NEW YORK -- On March 17, 1992 a powerful blast rattled downtown Buenos Aires. In a matter of seconds, the elegant building that housed the Israeli embassy became a pile of rubble. The bombing left 23 people dead, hundreds injured and a city in shock.
Argentineans were stunned by the attack and the government promised a swift investigation. Yet, more than seven years after the attack, the investigation remains under way. No charges have been filed against any suspects.
At the time of the attack, many believed that its origins seemed clear. In February, 1992, the Israeli Defense Forces killed Abbas El Mousawi, secretary general of the pro-Iranian Lebanese guerrilla Hezbullah (Party of God), along with his wife and son. At Mousawi's funeral, Sheik Fadlallah, Hezbullah's spiritual leader, vowed for revenge.
Few doubted that the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires was retaliation for the killings.
The question today is how is it possible that the probe has taken so long? Some suspect it may be more than mere bureaucratic incompetence.
Initially, the case was assigned to an investigative commission headed by Ricardo Levene, president of Argentina's Supreme Court. In the three years that followed, the inquiry yielded no findings.
"From the very beginning we pointed out to the authorities that the Supreme Court was not the appropriate institution to handle this investigation," says Rogelio Cichovolski, president of the Delegation of Jewish Associations in Argentina (DAIA.)
"We needed the approval of all nine judges of the court, have their signatures on the petition and obtain unanimous approval for every search warrant or a arrest order," says Cichovolski. "It was completely counterproductive."
The investigation not only made no progress; it began to move backwards. At one point, the commission developed a theory indicating that the people inside the embassy could have been involved in the explosion, a theory complete at odds with the findings of Argentinean and Israeli bomb experts who had analyzed the site.
"That theory was so perverse and off-centered that it is difficult to even take it seriously," says Ioav Baron, the second highest-ranking official in the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires. "It was a way to find the easy way out by pointing the finger at us."
As the investigation dragged on, however, many began to suspect a more sinister reason for the lack of progress, referred to as the "local connection".
"The relative simplicity with which the Hezbullah was able to operate in conjunction with local collaborators was, undoubtedly, part of the reason why they chose Argentina as the site for the bombings," says Baron.
The fact that the investigation has failed to turn up any such "local connection" has raised questions about possible police complicity.
"Some members of the police forces were involved in acts of wrongdoing intended to mislead the course of the investigation," says Cichovolsky. "We denounced those acts and published a report on the matter but so far nothing has been clarified."
In July 18, 1994, a powerful car bomb blew up the Jewish Community Center known by its acronym, AMIA. This second explosion left 86 people dead and countless wounded. Investigators found evidence linking the attack to the 1992 bombing.
Investigators have made more progress in bringing those responsible for this second attack to justice. Though far from solved, the judge in charge of the inquiry has placed five suspects under arrest, all of them former police officers.
As for the 1992 probe, the investigation has remained largely stymied. In 1995, Judge Levene resigned and the case became the responsibility of the entire nine-member court. "We went from bad to worse," says Cichovolski. "It was so complicated to get any results from such a large group of diametrically opposed individuals that the investigation came to a complete standstill."
Finally, in 1997, the case was transferred to Dr. Esteban Canevari, secretary of the Supreme Court. And last May, the Supreme Court issued a formal statement holding Hezbullah responsible for the embassy bombing. Still, the report did little to shed any light on a possible "local connection."
This may be about to change, however. Recently, Israeli ambassador Yitzhak Aviran turned over to local investigators a recording of police communications, apparently showing that the two police officers who were guarding the entrance of the Israeli embassy the day of the explosion were instructed to leave their posts to respond to a disturbances across town. Three minutes later, the bomb at the embassy exploded. The alleged cross-town disturbance never took place.
Discovering who ordered the policemen away from the Israeli embassy may help finally resolve both attacks. Until then, the Jewish community in Argentina will continue to live in fear.
"As long as the bombings stay unsolved," Cichovolski says, "a third attack will always remain a possibility."
Tamar Hahn is a freelance writer who covers Latin America
for an international financial newsletter.