by Mike LaSusa
An Argentine federal court on Thursday convicted several individuals of meddling with the official investigation into the South American country’s deadliest incident of terrorism, the 1994 bombing in Buenos Aires of the AMIA Jewish community center that killed more than 80 people.
The convictions further taint the credibility of the Argentine investigation, carried out with extensive U.S. and Israeli assistance, which from the very beginning painted Hezbollah and Iran as the attack’s most likely perpetrators. Although the Argentine court’s ruling confirms some of the AMIA investigation’s long-suspected flaws, it provides little closure in the case of the bombing itself, which remains officially unsolved.
The convictions also thrust the AMIA case back into the spotlight as the United States ramps up its saber-rattling at Venezuela, whose leftist governments have been accused for years—often without solid evidence—of abetting rogue actors like Iran and Hezbollah.
The AMIA case suggests that claims about the activities of Iran and Hezbollah in Latin America deserve close scrutiny. Nevertheless, the United States continues to use the Islamic Republic and the Lebanese militant group as bogeymen in its efforts to push a dangerous national security agenda in the region.
The Judge, the Spy, and the Chop Shop Owner
The AMIA trial’s most significant conviction on Thursday was that of Juan José Galeano, a federal judge who was originally in charge of overseeing the AMIA case.
Galeano was caught on tape giving a $400,000 bribe to Carlos Telleldín, the owner of an automobile chop shop that had supposedly provided the vehicle used in the AMIA bombing. In exchange for the six-figure sum, Telleldín provided false testimony implicating a group of Buenos Aires police officers who were later cleared of wrongdoing.
Given a chance to speak before the judges deliberated his sentence, Galeano denied any wrongdoing. He told the court that the AMIA investigation was the “victim of internal discord in the intelligence and security services.” He said that he tried to stay above the fray.
“I come to ask you to put yourselves in my place,” Galeano said. “Consider what you would have done in my place.” The three-judge panel evidently would have acted differently, because they sentenced Galeano to six years in prison.
The court gave Telleldín a two-year term. Telleldín’s wife, Ana Boragni, got a two-year suspended sentence for accepting the bribe money on her husband’s behalf.
The judges also sentenced Hugo Anzorreguy, Argentina’s former intelligence secretary, to four-and-a-half years for providing the money for the bribe payment. Anzorreguy turned down the court’s invitation to speak before his sentence was deliberated.
Additionally, the court gave two-year, suspended sentences to Eamon Mullen, a prosecutor assigned to the AMIA case until he was eventually booted off when it was revealed he knew about the bribe to Telleldin, and José Carlos Barbaccia, another prosecutor who worked on the case. Mullen and Barbaccia had both worked alongside federal prosecutor Alberto Nisman, the most prominent proponent of the Iran theory of the AMIA attack. Nisman was murdered in his Buenos Aires apartment under mysterious circumstances in January 2015.
All the President’s Men
Thursday’s verdict also saw the acquittal of the AMIA cover-up trial’s highest-profile defendant, former President Carlos Menem, who had been accused of obstruction of justice for his alleged role in stymieing efforts to investigate the so-called “Syria angle” of the AMIA attack.
Prosecutors had claimed Menem, whose parents emigrated from Syria to Argentina, took steps to protect Alberto Jacinto Kanoore Edul, a Syrian-born businessman linked to the bombing who had ties to Menem as well as a notorious international arms trafficker named Monzer al Kassar.
Alberto Zuppi, an Argentine lawyer who represented victims of the AMIA bombing, told me last year that Argentine officials had little incentive to pursue the Syria angle, not only because of President Menem’s personal connections to the country, but also because fragile peace talks between Syria and Israel were ongoing at that time.
Menem declined an opportunity to address the court ahead of his sentencing. But as a judge read his acquittal on Thursday, the 88-year-old former president smiled and huddled with his lawyers, who appeared to congratulate him. “Justice was done, and a nightmare and an absurd process is over,” Menem attorney Omar Daer told reporters after the verdict.
Somewhat ironically, however, while Menem was acquitted, the court convicted and gave three-year prison terms to former deputy intelligence secretary Juan Carlos Anchezar and former federal police official Carlos Castañeda, both of whom had been accused of helping keep the heat off Kanoore Edul.
An acquittal was also handed down to Patricio Finnen, the former counterterrorism director of Argentina’s intelligence agency who had led a task force investigating the AMIA bombing that he claimed was shut down under political pressure.
José Alberto Palacios, the former head of a federal police antiterrorism unit, was also acquitted, as was Rubén Beraja, the former head of AMIA’s parent organization, the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations (DAIA), who has been criticized for unquestioningly supporting the government’s flawed investigation of the bombing.
The court on Thursday only unveiled the defendants’ sentences. The judges said the full reasoning behind their decisions will be made public May 3. Those convicted can appeal the ruling.
Bombing Legacy Looms Large
The trial that ended Thursday is one of several judicial processes related to the AMIA case, including an ongoing probe of Nisman’s yet-unsolved murder.
There are also continuing battles over a memorandum of understanding with Iran signed by former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner that critics allege was meant to ensure impunity for Iranian leaders involved in orchestrating the 1994 bombing.
The reasons for skepticism about the Iran theory of the AMIA attack are numerous: lying witnesses, manipulated evidence, and obvious political agendas have all tainted the case.
As Argentine journalist Raul Kollman opined after Thursday’s verdict, the convictions of some of the key players in the investigation are a reminder of how badly the case was botched from the start. “We’re coming up on the 25 year anniversary with the perpetrators in impunity, without a single person in prison,” Kollman wrote. “Once again, what was proven is that the manipulation served to hide the truth.”
But despite the growing cracks in the foundation of the Iran theory, the much-overhyped threat of Iranian and Hezbollah activities in Latin America continues to serve as a useful cudgel for the United States to try to enforce its national security priorities in the region.
In the run-up to the verdict in the AMIA cover-up trial, the United States has dramatically ratcheted up pressure on the government of Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro. Washington has helped solidify international support for an alternative, self-declared president, Juan Guaidó, and has tightened a crushing sanctions regime.
U.S. officials have also issued oblique threats of a possible U.S.-led military invasion of Venezuela, justifying it in part by alluding to the Maduro government’s alleged support for Hezbollah and Iran.
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared on Fox News and claimed that Hezbollah maintains “active cells” in Venezuela. “The Iranians are impacting the people of Venezuela and throughout South America,” Pompeo said. “We have an obligation to take down that risk for America.”
Days later, Israel’s ambassador to Argentina Ilan Szulman warned that Hezbollah might mount another attack similar to the AMIA plot. “They have the infrastructure and the capacity to do it,” Szulman said. “Especially with logistical support from Venezuela.”
Although Hezbollah’s activities in Latin America are undoubtedly a valid security concern, they are often seriously overblown to advance hawkish political agendas. Given the Iraq-style disaster that would likely follow a military intervention in Venezuela, the lessons of the AMIA case must be kept in mind when evaluating claims about Islamist terrorism in the Western hemisphere.
Mike LaSusa is an independent journalist and researcher. He focuses on foreign policy, national security, and human rights issues in the Americas. Twitter: @mikelasusa