The death of Carlitos Menem Jr.: an accident or Argentina’s third terrorist attack?

Max’s new series about the death of President Carlos Menem’s son dives into one of the country’s most notorious unsolved cases

“It’s been 27 years, and I think it’s time for the truth to come out.” 

Zulema Yoma is talking to the camera about the death of her only son, Carlitos Menem Jr., a 27-year-old race car pilot who died on March 15, 1995 when the helicopter he was flying crashed in a field near Ramallo, Buenos Aires Province.

The ex-wife of late Argentine President Carlos Saúl Menem, Zulema is one of the protagonists of Menem Junior: The Death of the President’s Son, a documentary series by HBO’s recently-relaunched Max streaming platform. 

Officially, Carlitos’s death was an accident caused by his reckless flying. But unofficially, the rumor mill claims it was nothing less than the third terrorist attack in Argentina.

The case

That day, Carlitos was flying to Rosario with his friend and fellow racer Silvio Oltra, when his Bell helicopter hit power cables and crashed violently into a field. Initial reports said he was flying too low, playing around with two young women on the ground who were driving a car on the road. 

Still a hugely popular politician after stabilizing the economy after the hyperinflation of the late 1980s, Carlos Menem pulled through the grief, ran for reelection that year, and won by a wide margin. He went on to serve a second term, despite presiding over an administration rife with corruption scandals involving kickbacks, misuse of state funds, international money laundering, and even arms trafficking. 

The series is also a good introduction to menemismo, a word still used today, albeit with contradictory meanings, to describe modernist reform and political stability or institutionalized corruption, frivolous opulence, and socioeconomic havoc. In other words, it doesn’t just describe the Menem helicopter case: it illustrates 1990s Argentina.

The president always maintained that his son’s death was an accident. But Zulema insisted from day one that her son had been murdered. Several witnesses, including a forensic expert, claimed the helicopter had been shot from the ground multiple times, causing the aircraft to lose altitude and eventually hit the power cables. At one point, Zulema even claimed Junior was actually killed by one of those bullets in the head. Several of these witnesses died in improbable circumstances, such as unlikely car accidents and unusually violent muggings. The wreckage of the helicopter was quickly dismantled and scrapped.

In 1996, a forensic report requested by Zulema showed the remains of the helicopter fuselage had more than a dozen bullet holes in it. Yet the judge in charge of the investigation, Carlos Villafuerte Ruso, concluded that the crash was an accident and closed the case in 1998. He said there was no proof the shots happened on March 15, 1995, since the wreckage had been kept unsecured in a hangar. Plenty of testimonies stated Junior was voluntarily flying too low, he added.

Conspiracy theories: who killed Carlitos?

News of the bullet holes quickly spread, triggering Zulema’s main theory about motive: Junior’s murder was Argentina’s third major terrorist attack. The first two were the 1992 Israeli embassy bombing and the 1994 AMIA bombing. By this theory, the attacks had been acts of retribution against President Menem himself from the Arab world, and the universe of potential suspects included Hezbollah political militia, Syrian leader Hafez Al-Assad and even Muammar Gadafi. The motive? Not keeping his end of shady deals on intrigues ranging from illegal arms sales and campaign financing to a promise of nuclear reactors and missiles. 

The final straw was Menem siding with the United States on geopolitical issues, including a token military contribution in the Gulf war. Retaliation came threefold, with three consecutive targets, each closer to home. The final one: his first son. The perpetrators of the bombings were never brought to justice, and the AMIA investigation was hindered by a state-sponsored cover-up involving several government officials and members of the judiciary. Carlos Menem himself was indicted in the case, and acquitted in 2019.   

The story has elements any true-crime series would kill for. A grieving mother searching for the truth in the face of general opinion portraying her as a crazy woman who cannot accept that her treasured son was reckless enough to cause his own death. Add to that international terrorism, disappearing witnesses, hi-tech forensic evidence, a mysterious message anticipating the attack, an Argentine-made long-range missile, and a perfect villain: a president interviewees describe as a “political animal,” willing to keep quiet about his son’s murder to stay in power.

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Led by showrunner Matías Gueilburt and co-directed by Anahi Berneri (Elena Knows) and Sergio Wolf (Esto no es un golpe), the documentary features four 45-minute episodes in a fluid mixture of direct interviews, archive footage, and reenactments that form a solid storyline with strong characters and timely plot twists. 

The cast of interviewees is as good as it gets: Junior’s sister Zulemita Menem, Judge Villafuerte Ruzo, former Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo (who was next to Menem when he was told about the accident), Menem’s biographer Olga Wornat, and top-tier journalists who contribute information that paints a simplified but accurate picture of Menem’s uber-presidentialist government. 

Zulema is clearly the hero in this open-ended story, but the most interesting aspect of the series is the late President Menem, both victim and villain, and the man who took the greatest secret of his life to his grave. It’s a Godfather-like tale of the tragic fate that awaits those with too much power.


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