Why I Fled Argentina After Alberto Nisman Scoop
Argentine journalist Damian Pachter after arriving in Tel Aviv on January 25 / Haaretz
So here they are, the craziest 48 hours of my life.
When my source gave me the scoop on Alberto Nisman’s death, I was writing a piece on the special prosecutor’s accusations against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, her (Jewish) Foreign Minister Héctor Timerman, two pro-Iran “social activists” and parliamentarian Andrés Larroque. I learned that Nisman had been shot dead in his home.
The vetting process wasn’t too tough because of my source’s incredible attention to detail. His name will never be revealed.
Two things stood in my mind: my source’s safety and people’s right to know what happened that day, though not necessarily in that order.
Of course, for both speed and the contagion effect, Twitter was the way to go. The information was so solid I never doubted my source, despite my one or two colleagues who doubted me because I only had 420 Twitter followers — a number now eclipsing 10,000.
As the night went on, journalists contacted me in order to get the news from me even more directly. The first to do so was Gabriel Bracesco.
Once I tweeted that Nisman had died, hundreds of people quickly retweeted the news and started following me. That was my first of many sleepless days.
“You just broke the best story in decades,” lots of people said. “You’re crazy,” was another take. Either way, nobody questioned that the situation was very grave.
The following days were marked by a government trying to create an official story. First, the head of state suggested a “suicide hypothesis,” then a mysterious murder. They of course were not to blame. In anything.
Encontraron al fiscal Alberto Nisman en el baño de su casa de Puerto Madero sobre un charco de sangre. No respiraba. Los médicos están allí.
— Damian Pachter (@damianpachter) January 19, 2015
That week I received several messages from one of my oldest and best sources. He urged me to visit him, but in those crazy days I underestimated his proposal.
On Friday I was working at the Buenos Aires Herald.com newsroom when a colleague from the BBC urged me to look at the state news agency’s story on Nisman’s death. The piece had some serious typos but the message was even stranger: The agency quoted a supposed tweet of mine that I never wrote.
Bus to nowhere
I cursed in anger, adding amid the profanity: “I’ll tweet this and then they’ll see.” But I waited a few minutes to cool down and realized that this tweet was a kind of coded message.
So I bounced it off my friend, who said: “Get out now and go to Retiro,” Buenos Aires’ central bus station. “And come visit me. You have to leave the city.” It was around 8:30 P.M.
I was very lucky: When I arrived a bus would be leaving in two minutes. Where that bus was going I’ll never reveal either.
After several hours on the road, I arrived at the bus station, where I remained for a couple of hours. It turns out this was a big mistake: I think that was the place someone started watching me. But I didn’t realize it back then.
I didn’t want to stay too long in any one place, so I walked over to a gas-station joint nearby. My friend contacted me and said: “I’ll be there in 20 minutes.”
I was sitting around there for two hours or so when a very strange person came in. He wore jeans, a jeans jacket and Ray-Ban sunglasses. I noticed him immediately but stayed where I was. He was sitting two tables from me.
Suddenly I felt a finger on my neck and jumped like I never did my whole life.
“You’re a bit jumpy son” — it was my friend making one of his jokes. “You’re under surveillance; haven’t you noticed the intelligence guy behind you?”
“The one with the jeans and Ray-Bans?”
“What does he want?”
“Stay calm and look into my camera,” my guy said as he took my picture. Well, actually he took a picture of the intelligence officer, who left five minutes later. I have that picture here with me.
I then had to consider the best thing to do, because when an Argentine intelligence agent is on your tail, it’s never good news. He didn’t just want to have a coffee with me, that’s for sure.
Montevideo and Madrid
In any case, the decision came quick: I had to leave the country immediately. So I contacted one of my best friends, who got scared but understood the situation. We had to do it quickly, and I’m sure his efficiency saved my life. I will forever be grateful to him.
So I did it: I bought a ticket from Buenos Aires, to Montevideo, Uruguay, to Madrid to Tel Aviv.
I had to keep a low profile in order to get by the security forces. So I went back to the Retiro bus station — the scariest part of that long day. I was sure that if something happened, it would happen at the train station, a very dangerous place at night.
I had the feeling someone was after me and I’d get shot from some strange angle. But then I suspected my taxi driver even more. I figured he’d stray and take me off somewhere.
Meanwhile, text messages were sent to my two best colleagues, a friend and my mom. They were told where we would meet: Buenos Aires Airport. I couldn’t spend any time on the phone because I was being surveilled.
When my mother arrived she of course cried but remained calm. We discussed a few things and I told her to leave. Then my journalist friends came and we did an interview that has already hit Argentina’s top newspapers. I was flying back home, to Tel Aviv, as I always wanted to.
I have no idea when I’ll be back in Argentina; I don’t even know if I want to. What I do know is that the country where I was born is not the happy place my Jewish grandparents used to tell me stories about.
— Casa Rosada (@CasaRosadaAR) January 25, 2015
A tweet from the Presidential Palace showing Pachter’s flight itinerary.
After I left Argentina I found out that the government was still publishing wrong information about me on social media. The Twitter feed of Casa Rosada, the Argentine presidential palace, posted the details of the airline ticket I had bought, and claimed that I intended to return to Argentina by February 2 — in other words, I hadn’t really fled the country. In fact, my return date is in December.
Argentina has become a dark place led by a corrupt political system. I still haven’t figured out everything that has happened to me over the past 48 hours. I never imagined my return to Israel would be like this.