A Tangled Road to Justice: The AMIA Trial Nine Years Later

A Tangled Road to Justice: The AMIA Trial Nine Years Later

A Tangled Road to Justice: The AMIA Trial Nine Years Later
Sergio Kiernan

Foreword

As the trial of suspects in the 1994 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Aid Association (AMIA), now in its second year, wends its way through the labyrinthine Argentine judicial system, there is a now-tragically familiar mix of hopeful and discouraging developments.

 

On the positive side, newly inaugurated President Nestor Kirchner has made several moves to rid the justice system of cronyism. He has ordered the release of documents held by the Argentine intelligence agency SIDE, which may shed some light on the role of the agency in the investigation and may reveal whether SIDE had been warned of the attack days before the bombing. If foreknowledge of the attack is uncovered, Kirchner has promised to punish those responsible.

 

The three-judge panel now hearing the case has the confidence of Memoria Activa, the organization of survivors and families of the victims. "They have worked seriously and in keeping with the spirit and letter of the law," say the group's leaders.

 

Still troubling is the role of Argentine intelligence agents who filmed Iranian diplomat Moshen Rabbani shopping for a van similar to the one used in the bombing, yet let him remain in Argentina unapprehended and then escape to Iran. Troubling, too, is the indication that Judge José Galeano knew of a cable to SIDE from the Argentine embassy in Lebanon reporting a tip about an imminent attack in Buenos Aires, yet remained silent about the likely Lebanese/Hizballah connection. Questions remain about high-level officials' role in obscuring the truth about the attack, as well as about the terrorist bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires two years earlier; there are particular questions about the actions of former Argentine President Carlos Menem and former Foreign Minister (and Interior Minister) Carlos Ruckauf.

It has been nine years since a terrorist bomb struck at the central institution of Argentine Jewry, killing 85 people and leaving hundreds wounded. The American Jewish Committee, with its strong ties to the Jewish community of Argentina and a cooperative affiliation with AMIA, has closely monitored the judicial process. It is now time- indeed, it is long past time-that justice and closure be brought to this case. Most observers expect the current trial will end within the next six months. But many question whether the trial will close the matter or open it to further pursuit of elusive truth.

 

On each anniversary of the tragedy, AJC has issued a report on the progress of the investigation by Argentine journalist Sergio Kiernan. The current volume, the ninth in the series, may be the last-if the guilty parties are finally brought to justice.

 

Jason F. Isaacson
Director, Government and International Affairs
The American Jewish Committee
July 2003

The AMIA Trial Nine Years Later

At 9.50 A.M. on Monday July 18, 1994, a powerful explosion destroyed the main building of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Aid Association, or AMIA, on Pasteur Street. The detonation shook downtown Buenos Aires and was heard dozens of blocks away. Those who looked out of their windows to see what had happened soon saw a dark cloud rising. Beneath, turned to rubble and twisted iron, lay the Argentine Jews' organizational home, its library and theater, its offices and records. In and around the building were 85 people dead and hundreds more wounded: people who worked at the AMIA, people working at their shops across the street, people delivering goods, people just passing by, people lining up at the employment office inside the building. The attackers had chosen the time of atrocity well; Mondays were busy mornings and the AMIA was crowded.

 

The scene on the block resembled a war zone. Wounded people walked about in shock, gasping in a cloud of dust. Yells were heard in the suddenly silent area, and a woman howled in despair: The bomb had killed her little son, literally tearing him apart. They had been walking toward a nearby hospital when the detonation occurred. Inside the ruins of the AMIA, survivors groped in the dark looking for a way out. They climbed out on the roof and got away by jumping to the balcony of a nearby building. Down in the street, confusion ensued. Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina and a metropolis of eight million, lacked a coordinated emergency system. The police, the paramedics, civil defense and other agencies were totally unprepared to handle an attack like that. Nothing on this scale had ever happened before.

 

The AMIA site was soon invaded by hundreds of onlookers, rescue workers, volunteers, camera crews, and people looking for relatives or friends. They trampled over valuable evidence. It was not until 12:15 P.M., more than two hours after the explosion, that the area was cordoned off. By then, most of the wounded had just walked away or had been taken by ambulances. Some families were to spend days looking for loved ones that in the confusion were taken to faraway hospitals; nobody was keeping records. By the afternoon, digging began at the site and by night the ruins were lit and a crane was operating. Order settled in only on Wednesday, when a specialized Israeli Army team arrived and brought equipment, know-how, and trained dogs. Many corpses were recovered and brought to the nearby morgue. There were numerous instances of looting from shops and corpses-in one case, a relative claimed that more than $6,000 in cash was taken from a dead man-perhaps the most telling sign of chaos.

 

In hindsight, it is clear that these lapses set the tone for the handling of the AMIA case. The protracted investigation that followed was rife with irregularities, lies, cover-ups, and blunders. Federal Judge Juan José Galeano, the official in charge of handling it, has become a suspected figure. Not surprisingly, most people charged in the trial currently being heard at a court in Buenos Aires are policemen. And the recent disclosure of some intelligence files about the bombing point to grave blunders by Argentine agents surveilling Iranian activities in Buenos Aires. In fact, most observers of the case agree that the real difficulty is telling where lies end and incompetence starts. The AMIA case has dragged through three presidents' terms, a major political and economic upheaval in the country, and several changes of police and intelligence authorities. Truth, however, remains obscured.

 

After the attacks on American targets worldwide and in New York City and Washington, D.C., the world came to understand that international terrorism can and will hit everywhere. In this perspective, the AMIA case and the unresolved 1992 bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, which left twenty-nine dead, represented earlier instances of operatives, presumably from the Middle East, choosing a "soft target" in a country with low security standards, one that had never before been attacked and was unaware of danger. There is no indication that the AMIA bombing could have been organized and carried out by Argentines; it was likely organized abroad and carried out by non-Argentines with local help. Argentina bore the responsibility to uncover that so-called local connection and the role of several officials and policemen in the case. As will be shown below, it has utterly failed to do so.

 

The Case

 

In the Argentine legal system, judges investigate crimes and put together a case to be heard by other courts. At the same time that they work as prosecutors and investigators, they hear cases sent to them by other investigating magistrates. This double role makes for a prodigious workload; Argentine judges in big cities usually handle hundreds of cases at the same time. It is no surprise that local justice is painfully slow.

Another characteristic of the Argentine legal system is its unreliability. Effectively under the control of the executive branch of government since the 1930s, the Argentine judiciary is very careful to listen to what presidents have to say. The problem became particularly acute in the early 1990s, when then-President Carlos Menem succeeded in changing the constitution and enlarged the Supreme Court from five to nine members. With four fresh appointees in place, Menem was lucky to get to appoint two more: one justice renounced on health grounds, another out of "moral disgust" with the executive maneuver. One decade and three presidents later, newly inaugurated President Néstor Kirchner is still trying to solve the problem. One of his first measures after being sworn in on May 25, 2003, was to promote the impeachment of Supreme Court President Julio Nazareno and pass a law providing for an American-style system of judicial appointments with public hearings. The president explicitly said that his reform was aimed at "cronyism." The AMIA and the Israel embassy cases were very much on everybody's mind at the time of debate about the new law.

 

Federal Judge Juan José Galeano didn't ask to investigate the AMIA bombing; he just happened to be "on duty" that day. Galeano, who had "only" 400 cases in his workload at the time, took more than five years to put together a case. On February 27, 2000, he filed charges against twenty suspects. Five of them were described by the judge as "necessary parties," a legal term for people who did not necessarily participate in the crime being tried but helped make it possible. Under Argentine law, these accomplices would be considered as guilty as the bombers themselves and could get a life term without possibility of parole. The five thus charged are Carlos Alberto Telleldin, a petty criminal with a record of fencing stolen goods, selling stolen cars, falsifying records, pimping and passing bad checks; and four senior officers in the Buenos Aires provincial (state) police force: Juan José Ribelli, Raúl Ibarra, Anastasio Leal, and Mario Barreiro. The charges arise from evidence showing that the five were involved in providing to the terrorists the Renault Trafic van used as a car bomb. The other fifteen, mostly policemen, stand trial on lesser charges.

To his chagrin, Judge Galeano has remained involved with the AMIA case. On July 27, 2000, five months after he filed charges against the twenty suspects, a court of revision criticized Galeano's work harshly, calling the pace of the investigation "ponderous," "slow and lacking in results," and "confusing." The court ordered Galeano to give his work "a new energy" and to investigate many leads thus far ignored. A few days later, the congressional bicameral committee that follows the AMIA case produced a detailed report criticizing Galeano's work. Memoria Activa, the group of victims' relatives that every Monday holds a meeting at a park across the street from the Argentine Supreme Court, became the judge's most outspoken critic, repeatedly calling for his removal from the case.

 

Early in 2000, the Third Federal Criminal Oral Tribunal, a three-judge court, received from Galeano the 400 hand-sewn tomes that make up the bulk of the AMIA investigation, plus hundreds of folders, video and audio tapes, and assorted materials. The court's three members are Gerardo Larrambebere, a former Supreme Court clerk and federal prosecutor; Miguel Pons, another former Supreme Court clerk; and Andrés Gordo, a judge since the early seventies. In its handling of the case, the court was to reaffirm its reputation as a demanding, strict group, ready to dismiss tainted evidence and order new procedures. In the following months, they were to dismiss much evidence, order new procedures to try to set the record straight, and file charges against several witnesses for perjury.

 

The sheer size of the case made it a staggering task to take on. There are over sixty lawyers involved between the defense teams, the prosecution, and others involved. There are more than 1,500 witnesses to offer testimony and new ones have been added to the list on a regular basis. The logistics involved had the Supreme Court order a special chamber built in the basement of the Federal Court building in Buenos Aires. In that brand-new, well-lit, and aired underground chamber, procedures opened in September 2001.

 

The court had to untangle several knots to reconstruct what really happened that fated day, cutting through layer upon layer of lies, disinformation, and contradiction. Take for example one of the most basic elements in the case, the means by which the terrorists delivered their bomb to the building on Pasteur Street. Until the hearings, it had been conventional wisdom that Carlos Telleldin had under duress sold a 1987 or 1989 Renault Trafic van-in fact, a vehicle illegally put together with parts from stolen '87 and '89 vans. The linchpin of that aspect of the case was the testimony of several officials and firemen who described the moment when the engine block of the van was found amid the rubble of the AMIA building. But in February 2002, a study carried out by Gendarmería, the paramilitary border force known for its high standard of technical work, proved that the parts found at the site were painted with a type of paint used only since 1992. At the time, the fact only aroused suspicions that Telleldin was lying about which van he had turned over to his police officer accomplices. After all, Trafic vans are popular in Argentina, and Telleldin might have "worked" with more than one. Confusion, however, was soon to grow.

On April 15, no fewer than three witnesses changed their statements regarding the moment when the parts were found at the explosion site. Fireman Horacio Lopardo, who had originally gone into detail about how he was digging at the site when his "power tool hit something hard and metallic" that proved to be the engine block, later said that he hadn't actually found the engine: He had seen it only after it had been brought to the tent that served as headquarters for the Israeli Army rescue team. Another witness, AMIA staffer Alberto Swarcz, who at the time worked as a translator for the Israelis, repeated his original version faithfully except for one detail: Now, he claimed, he was not sure about the date of the discovery. He couldn't remember if the engine had been found "near the bathroom at the ground floor" on July 23, as he originally said, or two days later. These contradictions came on top of two earlier statements by firemen saying that, in fact, the engine had been found on July 19, a day after the explosion.

The judges tried to sort out this crucial item-establishing the day of the discovery is a very important fact since the presence of the engine block is the cornerstone of the case against Telleldin and the policemen-by going back to Galeano's papers. But they only found the same confusion: several depositions giving different dates and no sign of the judge ever working to sort out the truth.

Lying has been so recurrent in the AMIA case that several witnesses already face charges of perjury and one had slapped on him a six-year jail term for lying to the court. Those charged go from humble police sergeants who told the judges "I don't recall" once too often to formerly powerful figures such as Matilde Menendez, Menem's influential director of social assistance, who had been wiretapped by the police holding a conversation with a defense lawyer that she claimed not to remember. One of Galeano's former aides, Javier de Gamas, was also jailed and charged with obstruction of justice, perjury, and lying to the court, a blunder that further tarnished Galeano's prestige. Wilson dos Santos, a Brazilian citizen who in 1995 claimed that he had warned the Brazilian consulate in Milan, Italy, about the attack and was under Brazilian protection for several years, was condemned to six years in jail. A court found that he had made up his allegations after hearing that there was a large reward for information on the AMIA bombing.

Another casualty of the investigation might very well be the official in charge of it, Judge Galeano. Representative Nilda Garré, who had been in charge of the bicameral legislative committee investigating the case in April, filed charges against the judge and asked for his impeachment. Garré, whom the government has since dismissed from the case, charges Galeano with "willful destruction of elements of proof," a charge that Galeano admits freely, claiming that he incinerated "irrelevant" tapes and papers; paying Telleldin for his statements; omitting any procedure to probe into the "accidental" erasure of sixty-six tapes of wiretapping; and general negligence in the conduct of legal procedures.

 

On May 7, after Telleldin's extensive testimony before the court trying to explain his comings and goings in the days before the attack, Judge Galeano ordered sixteen private homes and business premises raided, and arrested sixteen people on charges of dealing with stolen cars. The very same day, the oral tribunal ordered two of the original twenty suspects released. Both were policemen indicted on lesser charges who had already spent six years in prison.

 

The Case against Iran

 

Early in May 2003, Judge Galeano made public a 400-page judicial statement calling for arrests and trying to explain his views of the AMIA case. The writ is interesting for its omissions: Galeano admits very clearly what he doesn't know or understand, in a veritable catalogue of shortcomings. For instance, the judge writes that he couldn't establish the identity of the van's suicide driver, how he came into the country, where he stayed, and who helped him carry out the attack. Also unknown are the critical questions of who received and prepared the van carrying the explosives, and the name of the organization that executed the attack. Galeano only speaks of "radical elements" in the Iranian government and calls for the international capture of Iranian Intelligence Minister Ali Fallahijan and of diplomatic couriers Barat Abadi and Ali Parvaresh, a member of the Iranian parliament. A fourth Iranian is also wanted by the judge for interrogation: Moshen Rabbani, the former cultural attaché at the Iranian embassy in Buenos Aires, who, amazingly, remained unmolested in the country for more than two years after the bombing and became a wanted witness only after he returned home. Galeano also asked the government of Lebanon for information about a suspected Hizballah member, Ibrahim Berro (or possibly, Birru or Borro) and his family. The government of Paraguay was asked for information on Berro's presence there, as well about other suspected terrorists, such as Mohammed Tormos. The judge finally asked the Argentine Intelligence Agency for information on the Ansar Allah (Followers of God) faction of Hizballah, but named no names and issued no orders of arrest.

 

In resuming his findings, Galeano makes it clear that he doesn't know who exactly ordered the attack in Argentina. "There was a diabolical mind that selected the pieces of the puzzle, somebody with unbounded knowledge of civilian and police gangs, access to restricted information, and good contacts," wrote the judge. After describing this super villain, Galeano claims that the bombings were carried out "thanks to an intelligence network created by radical elements of the current Iranian regime within the frame of the exportation of their radical revolution around the world." From the myriad explanations offered for the creation of such a network, Galeano chooses "the one that has Moshen Rabbani, the Iranian Embassy cultural affairs attaché, as protagonist." Galeano adds that the probable causes for choosing Argentina as a target were "the suspension of the sale of a heavy water facility to Iran, the presence of Argentine warships in the Allied fleet during Desert Storm, and President Carlos Menem's visit to Israel." The judge explains that "witnesses and informers" said that the attack was decided in Tehran and organized in Ciudad del Este, the Paraguayan city on the Triple Border between Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, a traditional smugglers' haven and home to a large Middle Eastern population of immigrants that openly supported the PLO for years. According to those sources, a Colombian convert to Islam, Samuel Salman El Rada, and his wife, an Argentine convert, were involved in the planning of the attack and moved to Lebanon after July 1994. However, the judge cautioned that these allegations came "from informers and could not be corroborated."

The link between these foreign terrorists and the Argentines on trial is also tenuous. Galeano points to Ribelli's trip to Ciudad del Este before the bombing, which the accused claims was "a holiday shopping trip," a statement "that could not so far be contradicted with proof." Another key person on trial, Telleldin, traveled shortly after the bombing to Misiones, the Argentine province abutting Paraguay. Again, the suspect claims that he was in fact running away from police harassment and couldn't be proved wrong. Galeano also points out that Telleldin's sister is married to a police officer who is friendly with another policeman acquainted with the Iranian diplomat Rabbani and frequented a mosque. The final, rather pathetic, summing up of the official who investigated the case for years is that "all this is very surprising and allows either the inference that there are links between all these people or the realization that we are in the realm of chance."

 

The SIDE View of the Bombing

 

The Argentine intelligence agency SIDE had a different, more defined, but unproven version of the foreign conspiracy to attack the AMIA building. The SIDE provided a summing up of its discoveries to Judge Galeano late last year, a document slowly leaked out through several sources, notably the Internet-based Diario Judicial-an Argentine Web page for lawyers that keeps a daily watch on the AMIA case-and, on June 23, the Spanish newspaper El País. The Spanish daily quotes the report as saying that "the Trafic van used in the attack was rented in Buenos Aires by Iranian diplomat Rabbani. The explosive used, TNT, was purchased from Colombian narcs in 1990 in Colombia, smuggled to Venezuela, and from there taken to Brazil in an Iranian shipping lines vessel. The charge remained in Brazil for three years before passing to Argentina. Ibrahim Hussein Berro, a member of the Lebanese fundamentalist group Hizballah, carried out the attack. On the morning of July 18, 1994, the date of the attack, he called his family in Lebanon to say good-bye and told them that he was 'going to join my brother,' who had carried out a suicide bombing in 1989." The report was scorned by experts following the AMIA investigation. Osvaldo Laborda, a retired Gendarmería commander who carried out several studies on the explosives used in the bombing, went on record as describing the SIDE report as "ridiculous" in an interview with the daily Página12. Laborda said:

...if TNT was used in the bombing, it was in a very small proportion. The basic explosive was nitrate ammonia. Moreover, the report claims that the terrorists used half a ton of TNT, which is quite idiotic: The explosion would have left a crater 150 feet across and would have erased half a block. The purported itinerary of the explosives is as idiotic. They claim that it went from Colombia to Venezuela, then to Brazil for three years and then here, which would have been an enormous risk to run for stuff you could perfectly get here.

Laborda also points out that the supposed place where the Trafic van was rented according to the SIDE-on Juan B. Justo Avenue in the Villa Devoto area of town-never had a car rental office. "What I think is that they made up a story for consumption abroad," said Laborda. "Terrorists rented the van to attack the Federal Building in Oklahoma and for the first attack against the Twin Towers. They picked up that detail to make it more credible abroad."

 

The SIDE report, according to the Spanish newspaper, goes on to claim that both bombings in Buenos Aires-the 1992 attack on the Israeli embassy and the 1994 AMIA bombing-were conceived and planned in Iran. The SIDE claims that the AMIA attack was originated at a meeting that took place in Mashad, Iran, "between 14:30 and 18:30 hours on August 14, 1993." This surprising detail goes unsubstantiated: SIDE quotes no sources, and it is left to the reader to deduce that the probable source of the information is the Iranian defector Abdolgahassem Mesbahi, known as Witness C, who left Iran long before the bombings and remains under German protection since the early 1990s. Mesbahi had earlier told Judge Galeano that former Argentine President Carlos Menem had sent officials to Tehran on four occasions to brief the ayatollahs on the pace of the investigation, receiving in exchange major orders for Argentine grain and meat and, on a more personal level, $10 million dollars as "a gift." The allegation was furiously denied by Menem, who is under investigation on more credible grounds of corruption. In addition, Switzerland is investigating his bank accounts. In yet one more twist to this complicated case, Mesbahi sent a letter to Judge Galeano asking him to "stop lying" and denying that he ever mentioned Menem in connection to the case.

 

Iran responded to Galeano's and the SIDE's charges harshly. In an official communiqué, Tehran denied all allegations and said they were "typical lies of the Zionist regime." Hamid Reza Asefi, the Iranian Foreign Office spokesperson, said in February: "We have made it clear again and again that Iran was not involved in the bombings. Certain circles try to deflect attention toward our government and to create a negative image of Iran." Early in March, the Iranians went a step further. Asefi demanded that Argentina "repair" the "error" of asking for the international capture of Iranian nationals or Iran "would take the appropriate measures." The Argentine government called upon the Iranian chargé d'affaires in Buenos Aires, Muhammad Ali Tabatabael, to "explain" what sounded like a threat. Tabatabael was greeted at the Argentine Foreign Ministry by a panel made up of the director for Middle Eastern affairs, the assistant foreign minister, and the special representative for terrorism, among other officials. Reportedly, the meeting was not friendly, and the Iranian was told to convey to his government that "in a democracy there is a division of powers and the executive branch cannot tell a judge not to ask for the capture of persons." Then-Foreign Affairs Minister Carlos Ruckauf said after the meeting that the Iranian envoy insisted to the end that his government regards the Argentine government as "responsible" for the acts of the judge and does not believe that Galeano is independent. The exchange marked the lowest point in the relations between the two countries. Iranian orders for Argentine goods and commodities are well below the $700 million peak they reached in 1996, both countries withdrew their ambassadors, and Iran consistently criticizes Argentina's votes against Tehran on human rights issues at the UN.

 

The Opening of Files

 

Galeano's writ and the SIDE report fueled demands to have the intelligence agency release more information on the case and to have several agents take the witness stand and talk to the judges. DAIA, the Jewish Argentine political umbrella organization, AMIA, Memoria Activa, and several other groups following the case repeatedly demanded that the court order the spies to take the stand. Late in 2002, the court ordered fourteen agents and former agents, including Menem's chief of intelligence, Hugo Anzorreguy, to appear before them for interrogation. Former President Eduardo Duhalde issued a presidential decree blocking the initiative on national security grounds and ordered that only the four former chiefs of intelligence take the stand so that the "the secrecy of procedures be assured." On February 20, 2003, the court responded by declaring unconstitutional the presidential decree and ordering nine agents and officials to testify on pain of incurring contempt of the court. Stunned, the government appealed the decision and issued further decrees making it more difficult for security agents to give evidence. Among other things, agents were forbidden to disclose any information obtained from foreign sources. But in June 2003, current President Nestor Kirchner ordered that the SIDE agency drop its appeal and comply with the court.

 

More importantly, President Kirchner satisfied a long-standing demand by both the defense and the prosecution in the case: that he release SIDE documents to try to establish the role of the intelligence agency in the investigation. On Monday, June 2, AMIA President Abraham Kaul publicly called for Kirchner-who had been in office for just eight days-to release the documents. Kaul was reacting to press reports that the Argentine Embassy in Beirut had informed the Argentine government of an intended attack against a Jewish target in Buenos Aires late in May 1994. According to the newspaper Clarin, the SIDE official on duty at the Argentine Foreign Office was given a copy of the Argentine ambassador in Lebanon's wire on May 31, forty-nine days before the attack on AMIA. "We want to establish political responsibilities for the attack on us," said Kaul during a press conference. "We have doubts about how some officials carried out their duty, how we were left unprotected by them. And the main culprits are [then intelligence director Hugo] Anzorreguy and [then foreign minister Carlos] Ruckauf."

Kirchner promptly complained, and a crucial document was sent by the new intelligence director, Sergio Acevedo, to the court. It was a SIDE internal investigation probing irregularities in the conduct of the AMIA investigation. The probe was ordered by the government that succeeded Menem's and was a half-hearted effort to try to clear the tangle of allegations by Argentine spies and sort fact from fabrication. The document is known only in fragmentary form; journalist Raul Kollmann, one of the Argentine journalists most knowledgeable about the case, was the first to publish fragments and to show the bad faith that marked the entire process. Writing in Pagina 12, Kollmann points out that the questions asked to unnamed agents touched upon the major dark spots in the SIDE role in the investigation, but the answers were ridiculous. "I saw it on TV" and "somebody told me" were among the answers given to an interrogator who obviously went through the motions and never pressed for an answer. According to Kollmann, the interrogations allegedly resulted in three agents sanctioned, but "there is no indication of any punishment in the document released."

 

The Triple Border Area

 

On May 1, 2003, the U.S. Department of State published its Patterns of Global Terrorism 2002 report. In its chapter on South America, the report said that "Argentina has demonstrated its continuing support" for the war on terrorism during 2002 and fulfilled "a determined cooperative role" in the surveillance of the Triple Border area between Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil. After the terrorist attacks in the United States, the Triple Border area came under close scrutiny from intelligence agencies. Washington made it very clear that it expected a tightening of security in the region, and local governments promptly complied. The focal point of the security effort was the city of Ciudad del Este, a smuggling center that became in the 1990s one of the great trading cities in the hemisphere, with a $14 billion yearly turnover. Two factors explained the presence of terrorist groups' operatives in the area. The first, according to the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, Cofer Black, is that "terrorists like to operate in areas were they feel relatively secure, where they can melt with the local population. Our work is made harder by the fact that a large part of the local population is of Middle Eastern origin. Most are law-abiding, decent people, but the bad apples can live among them." The second reason is, as Black politely put it, that "the rules that apply in other areas of the world don't apply there; thus terrorists felt more at ease and can infiltrate without the knowledge of the general population." What the U.S. official probably had in mind was the total lawlessness that used to be the norm in the border area. Ciudad del Este is accessible from both Brazil and Argentina by walking or driving over a bridge. In years past, the bridges were thronged with trucks and individuals smuggling goods from Paraguay, tax-free and without any regulation from either the Brazilian or the Argentine police or customs agents. Many of the local merchants openly displayed Yasir Arafat's picture in their windows, and the Palestinian flag hanging from storefronts was a common sight. In the late 1970s, when the Lebanese civil war expelled thousands of businessmen, bankers, and traders from Lebanon, Ciudad del Este became a favorite destination. Many became local branches of multinational, Lebanese-owned enterprises. The contacts were kept until new players came in to the area.

The U.S. war on terrorism changed all. In 2002, the three local governments plus the United States formed the Three Plus One Group that monitors financial transactions involving Ciudad del Este. The initiative responded to President George Bush's interest in tracking the sources of financing for Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups, and was based on the tradition of the Paraguayan city as an offshore bank for Lebanese interests. General James Hill, chairman of the U.S. Army's Southern Command, said in 2002, "Drug money and money laundering fuel terrorism around the world. This is a fact." Security in the city became visibly tighter, and the customs offices now remain open all day. IDs are checked at the bridge crossings, and all vehicles are routinely searched. Even more importantly, both Brazil and Argentina sharply devalued their currencies in the past two years, making the Paraguayan black economy noncompetitive. With business dead, Ciudad del Este quickly lost much of its population. Thousands of merchants simply crossed the border into Brazil, many moving on to Sao Paulo.

 

On April 15, 2002, the new policy bore its first fruit. The Brazilian police arrested Mohammed al-Mahdi Obrahim Soliman, an Egyptian national living in Foz de Iguazu, a city on the Brazilian side of the border, across the river from Ciudad del Este. Soliman was wanted by Interpol on charges of having participated in the 1997 attack against European tourists in Luxor that resulted in fifty-eight deaths by stabbing and shooting.

 

Seeking an Ending

The AMIA hearings do not have a mandatory date of completion, but most involved expect the process to conclude before the year ends. Sometime in late 2003 or early 2004, the three judges will pass their verdict and mete out sentences on those found guilty. The AMIA case, however, will not be over. Three issues will remain wide open to investigation, speculation and doubt:

  • First, the true role of Argentine intelligence in the case. Memoria Activa leaders Diana Malamud and Enrique Burbinsky think that Argentine intelligence agents had detected and infiltrated local terrorist networks and failed to prevent the attack. After all, they say, the SIDE had early in 1994 filmed Iranian diplomat Rabbani shopping around town for a van similar to the one used in the bombing. Moreover, Iranian commercial offices were under surveillance. Malamud and Burbinsky think that the SIDE tried to cover its tracks after the bombing with active encouragement from officials in the Menem administration.

  • Second, political responsibility. "Carlos Menem and then Interior Minister Carlos Ruckauf should by all rights be charged and investigated for their involvement in the cover-up after the bombing," said Malamud. "They blocked the investigation to cover for their ineptitude or worse."

  • Third, an international legal tangle involving Argentina and the Organization of American States (OAS). Memoria Activa denounced the Menem government before the Inter-American Court of Justice for denial of justice. The case is pending, and the OAS tribunal is awaiting the Argentine court's findings to proceed. The Menem government denied the charges, and presented a brief portraying the investigation of the attack as a case of exemplary energy and promptness. The succeeding government of Fernando de la Rua withdrew the declaration and hinted that it would accept a mediation; de la Rua's administration didn't last long enough to keep its word. It is an open question what the recently elected president will do if the OAS court finds against Argentina.

 

On the bright side, there are but few voices criticizing the current court hearing the case. Memoria Activa, searing in its observations about officials and judges involved in the investigation, respects the three-judge court. "They have worked seriously and in keeping with the spirit and the letter of the law," Malamud and Dobnievsky said. "They had the proper attitude of investigating many issues that we and other groups objected to, they were firm when confronted with procrastination and lies, and they didn't buy Galeano's lies and misinformation."

 

Since the start of the AMIA hearings, Argentina has survived the fall of two governments in a row and the worst economic crisis in its history. But not even the days of rioting that left twenty dead in the last days of December 2001 interrupted the court's work. Argentina remained a democracy, carried out clean and fair elections, and kept the AMIA case alive. Perhaps the hearing will not be, as feared at the start, a closing of the issue, but a first, difficult step toward truth.

 

Notes

1. Justice Nazareno quit his office early in July. President Kirchner is now trying to remove the other Menem appointees.
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