Argentina's 2 unsolved bombings Mysteries: Argentine authorities have yet to solve the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center and a similar attack in 1992 on the Israeli Embassy. In the meantime, conspiracy theories flourish.

Sun Journal

June 22, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- The smoke has not cleared.

On July 18, 1994, a car bomb devastated a Jewish community center here, killing 87 people and wounding more than 200. That bombing and a similar 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy remain unsolved. And for the victims' relatives, and for investigators, the aftermath remains full of mysteries and conspiracy theories.

Last month, an appellate court released on bail a dozen alleged arms traffickers suspected of peripheral involvement in the attack. Investigators continue hunting through a maze of ephemeral leads and ambiguous coincidences.

"We too are frustrated by the impunity," says Eamon Mullen, a federal prosecutor. "This investigation has been sincere. It has gone wherever it had to go. We have not had the results we wanted. But it is difficult. If we had a conspiracy law for terrorism, we would have 10 suspects in jail for conspiracy right now."

Although the youthful prosecutors and investigative magistrate are well regarded, they have been hampered by the chaotic, occasionally suspicious conduct of the police. The investigation has uncovered corruption that may be related to the terrorist attack, according to prosecutors, who are focusing on the possibility that police officers helped provide the stolen van used by the suicide bomber.

"We have encountered police corruption," says Mullen. "And it is a hypothesis that corrupt police could have been involved, perhaps without knowing the van was to be used in a bombing."

As far as the investigators and U.S. and Israeli anti-terrorism experts are concerned, there is little mystery as to the masterminds. Iranian spies directed the sophisticated crimes, officials say. The Hezbollah terrorist organization is said to have carried them out. And prosecutors suspect that a "local connection" -- petty gangsters allegedly connected to the security services and right-wing politics -- furnished vehicles, intelligence and possibly explosives.

But there is little proof.

"We spare no effort, in cooperation with foreign agencies, to discover any clue," says Fernando Petrella, the deputy foreign minister.

Anti-terrorism efforts top Argentina's international agenda, Petrella says. He cited joint training with U.S. law enforcement and a tripartite accord signed last month for tougher vigilance in the lawless area around the border with Brazil and Paraguay. That region is a haven for known Hezbollah operatives, according to Israeli diplomats and others.

In the most recent frustrating chapter, authorities went after a gang of alleged Argentine arms traffickers. After raiding a military base, investigating magistrate Juan Jose Galeano charged a dozen former and current soldiers who allegedly peddled explosives, bazookas, even helicopters.

The suspects included members of the group that has launched failed military uprisings here. Some also belonged to a marginal rightist political party, Modin.

Investigators aborted a planned search of the home of a Modin congressman, Emilio Pedro Morello, citing his parliamentary immunity. But Morello remains a suspect, according to sources close to the case.

The links to the community center bombing were tenuous but intriguing, according to internal court documents. Telephone wiretaps and undercover witnesses indicated that several suspects said they had information about the attack and were afraid of being implicated, according to the documents.

Jorge Pacifico, a former army explosives expert heard on the wiretaps, attracted attention for an additional reason. He was in a nearby cafe when the explosion tore through the association's headquarters.

Pacifico admitted joining the crowd as rescue workers and civilians clawed at the rubble of the building, which collapsed upon itself. He said he had gone to the cafe to discuss the sale of a car with a lawyer affiliated with Modin.

No solid evidence emerged to connect the alleged arms traffickers to the bomb. An appellate court ordered their release on bail and reduced the weapons charges, enraging the survivors.

The most concrete remnant of the case is Carlos Alberto Telleldin, a police informant and convicted pimp.

Telleldin's father was a police commander affiliated with extremists who burned an office of the Jewish association in the city of Mar del Plata in the 1970s, authorities say.

Forensic tracing of vehicle parts recovered from the rubble showed that Telleldin supplied the Renault van used as a rolling bomb in the 1994 attack. Before and after the attack, he traveled to a border region, fomenting theories that he was in league with terrorists based in the enclave of recent Middle Eastern immigrants in southern Paraguay.

Telleldin, who is jailed on auto theft charges, originally testified that he sold the van on July 10 after the registration was altered and the body modified to carry a heavy load. But authorities are investigating his subsequent statements that he actually turned it over to two provincial police officers, who have been fired for corruption.

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