How A Bomb Reverberates For 19 Years
By Nick OlleMay 22, 2013
The deadly bombing of a Jewish community centre in Argentina in 1994 remains unsolved. But this week Iran — long suspected in the crime — agreed to a controversial “truth commission”. Can a joint investigation, condemned as engaging with anti-Semitic terrorists, revive a cold case marred by corruption?
The explosion was so powerful that it could be felt and heard for miles across Buenos Aires, Argentina’s sprawling capital.
Adriana Reisfeld was beyond earshot at 9.53am that morning of July 18, 1994, but didn’t have to wait long to hear the dreadful news, which arrived several minutes later at 10am in the form of a hysterical phone call from her distraught aunt. She learned that a blast had ripped through the city’s Jewish community centre, known as AMIA (the Spanish acronym for the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association). Worse still was that no one yet knew if Adriana’s sister Noemi had been in the building. A 36-year-old mother of two, Noemi had worked for AMIA as a social worker, generally out among the community, but once a week in the building itself.
Eighty-five people were eventually pronounced dead, but the toll was still unclear during the first, surreal hours and days of the aftermath. When it was confirmed on the afternoon of the attack that Noemi had been in the building that day, Adriana felt numb with fear. She’d already joined the thousands of volunteers and officials scouring the debris, all the while clinging to the desperate hope that her sister had somehow escaped alive.
“It was very difficult,” she says. “First of all you wish that she’s not there, that she’s anywhere else apart from there.”
Six days later any lingering hope was extinguished when Noemi’s body was pulled from the rubble. “It changed my life,” Adriana explains, steely-eyed and clutching a photograph of her sister, “Nineteen years ago I had one type of life and from then on I had another.
“You end up consoling yourself when the morgue tells you she died from crushing because you know other people were delivered a coffin full of stones because there was nothing left of the person. You comfort yourself with these things – having a body to bury.”
A week after the bombing – reeling from the loss of her sister – Adriana co-founded Memoria Activa (Active Memory), a group of friends and relatives of victims, who were dedicated to promoting justice for their departed loved ones. Every Monday morning they would assemble “rain, hail or shine” in Plaza Lavalle outside the law courts in downtown Buenos Aires, for what Adriana describes as “popular shows of active memory”.
Almost two decades on, the so-called AMIA case remains unresolved. No one has claimed responsibility and no one has been brought to justice. In fact, the investigation has lurched from one scandal to the next in a process that has uncovered more criminality within the inquest than outside it. The biggest scalp claimed was that of the very judge who’d overseen the first decade of the investigation: Juan José Galeano was impeached and removed from the case in 2004 after this hidden video from 1996 surfaced, which shows him bribing a witness for testimony.
Former President of Argentina, Carlos Menem is also accused of illegally meddling in the case. The charge against him is covering up the so-called pista Siria (“Syrian lead”) in collaboration with government officials and criminal groups in both Buenos Aires and Syria. Announcing in July 2012 that Menem, who is now a senator, would face trial, federal judge Ariel Lijo said : “What happened is that several days after the attack there were suspicions about Alberto Jacinto Kanoore Edul [a personal friend of the former president] and there were wiretaps and search warrants. Ten days after the bombing the raids and wiretaps stopped without proper cause.”
Nineteen years after terror struck Argentina, the search for justice continues
Notwithstanding the fact that no terrorist group has claimed authorship of the attack, the dust from the explosion had barely settled when murmurs began circulating that Arab terrorists were behind it. In particular, accusing eyes were trained on Iran. Iran remains the prime suspect in the case.
This was the single worst act of terror ever committed on Argentine soil, but it was not without precedent. Just two years earlier on March 17, 1992 a bomb blast levelled the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, killing 29 people. The terrorist organisation Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for that attack, but in 1999 the Argentine government issued an arrest warrant for Imad Moughnieh, a Lebanese Hezbollah operative who eluded capture – he was eventually assassinated by car bomb in Syria, in 2008.
Argentine prosecutors have long claimed that Iran was complicit in both the Israeli embassy bombing and that of the AMIA.
In 2006, prosecutor Alberto Nisman formally accused six Iranian officials of orchestrating the suicide-car-bomb attack on the AMIA building. And in November, 2007, under strong pressure from the United States, Interpol issued a Red Notice (an international wanted-persons notice) for Moughnieh and five of the Iranians. Among them are Iran’s serving defence minister Ahmad Vahidi and two presidential hopefuls for this year’s elections – Mohsen Rezai and Ali Fallahijan.
Iran has always denied any involvement in the bombing.
Strange then, that Buenos Aires and Tehran would come to sign a memorandum of understanding to investigate the case. But that is precisely what happened on January 27 this year, when the two governments committed to creating a “truth commission”.
Argentina’s Congress approved the pact on February 28, much to the chagrin of the AMIA, which intends to challenge its constitutionality in the Supreme Court. The Iranian parliament has never debated the matter, but it was bypassed this week when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ratified the agreement without Congressional approval.
We’ll return to the pista Irani (the “Iranian lead”) and the agreement between Argentina and Iran later.
With the removal of former judge Galeano, which Adriana attributes to Memoria Activa’s pressure, it seemed the group’s demands for a proper investigation were getting somewhere. They appeared to have found an ally – or at least a “valid interlocutor” – in Argentina’s new president at the time, Néstor Kirchner. So, after a decade, the group stopped its weekly demonstrations.
In 2005 Kirchner signed Decree 812, which officially recognises that the State is culpable both for failing to prevent the attack and for bungling the investigation. It specifically acknowledges the State’s responsibility for “... failing to take appropriate and effective measures to prevent the attack”, “covering up the facts” and the “serious and deliberate breach of the investigative function”.
But Adriana laments that this turned out to be something of a false dawn. The recognition by the government was of some comfort, but it has led to no real advances in the investigation. As she puts it, “We [Memoria Activa] have achieved a lot, but unfortunately we don’t have justice.” She adds, “We’re now putting our efforts into the judicial side and we’ve decided that in the absence of justice we’ll go to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.”
Renowned Argentine investigative journalist Gabriel Levinas is someone else who remembers well the horror of that morning in July, 1994. He didn’t lose any relatives, but he took the attack personally. His family is revered by Argentina’s Jewish community, not least because his father’s car was used to capture the notorious Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. His father was also a key player in the creation of the AMIA headquarters in central Buenos Aires.
“I heard the explosion from my apartment, located approximately six blocks from the AMIA, and the first thing I did was look out of the window,” he remembers. “When I saw the gap where the shape of AMIA used to be drawn, I thought of my father and felt that the bombing – not yet knowing its magnitude – had also been against him.
“The incident immediately became a personal issue, beyond my condition of being Jewish or Argentine.”
In 1994, he was already a journalist of some standing. Twelve years before, when Argentina was still in the iron grip of its last military dictatorship, he founded El Porteño magazine, which bravely published stories of human-rights abuses that otherwise went unreported. He went on to computerise the AMIA case for DAIA (the umbrella organisation of Jewish groups in Argentina), prepare a report on the investigation for the US Congress and write a book that “investigates the investigation”, called The Law Underneath the Debris.
Levinas had smelled a rat from the start.
In the immediate aftermath of the AMIA attack, he had instinctively reached for his video camera and begun recording from where he stood at the window. He shot more footage at the scene and his images were broadcast on national television that same afternoon. With other networks keen to use his pictures, the following morning Levinas went to an audiovisual store to switch his recordings to the format they required. As the transfer took place he recognised two intelligence agents he’d encountered while working at El Porteño. The men were staring at his footage on the monitor, and he overheard one of them ask the other, “What’s the German doing there?”
It was this seemingly innocuous comment that led Levinas down the rabbit hole.
The agents backpedalled awkwardly when he asked who “the German” they were referring to was, but his curiosity had been piqued. Levinas went home and replayed the video over and over until he detected a “bulky, square-faced blonde man that perfectly fit his nickname”. The footage showed the German walking past the bombsite and covering his face when he saw the camera.
Levinas immediately reached out to his contacts at DAIA and explained what he’d seen to several different people, including an agent from the Israeli Secret Service, Mossad. Despite agreement that the information potentially had probative value, national and foreign investigators left the footage unreviewed for three years, at which point it was disregarded.
The crux of this episode, according to Levinas, is not the likely involvement or otherwise of the German – which remains unclear – but the inexplicable manner in which an entire line of enquiry was neglected.
At the time he suspected nothing more than negligence – “typical Argentine incompetence” – but he came to believe that there were darker forces at play.
The entire investigation is – and always has been – based on one simple contention: that a used-car salesman and small-time criminal named Carlos Alberto Telleldin sold a white Renault Trafic, knowing that it would be used in a terror attack on AMIA.
Various permutations of this premise have been raised over the years, but common to all of them is the story that police were led to Telleldin by the serial number on the Trafic’s engine, which was found in the rubble.
But this very postulation – the fulcrum of the whole enquiry – is problematic.
To begin with, only one witness claimed to have seen the Trafic in the moments before the bombing, and her testimony was contradicted by that of her sister, who was with her at the time. The Trafic theory also requires us to attribute an extraordinary slip-up to Telleldin: that he sold a car he knew was going to be used in a terrorist attack without ensuring that it couldn’t be traced back to him. Of course, it’s also hard to believe that the buyer would have risked creating an unnecessary accomplice by announcing the terror plot to Telleldin.
What’s more, the FBI’s explosives expert Charles Hunter, who arrived in Buenos Aires two days after the bombing, found that the blast pattern contradicted the theory that the blast had been caused by a car bomb.
Telleldin did sell a Renault Trafic 10 days before the bombing (to a buyer he initially described as having a Central American accent), and parts of that same vehicle were found at the scene. However it is impossible that all the fragments produced by police as evidence from the scene were part of Telleldin's car. His vehicle had been previously repaired after having been damaged by fire, yet fragments recovered from the debris and sent to the manufacturer for testing showed no signs of having been exposed to high temperatures.
Levinas discovered all of this and more while he was digitising the AMIA case for DAIA. He says the only logical conclusion is that there was no car bomb and that pieces of the Trafic had been planted at the scene. He cites other evidence (from explosives expert Hunter and others) that suggest there were in fact two bombs, one inside the building and one in a dumpster in front of the building.
Adriana, for her part, believes the car-bomb theory. “It is a fantasy that the bomb was planted. It wasn’t planted, because there were explosive remains, parts of the same van [recovered at the scene].”
In any event, Telleldin was arrested on suspicion of complicity. He’s known to have later accepted a US$400,000 bribe from Judge Galeano to finger three police officers as accomplices in the bombing.
The official version of events as it now stands is that the buyer of the Trafic was an Iranian cultural attache, and that he delivered the vehicle to the suicide bomber, Lebanese Hezbollah militant Ibrahim Hussein Berro.
Levinas gives this version short shrift, too, noting that it is based on the same faulty premise. “The case has been put together, investigated and processed by people who are now in prison or being investigated for hiding evidence or covering up,” he says.
“Here they have accepted as accurate the work of people whose concern was to ruin the case. So you take these people out but the case stays the same. It is ridiculous.”
So, what about the memorandum of understanding with Iran?
After announcing the agreement, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner tweeted: “We’ve achieved for the first time a legal instrument of international law between Argentina and Iran to advance knowledge of the truth about the attack.”
The document, signed by the foreign ministers of both countries, provides for the creation of a “truth commission” made up of high-ranking international jurists. The legal experts will study both sides’ evidence and eventually propose solutions on how the investigation should be continued. The commission will not be part of any judicial process and its findings will not be binding.
The agreement has been roundly criticised by the AMIA and DAIA in the name of the Argentine Jewish community. It was also condemned by Israel and the United States, both of which consider Iran a terrorist nation and are wary of any moves to engage Tehran in the international sphere.
One wonders if there is anything else at play here. Theories abound.
Levinas, for example, says the agreement is a chance to whitewash the case: “I think Argentina’s intention in making this pact with Iran, and the fact that Iran has agreed to enter into this relationship to examine the case, is because they are aware that there is not a single piece of evidence that blames Iran.”
(Certainly, in the past, President Fernandez de Kirchner has been dismissive of the pista Irani. As a member of the Congressional commission on the bombing, she was alone in discrediting the likelihood of Iranian involvement.)
Levinas continues: “I want to say that I think Iran is a terrible regime. It is homophobic, it treats women like shit, it doesn’t recognise the holocaust. I wouldn’t sit at the table with Iran except to sign their surrender. But I’d like for the real culprit to be imprisoned and for us not to look for a faraway enemy to avoid resolving our real problems, because the people who committed this attack and covered up this attack are free in the city and my daughters and grandchildren live in the city.”
Adriana says she has “minimal expectations” that the pact will advance the investigation in any meaningful way, but believes it should be followed through.
Reform Rabbi Sergio Bergman, who is also a Buenos Aires city legislator, says the President is looking to Iran for financial and energy reasons: “Iran is a fundamentalist and terrorist theocracy. Nevertheless, it can be a source of economic financing and energy resources. This government’s priority is financing and energy, not the principles of memory, truth and justice.”
AMIA President Guillermo Borger came out even more strongly against the accord, controversially saying that by dealing with Iran’s holocaust-denying regime Argentina was “leaving the door open for a third attack”. He clarified to The Global Mail that this reference was metaphorical only, but insisted that the matter should be left to the Argentine justice system, in which he has “total faith”.
For Adriana and Levinas, who, in different ways, have become torchbearers in the pursuit of truth and justice, such faith is impossible to justify on the evidence of the past 19 years.
Says Levinas: “You have to start the whole case from zero. The most logical thing is to start investigating everything again. It is difficult because 19 years have passed, but it is much more likely that something new will come up if we start again than if we continue with this stupid story.”