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World Perspective | ARGENTINA

Slow Action on '92 and '94 Bombings Keeps Jews in Fear

August 15, 1997|SEBASTIAN ROTELLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BUENOS AIRES — The Jewish community here lives in a psychological state of siege. The metal detectors, security cameras and car-bomb barriers protecting synagogues and social clubs symbolize the fear and vulnerability that linger years after two unsolved terrorist bombings.

The police officers guarding potential Jewish targets are different, more disturbing symbols. The guards remind Argentines of the failure to solve the attacks on the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and a Jewish community center in 1994--and of increasing signs that renegades in law enforcement took part in the 1994 attack and obstructed the investigation.

Rage and frustration boiled over last month on the third anniversary of the blast at the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Assn. (AMIA) that killed 86 people--Argentina's worst mass murder and one of the worst anti-Semitic terrorist attacks.

At a memorial service, a victim's widow issued a thundering denunciation of the nation's leaders as ashen-faced Cabinet ministers listened and the crowd jeered.

"People are furious and with reason, because there have been no results," said Sergio Widder, a representative here of the L.A.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, who noted that memorial services were also held in New York and Los Angeles. "For the Jewish community, the solidarity of our brothers in the rest of the world is vital because of the power of pressure."

Local and international pressure apparently combined with political factors, notably the approaching October elections, to produce belated action. This week, the federal police formed an 80-officer anti-terrorist brigade to pursue the AMIA case. Simultaneously, the Argentine Supreme Court reassigned the five-year-old embassy case to a special investigator amid criticism that justices botched the investigation and displayed anti-Israeli attitudes.

And Jewish leaders said they will provide investigators with a report about a suspected official cover-up in the AMIA attack.

"This is not a witch hunt," said Javier Astigarraga, a lawyer for the victims. "The objective is to generate new investigative leads. We don't believe in constant coincidences. We are trying to determine whether the irregular acts have to do with negligence by security forces or intentional action. . . . Perhaps this way we can get to the suspects."

The cases are a cloud over a government that, paradoxically, has made historic advances in relations with Israel and appointed Jewish ministers to top Cabinet posts.

The basic thesis remains the same in both crimes, said prosecutor Jose Barbaccia: Iranian-backed Hezbollah terrorists are the alleged masterminds.

But in the AMIA case, the politically explosive role of possible Argentine accomplices has gained prominence since the arrest last year of four Buenos Aires provincial police officers. That force has a history of violent anti-Semitism and is embroiled in a crisis of mafia-style corruption.

Cmdr. Juan Jose Ribelli and three others are charged with murder because they allegedly provided the van used as a rolling bomb by unknown attackers days later. The jailed officers refuse to talk. Systematic obstruction during the past year--stolen wiretap evidence, witnesses coached to give false leads, an attempted extortion of the investigating judge--suggests that forces within the police are hiding something big, Barbaccia said.

Allegations of a cover-up could lead above the police force to political figures, according to analysts. The apparent cover-up and the course of the investigation give weight to another disturbing scenario, Astigarraga said: that renegade police or Argentines connected to international terrorists participated in the attack itself.

"It seems there was a high component of local participation in all the aspects of the crime, and a lesser component of foreign participation," Astigarraga said.

Unless investigators can overcome the enemies within and the passage of time, Latin America's largest Jewish community will keep erecting barriers against the menace of what is known here as "the third attack."

"The fear is there and it will not go away," Widder said.

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