On July 18, 1994, a bombing at the AMIA, Buenos Aires’ largest Jewish community center, killed 85 people and injured hundreds. No one was convicted of this crime and the original judicial probe was riddled with irregularities. This January, the AMIA grabbed headlines again when Alberto Nisman, Argentina’s special prosecutor on the case, was found dead in his apartment. His apparent suicide—yet to be confirmed as such—is the latest episode in 21 years of impunity in which the global War on Terror meets the local legacies of state-sponsored crimes against humanity.
The AMIA blast came two years after an attack on the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires that killed 29 people, and was never punished. In 2004, judges declared a mistrial in the AMIA bombing, and evidence gathered over the years points to a conspiracy between politicians, judicial officials and intelligence agents to bury the truth. After years of delays, a whole new trial began on Thursday in which officials from former Argentine President Carlos Menem on down will finally be tried for orchestrating a cover-up in the bombing investigation. Much is at stake for the victims, for Argentine society, and for its democratic institutions.
The evidence that will be presented should elucidate the domestic and international forces that contributed to two decades of impunity, starting with the geopolitical interests at play in the judicial probe of the attack. At the time, the United States and Israel insistently singled out Iran as the lone sponsor of global terrorism. And in the 1990s, the Argentine government sought to strengthen ties with the United States, describing the bilateral links as “carnal relations.”
The AMIA investigation, influenced by Washington and Tel Aviv through the collaboration of their intelligence agencies, focused on Iran’s possible involvement and systematically disregarded any clues pointing toward Syria. According to Memoria Activa, one group of AMIA victims and their relatives, the investigation of an initial suspect of Syrian descent whose family was friendly with President Menem’s own was quickly dropped. After that, only members of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah and Iranian citizens were accused of involvement on a global scale.
The trial should also expose the shady relations between Argentine spies, politicians, prosecutors and judges. The judge leading the original probe, Juan José Galeano, used $400,000 from an intelligence slush fund to pay a key suspect, allegedly so that he would provide false testimony to implicate provincial police officers in the attack. By all appearances, this so-called “local connection” was invented as a scapegoat; all of the police officers facing trial were acquitted in 2004.
Part of the problem lies with Argentina’s intelligence apparatus, which helped torture, kidnap and kill thousands of dissidents during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. This military regime had backing from the United States, which supported several dictatorships in the region. Until recently, Argentina’s intelligence agency had barely been reformed and feeble political oversight ensured that agents operated with great autonomy.
At the same time, the federal justice system has come to rely on the intelligence agency’s wiretaps to gather evidence, producing an unhealthy interdependence between some intelligence agents, prosecutors and judges. Plus, politicians often use these same wiretaps against their opponents and critics. The delays in the AMIA cover-up trial and the behavior of several suspiciously sluggish state prosecutors may be explained by these extortive measures, corrupt collusion, or just plain indolence.
Nisman’s prosecution also depended on the intelligence agency’s wiretaps and other spy-fed information, as well as Israeli and U.S. intelligence. Just days before he died, Nisman relied almost exclusively on those sources to accuse Argentina’s current president and foreign minister of plotting to ensure that Iran would no longer be implicated in the AMIA bombing. His accusation was dismissed by many legal experts and eventually thrown out by the courts.
In 2005, after our organization helped Memoria Activa take its case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Argentine government recognized the state’s responsibility for failing to prevent the AMIA attack and botching the investigation. Amid the fallout from Nisman’s death ten years later, promised reforms including overhaul of the intelligence law were finally approved. The Intelligence Secretariat was recently disbanded, wiretapping is now overseen by the Attorney General’s Office, and greater administrative and congressional oversight of spies is expected. This reform is a crucial first step, but deeper changes are needed.
After years of frustration and disappointment, AMIA victims and their families, will finally get to see Menem, a former intelligence chief, ex-judge Galeano, two former federal prosecutors, a high-ranking federal police chief, and seven others stand trial. The courtroom revelations could drive more needed changes in Argentina’s institutions and public policies—but that is no substitute for truth and justice. We have waited far too long.
Op-ed published in The Huffington Post.