Argentine bombing probe uncovers police corruption Officers' role examined after discovery one got $2.5 million before blast

November 26, 1997|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- More than three years after they set out to find the terrorists who reduced this city's Jewish community center to rubble, investigators instead have bagged an unintended quarry: corrupt officers of the deeply troubled Buenos Aires provincial police force.

In trying to unravel the 1994 bombing, which killed 87 people, investigators last week discovered that a high-ranking former officer who ran the provincial police force's car-theft unit and a chain of used-car lots received an unexplained $2.5 million the week before the blast.

That officer's boss admitted his top lieutenant was a "criminal" and probably had helped the bombers in exchange for cash, and perhaps out of anti-Semitic leanings. Pedro Klodczyk, the retired chief who amassed a fortune from a bolt-making factory thought to be a money-laundering front, said he had no control over corruption running rampant in his department.

The role police wrongdoing played in a bombing that has long been attributed to Middle East extremists remains unproven. What is clear is that a long-stalled terror investigation is at last bearing unexpected fruit.

"What was found was the first material proof of the level of corruption in the Buenos Aires police," said Sergio Kiernan, editor of Tiempos del Mundo, a Buenos Aires daily.

Now, however, "the two issues -- local corruption and foreign terrorism -- have gotten intertwined," he said. "We don't know where one ends and the other starts."

At the heart of the investigation is a document showing that Juan Jose Ribelli, a former provincial police inspector charged in the bombing last year, received $2.5 million just a week before the July 18, 1994, explosion.

Ribelli insists the money was a gift from his father, a 90-year-old retired railway worker.

But he has not been able to adequately explain how his father, who lives on a pension, came into such a fortune.

Members of a congressional commission looking into the bombing say they have proof Ribelli was in the Paraguayan city )) of Ciudad del Este, a major smuggling center and South American focus for Middle East terrorists, one day before he signed papers accepting the $2.5 million in cash from his father.

"We don't know this money is directly related to the bombing," said Juan Pablo Cafiero, a member of the congressional commission. "But there are a lot of coincidences."

How the pieces all fit together investigators aren't sure, though they say evidence of substantial local involvement in the bombing is mounting and that Ribelli, with four other former police officers now in jail, has clear ties to a used van that ended up packed with explosives in front of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Association center.

"Ribelli's part in this attack is much more important than we thought at the beginning," said Alberto Zuppi, a lawyer for families of the bombing victims.

But "logically, this bombing is bigger than Ribelli," Cafiero said.

Investigators have made little progress tracking down the crime's presumed foreign connection. Various informers over the past three years have tied the crime to Iranian terrorists, and six Iranian diplomats in Buenos Aires were shuffled back to Iran just before and after the bombing, Zuppi said.

This week the judge in the case is re-interviewing Manouchehr Motamer, an Iranian informer who implicated the Iranian diplomats in the bombing and who now lives in a witness protection program in California.

"The participation of Iran in the bombing is very clear," Zuppi said, citing more than 140,000 pages of testimony gathered in the case.

Diplomatic immunity, however, may prevent suspects from being extradited and questioned.

Iran has firmly denied any involvement in the bombing, and Guido Di Tella, Argentina's foreign minister, said his country would take action against Iran only if it found "very solid and unquestionable proof."

Pub Date: 11/26/97

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