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Jewish Journal

Twenty years since the AMIA bombing in Argentina

by Leila Miller

July 16, 2014 | 10:22 am

<em>A crowd examines the rubble from the 1994 bombing</em>

A crowd examines the rubble from the 1994 bombing

In a plaza across the street from the Argentine Supreme Court here in Buenos Aires, Sofía Tarlovsky points to two names inscribed on a sundial-shaped memorial, both of them her former kindergarten students. Instead of minute marks, the clock marks time with wooden sticks carved with names and ages that jut out vertically from the circular marble base, which bears the quote in Spanish and Hebrew:  “Justicia Justicia Perseguirás,” “Tzedek Tzedek Tirdof” (justice, justice, you will seek). A blank space at the 9:53 spot marks the time on the morning of July 18, 1994, that a van carrying explosives rammed into the institutional headquarters of the Jewish community of Argentina — the AMIA building — killing 85 people and injuring more than 300.

Every Monday since the attack, now exactly 20 years ago, Tarlovsky, 82, and others from an elderly group observe a minute of silence in the plaza, then shout “Justicia!” at the courthouse, repeating the word three times before a man blows a shofar.

Despite the two decades that have passed, no one has been convicted for the AMIA bombing, which occurred two years after another unsolved bombing of the Israeli Embassy 20 blocks away. That one killed 29 people. But the memory of those two horrific incidents is still very much alive. As a result, almost all Jewish institutions in Argentina, home to some 240,000 Jews, have cement barriers at their entrances, and every July 18 thousands attend a nationally televised memorial in front of the now re-built AMIA (Argentine-Israelite Mutual Aid Association).

The AMIA investigation has seen many phases, including a confirmed government cover-up that allegedly involved Rubén Beraja, the then-president of the DAIA, Argentina’s umbrella Jewish organization. Today, families of victims are both divided among themselves and at odds with the Jewish community’s leadership.

Asked about the current progress of the investigation, Tarlovsky shook her head and replied “nada” — nothing.

“I am convinced that this bombing happened because the bombing on the Israeli embassy wasn’t investigated, so the terrorists saw that it would be easy,” Tarlovsky said. “I don’t think there will be justice, especially after 20 years. It’s very difficult. It implicates too many people in power.

“There’s a lot of ugliness here,” she said of the case. “It’s very sad, very painful.”

Jorge Beremblum, 74, was working in the treasurer’s office on AMIA’s third floor the morning of the attack; at first he thought the explosion came from a gas leak.

“But it was a momentary feeling, because when we opened our eyes and saw the enormous amount of dust, we realized that it was something else,” Beremblum said recently, explaining that the people in the office immediately recalled the attack on the Israeli embassy. “After the first few seconds, from the way the place looked, we realized that it was a bomb.”

Beremblum was not in the front part of the building, which collapsed completely. The attack’s victims were both Jews and non-Jews, among them a 5-year-old boy walking on the street with his mother, three cousins who had come to the AMIA to arrange for a relative’s funeral and people in the building next door. In a frantic effort to dig through the ruins for survivors, volunteers, along with firemen and policemen, struggled to clear away the debris. In the frenzy, some key pieces of evidence were tossed into garbage bins, and pieces of the exploded van were lost.

“It was a complete chaos,” said Sergio Widder, director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Latin American office. “There were corridors made by lines of people to make a path for the nurses and stretchers. There was a multitude of people standing on the debris, and no one knew how many people were alive under there in conditions to be rescued. We don’t know, and we’ll never know.”

In his oval-shaped office in the Buenos Aires City Legislature, Jorge Taiana, foreign minister of Argentina from 2005 to 2010, explained why the bombing may have occurred. 

“There were important failures in security that allowed for the biggest attack against the Jewish community since World War II,” he said, adding that Argentina is a “relatively important” country with a very significant Jewish community.

He believes help from a foreign country would have been necessary for the attack.

“Apart from [the bombing] being easy to do, and that it was an important Jewish community and that this would have an impact, we still have the question of whether whoever did it had a direct or indirect connection with a country,” he said. “These things are hard to do from so far away without the direct or indirect support from someone in a state structure.”

The official investigation has focused on an “international connection” and a “local connection,” two leads that were interrupted by allegations of a government-sponsored cover-up in the 1990s, organized by the executive and judicial officials, allegedly implicating the president, Carlos Menem, members of the national intelligence agency (SIDE), the judge in charge of the case and the president of the DAIA.

From the beginning, some groups, like Memoria Activa (Active Memory), an organization formed by victims’ family members, focused on a local connection. According to Luciano Hazan, a former lawyer for Memoria Activa, federal police officers who were supposed to be guarding the AMIA at the time were not present during the bombing. Evidence also suggests that the national intelligence agency (SIDE) may have been tipped off about the attack beforehand.

The investigating federal judge, Juan José Galeano, issued an arrest warrant in 2002 for 12 Iranian citizens, which Interpol suspended in 2004 because of weak evidence. The so-called “local connection” resulted in various arrests, including that of Carlos Telleldín, a mechanic accused of having sold and put together the van used in the bombing, and four members of the Buenos Aires Provincial Police Force. However, in 2004 all suspects in the local connection were found not guilty and acquitted, and a new investigation began. In 2005, Galeano was impeached as a result of a video that showed the judge offering Telleldín a bribe of $400,000 in exchange for “evidence” incriminating the four policemen.

“They built an entire false investigation with the idea of having a group of people to condemn to avoid a real investigation — a maneuver carried out by the executive branch by way of the federal police, the head of the SIDE, the judicial branch, public ministers, secretaries and leaders of the Jewish community,” Hazan said.

Beraja, the president of the DAIA and of the Latin American Jewish Congress at the time of the bombing and who was expected to pressure the government to investigate the bombing, is currently standing trial for knowing about the payment to Telleldín. He was also the president of Banco de Mayo, the Jewish community´s bank, which went bankrupt in 1998 and which led to Beraja’s prosecution for bank fraud. According to Argentine journalist Raul Kollman, Banco de Mayo made large contributions to Jewish institutions and received financial support from Argentine Central Bank, and Beraja’s two positions created a conflict of interest.

“From the standpoint of being the president of the bank, he needed a good relationship with the government, and in terms of responding to the bombing, it was the opposite,” Kollman said. “Without a doubt, this affected the investigation.” 

Along with Memoria Activa, American Rabbi Avi Weiss of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale in New York was one of the first to denounce Menem, then-president of Argentina, and Beraja of participating in a cover-up. Weiss flew to Argentina immediately after the bombing with letters from New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani calling for a prompt investigation. He met privately with Menem and became convinced that the president was covering up details uncovered in the investigation.

“I just looked at him and said, ‘Why Argentina a second time?’ ” Weiss recalled.

Weiss and several Argentine Jewish community leaders then attended a full cabinet meeting, where, Weiss said, Menem “was trying to convince us they did everything they could to catch the bombers of the embassy,” but Weiss said he noticed Menem nodding off during the meeting and not speaking.

When Menem came to New York two months later to receive an award from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation for his work on the investigation, Weiss and a colleague were arrested for demonstrating at the ceremony.

“My God, they were giving him an award,” Weiss remembered thinking. “The who’s- who of the Jewish community was there, honoring this man.”

Weiss returned to Argentina a year later and publicly accused Menem of a cover-up, resulting in Galeano immediately subpoenaing him. Instead of complying, Weiss took a
2 1/2-hour boat trip from Uruguay to Argentina to prove how the borders of Argentina easily could be breached.

“I just remember when the ship returned, not only did I not go through customs, I just jumped off the side of the boat onto the street,” he said. “No one checked my cameras for bombs.”

Although an investigation of the cover-up led by prosecutor Alberto Nisman began in 2000 and has produced indictments, the oral trial of the defendants, which includes Galeano, Beraja and the former chief of SIDE, has not begun. The investigation of the local connection restarted under Nisman in 2004, but it also still has not gone to trial.

“The judiciary clearly doesn’t want it to happen,” Hazan said. “It’s a trial where the magnifying glass will not only be on the AMIA and its cover-up but also on the federal judicial system of Argentina. It’ll show how the federal judicial system has been working for various years — it’s a justice system that’s not transparent, [it’s] corrupt.”

Hazan noted that, unlike the recent trials of Argentina’s military junta leaders, which occurred about 30 years after the dictatorship, the trials for the cover-up “affect powers that are still there.”

“It’s an embarrassment, because we have judges for a reason,” Hazan said. “They have to be impartial, independent, without caring what they’ll be told in the hallway for condemning Galeano or his secretaries or a policeman that someone worked with and was friends with.”

In 2005, Argentine President Nestor Kirchner recognized the cover-up and the government’s responsibility for the failure of the AMIA investigation, but the families of the victims remain frustrated.

“One of his promises was to intensify the investigation, to search for the international and local culprits and the chain of the cover-up, to improve border security and provide compensation for the family members,” said Laura Ginsberg, whose husband died in the bombing. “None of that happened.”

An international investigation of the bombing has focused on Iran. In 2005, the Argentine prosecutors again accused the Iranian government and Hezbollah of carrying out the bombing and called for the arrest of then-Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani and other Iranian officials. This time, Interpol upheld the prosecutors’ request for the arrest warrants, but Iran has refused to extradite.

In January 2013, Argentine President Cristina Kirchner announced that Argentina had signed a “memorandum of understanding” with Iran to establish a “truth commission” to investigate the bombing, which would allow Iran to review Argentina’s investigation. But that memorandum, which remains unratified by Iran, was declared unconstitutional by an Argentine court of appeals in May 2014 as interfering with the judiciary, a decision that has since been appealed to the Supreme Court. 

In a recent interview, an official from the Foreign Ministry, who asked to remain anonymous, took issue with the appellate court decision, saying that the memorandum only gives the prosecutor and the judge the option to interview the accused in Tehran.

“They say that you shouldn’t negotiate with the Iranians, but we say that if we want a declaration from Iranians [suspects] who live in Iran and we want to negotiate with the Iranian government, then we have to go to Iran,” the official told the Journal.

Andrés Cisneros, the deputy foreign minister during Menem’s presidency, said political will in the investigation remains weak, and he compared the memo with Iran to “asking Dr. Jekyll to find Mr. Hyde,” as the scientist and the monster were the same person.

But when asked about other options, he said, “We don’t have alternatives.” 

“Argentina doesn’t have the capacity to investigate the Middle East,” he said. “The countries that can apply pressure don’t have the motivation to help Argentina. Argentina has isolated itself, and that has produced weakness.”

Both Cisneros and Taiana held that Iran never offered to help with the investigation.

“Today, there’s a political decision from the Iranian government to protect Iranian citizens that it considers victims of a political persecution and that sees Argentina as simply an arm of the United States and Israel,” Taiana said.

Tension also exists within the Jewish community, between the establishment and the groups formed by family members.

According to Adriana Reisfeld, the president of Memoria Activa, the group in the beginning had a “relationship of respect with AMIA and trusted that the leadership accompanied and didn’t betray us.” But now, she says, Memoria Activa is AMIA/DAIA’s “worst obstacle” with respect to the case.

“If we didn’t exist, the investigation would already be closed,” Reisfeld said, explaining that in 2003, during the oral trial falsely accusing the Buenos Aires policemen, AMIA/DAIA accused the policemen while Memoria Activa didn’t. “We have had private talks with the leaders of AMIA and DAIA and they all tell us, ‘We don’t want to have anything else to do with the AMIA case; we want it to be over.’ ”

Ginsberg, who heads APEMIA — a group of families and friends of victims that split off from Memoria Activa in 2002 — agrees that the AMIA and DAIA are holding back the investigation by focusing responsibility on Iran. 

“Of course the cover-up continues, because their objective is to accuse anyone except Argentina,” she said.

Unlike Memoria Activa, the AMIA/DAIA is not a criminal complainant in the cover-up trial involving former DAIA president Beraja.

“The accusation against Beraja is false, unfounded, and serves to transform a victim, like the president of the DAIA, into a victimizer,” explained Mario Sobol, AMIA’s secretary general.

Sobol also responded to the accusations by APEMIA and Memoria Activa that AMIA does not care about the investigation.

“It is their point of view,” he said. “It [the investigation] is our No. 1 priority.” He would not comment on the cause for the accusations, saying he does not want to speak badly about other people.

Weiss offered a wider perspective on the divisions.

“It’s tough to be critical,” he said. “They were inevitable divisions. When you’re on the inside, you are weighted down by bureaucracy, and when you’re on the outside, you’re not burdened by any of that.”

Although united by their dislike of the Jewish leadership, tensions also exist between Memoria Activa and APEMIA, one being the memorandum with Iran, which APEMIA was against but which Memoria Activa supported.

“For us, the memo signifies the deepening of the cover-up and not reaching the truth,” said Ginsberg, who believes there is not enough evidence to substantiate the connection to Iran. “Memoria Activa doesn’t think that the truth can be reached; that’s the big difference. We are convinced the truth can be known.”

Reisfeld said that Memoria Activa supported the memorandum because it “thought the memo would lead to something,” but she added that “it’s the only means that has been found until now.

“All the presidents of the United States live negotiating,” she said, raising her voice. “Go to Israel and talk to Shimon Peres or [Benjamin] Netanyahu and ask how it’s possible that [Gilad] Shalit was freed.

“Israel is against our victory, because Israel is against the memo, but it negotiates permanently. And we can’t negotiate to know the truth? It looks like Israel and the United States don’t want to know the truth. The only ones who want to know are the families,” Reisfeld said.

Through all the politics lies the pain of the victims’ families.

“We’re family members — we’re not the police or investigators,” said Reisfeld, 58, whose sister, who worked in social services for the elderly at the AMIA, was killed in the bombing. “We have already lost the most important thing, so I don’t care now about losing time. It’s too bad my mother died and she wanted to see justice. I hope the same doesn’t happen to me.”

“There are few family members left, and the ones that are here are divided,” said Sofía Guterman, whose only child, Andrea, died in the bombing. She was 27.

Andrea was a kindergarten teacher, engaged to be married that year, and had gone to the AMIA for the first time to use its employment services. She was nervous about going alone, and Guterman had called Andrea’s apartment that morning to tell her she would accompany her to the AMIA a different day, but Andrea had already left. She was found on the seventh day, having died instantly when a pillar fell on her.

“It was the end for us because our future was with her; it depended on her,” Guterman said.

In the investigation’s early years, Guterman spoke publicly in support of the arrest of the four policemen, which turned out to be part of the cover-up. Then she began getting calls in the middle of the night.

“They breathed heavily, put on the funeral march,” she said. “Once they put on the voice of a girl crying, screaming for her mother. I almost fainted.”

Guterman, who is in her 70s, has written five books on her daughter, and gives talks at Jewish and non-Jewish schools about the bombing.

“There are still lies and we can’t accomplish anything,” she said. “Not a trial for the cover-up nor convictions of those responsible [for the bombing]. If it’s really Iran, we can’t wait for them to extradite because they won’t. Twenty years is a very big number, and we’re like we were the first day. Without justice.”

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