On January 18, 2015, Natalio Alberto Nisman was found dead with a single bullet shot to his right temple. Nisman was the lead investigator in a 1994 terrorist attack on a Jewish Community Center in Argentina. He had been scheduled to address the Argentine Congress the following day, to denounce the President’s actions related to the investigation. His death unleashed a media firestorm, as opponents of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner argued that he had been assassinated, while her supporters advanced their own conspiracy theory, which pointed the blame for his death at the nation’s security services.
Academics dislike conspiracy theories, which are typically omitted in social science theory classes, even though they are far more influential than the theories of Gramsci, Weber and Durkheim. There are many reasons for academics’ distrust of these theories, not the least of which is their historical association with political and ethnic persecution. At the same time, conspiracy theories are true “theories,” in that they provide an overarching framework for understanding the world. While they don’t have foundational writers, they also have their texts. They also emerge from the folk and not from intellectuals, and accordingly provide insight into popular attitudes, beliefs and fears.
I’ve published before about conspiracy theories in the context of the 2009 influenza pandemic. I also heard conspiracy theories about HIV/AIDS while researching a book on the AIDS Pandemic in Latin America, for which I did fieldwork in southern Mexico, Cuba and Brazil. What I’ve been struck by is the extent to which conspiracy theories emerge during periods of group polarization and social strain. Prof. Leopoldo Rodriguez and I have a new paper that seeks to place the conspiracy theories surrounding Nisman’s death into a broader historical and regional context. Dr. Rodriguez carried out a small number of interviews in Buenos Aries, mainly for illustrative purposes. We also drew on newspaper accounts, blog posts, YouTube videos and other sources, to try to understand the conspiracy theories that circulated throughout the country. The intent of the paper was never to prove or disprove these theories, but rather to better understand complex global narratives, which included such actors as Iran, Hezbollah, Israel, Zionists, and New York financiers. You can read our paper, “Political Polarization and Nisman’s Death: Competing Conspiracy Theories in Argentina,” at the open-access Journal of International and Global Studies.
If you are interested to learn more about Latin American mysteries, you can read about Devil’s Breath in Colombia here or read about Witches Broom in Brazil. Or if you are interested in Latin America more generally, you might wish to read either my book on the region’s AIDS epidemic, or my study of military terror in Brazil.
Shawn Smallman, 2016