable. He was ultimately arrested in December 2017 and would go on to be incarcerated on a precautionary basis until late 2019. Since his release, he has railed against his captors, insisting the charges against him were politically-motivated. “I feel like another Jew,” he lamented in an interview in November 2019. “I feel like another Dreyfus.”
Who is Fernando Esteche?
Even before the Nisman report, Fernando Esteche had long been a well-known figure in Argentine left-wing politics. As leader of the ultra-left movement "Quebracho", which was created in 1996 by former guerrilla organization members and has a presence in 17 Argentine provinces, his and his organization’s names are associated with grandstanding, reactionary and sometimes violent social action.
While holding down this position at the head of a radical, Molotov cocktail-brandishing militant group, Esteche also teaches journalism at the University of La Plata, one of Argentina's most important universities. His office in the old faculty building has, as its main attraction, a model of the Kaaba: - the sacred Islamic monument in the centre of Mecca – which he received as a gift from an Iranian delegation that visited the faculty.
The walls are adorned with framed portraits of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Fidel Castro: monuments to outwardly baffling but long-standing ties between the Islamic Republic and left-wing “revolutionary” groups in Latin America. While serving as the university’s head of international relations, Esteche arranged for several of these (in)famous figures to visit Argentina.
Fernando Esteche and Quebracho’s Ties with Iran
It was in the 1990s, during widespread demonstrations calling for Palestinian liberation, that Fernando Esteche and Quebracho first began to forge ties of their own with Iran.
For his part, Esteche had been interested in the regime ever since 1979 and felt – and judging by his more recent missives, still feels today – a deep admiration for Ayatollah Khomeini and the Islamic Revolution. In February 2010, an inter-university agreement saw Esteche travel to the Iranian city of Qom to, as he put it in an interview for Rolling Stone magazine in 2015, "establish a framework agreement for cooperation and teacher exchanges; they wanted to teach Persian and Islamic culture".
While at the University of Qom, he also met with Mohsen Rabbani: the Islamic Republic's former cultural attaché in Argentina, and the man who currently stands accused of orchestrating the AMIA bombing.
Gabriel Levinas, an Argentine journalist and long-time investigator of the AMIA case, has previously said of the Esteche-Rabbani relationship: "Iran financially supported social movements [in Argentina]. They set up riots against the Israeli embassy and had been inventing information about the AMIA cause. It would not be surprising if Esteche also had a role in that."
In his complaint, Nisman had also said there were “elements that validate Esteche's connection with the Iranians by verifying that he has received financial resources from Iran." He was assassinated hours before presenting his accusation to the Argentine Parliament, and so never to describe the “elements” that allegedly showed Iranian payments to the leader of Quebracho.
Fernando Esteche in Alberto Nisman's Complaint
In January 2015, Alberto Nisman had denounced then-President Cristina Kirchner, Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, deputy Andrés "Cuervo" Larroque and agitators Luis D'Elía and Fernando Esteche of covering up the AMIA bombing by signing the memorandum with Iran and concealing the true perpetrators of the atrocity. The plan, he wrote, was to "fabricate the innocence" of the Iranians accused in the 1994 attack and thus secure commercial agreements that included the exchange grains and meat for oil.
The Quebracho leader, according to Nisman, had put some Iranian spies and intelligence agents in contact with the National Government to "negotiate" the conditions of the memorandum. He was also positioned as one of the key collaborators in constructing a "new false hypothesis". Esteche was cited in recordings that Nisman had in his possession as having said: "The new responsible party for the AMIA bombing, for example, is a need that we have to build.”
On December 7, 2017, two years after Nisman's complaint and shortly after his murder, Federal Judge Claudio Bonadío ordered the arrest of Esteche, who stood accused of being part of the "unofficial parallel channels of communication and negotiation" between the Argentine Government and Iran, and one of the "concrete, efficient and reliable means to advance the planned criminal objective: covering up for the Iranians.”
In October 2019, a federal court released Esteche from custody, arguing that there was no risk if he awaited trial outside jail. Since that moment, which coincided with the ascension of one of the main defendants in Nisman's accusation, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, to the position of vice president in Argentina, both Nisman's accusation and the subsequent investigation about his death have remained paralyzed.
Esteche occupied a strategic position in Nisman’s anatomy of a cover-up. Suddenly, someone who had always been on the fringes of the national political scene had been pushed to front and center of Argentine geopolitics, where he has remained ever since.
"Fernando Esteche,” said Nisman his last public appearance on an Argentine television program four days before his death, “is a person whom I took a rioter, but I must admit that due to his intellectual level, he is quite a thoughtful man.”