JTA / February 28, 2005
By Larry Luxner
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — From their seventh-foor perch in downtown Buenos Aires, prosecutors Alberto Nisman and Marcelo Martínez Burgos have a sweeping view of this city's most important public square, the bustling Plaza de Mayo.
But the two men have had no time to enjoy the panorama. As chief prosecutors investigating the 1994 bombing of the AMIA headquarters only a few miles away, Nisman and his chief deputy, Burgos, have for the last six months been up to their necks in documents associated with the worst terrorist attack in Argentine history.
On Mar. 3, this office — known in Spanish as "Unidad Fiscal de Investigación AMIA" — will take center-stage, when President Nestor Kirchner personally hands the two men top-secret files from Argentina's intelligence agency, SIDE. The files supposedly contain evidence that has never been seen before by prosecutors attempting to solve the AMIA attack, in which 85 people died and more than 200 were injured.
"This is the first time in the history of Argentina that secret information is being declassified and given to people not associated with the intelligence services," Burgos told JTA in an exclusive interview.
The ceremony in which Kirchner will release the files to Nisman and Burgos comes one day before top Argentine officials meeting at the Washington headquarters of the Organization of American States plan to assume legal responsibility for mishandling the investigation. In so doing, they hope to re-establish Argentina's credibility with the OAS and defuse a 1999 lawsuit brought before its Inter-American Commission on Human Rights by the nonprofit group Memoria Activa. Burgos says it's time to stop deceiving victims and their families about what really happened.
"Unlike previous investigators, we're going to work absolutely according to the letter of the law, no matter where it takes us," he vowed. "We're going to give all our efforts to this work."
Until now, this nerve center of the AMIA investigation had been off-limits to journalists. But last week, JTA became the first news organization to get past the front door, which is guarded by 24-hour security personnel and a bank of closed-circuit TV monitors.
The 900-square-meter office, which takes up the entire seventh floor of an old building used mainly by the government, was established after the conclusion of a three-year trial last year in which five policemen accused of complicity in the terrorist attack were released for lack of evidence.
When we visited, workmen were installing telephone cables, laying carpets and welding iron bars on doors, while others were hauling boxes of files into a warehouse-type room fitted with metal shelving. In all, the case takes up 658 "cuerpos" or volumes containing 200 pages each. There are also another 600 "cuerpos" detailing each line of investigation — and at the moment, there are about 30 lines of investigation, according to Burgos.
"We are now ordering every one of these volumes," he said. "It'll take us four to five months to read and cross-reference this case."
Burgos, 37, is a criminal prosecutor with 10 years of experience under his belt. He expected that he'd start on the case immediately upon his appointment to the post — but it seems petty bureaucracy has gotten in the way.
"For the last four or five months, we've been trying to find resource to train people and set up the office so we could do our job. We have lost all this time just dealing with bureaucracy," he said. "You have to put out three formal bids in order to buy a computer. We have to struggle just to get an Internet connection."
All this is not exactly coincidental, he said. Nobody wanted to rent his investigation unit office space, and when his team finally found a landlord willing to lease space, the neighbors complained.
"I'm telling you only 2% of the problems we've had to confront," said Burgos, adding bitterly that "we are investigators, not politicians."
Nisman, who is Jewish, and Burgos, who isn't, oversee a staff of around 45 people and an annual budget of 900,000 Argentine pesos (just over $300,000). What Burgos says he really needs is two million pesos a year, and that "we're struggling to increase it."
In the meantime, the two men are clearly overworked. They arrive at 8 a.m. and generally don't leave before 9:30 p.m. Burgos declined to say if he or his boss have received any death threats.
"We're going to take every action necessary to determine who made the bomb and where it was made, which groups entered the country from outside, how they entered, and who participated in this act locally," he said. "The Ministry of Justice is indebted to Argentine society for not having advanced this investigation for six years while it was being coordinated by Judge Galiano. How can it be that, 10 years after the attack, we still can't determine the ID number of the chassis of the vehicle used in the bombing?"
An elaborate blackboard just outside his office contains a diagram of those lines of investigation, among which are the "Triple Frontier" area where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, the so-called "pista Siria" or "Syrian connection," the local Muslim community and "Testigo C" or Witness C, which involves a foreign intelligence service that Burgos declined to identify.
According to Alejandro Rúa, the top Ministry of Justice official responsible for the AMIA investigation, the prime suspects are now either in Lebanon or Iran.
"What we know is that the attack was done with a Trafic [vehicle] and that we have some sketches of who could have been related with this vehicle," Rúa told the Buenos Aires daily Pagina 12 on Feb. 25. "Iranians, Colombians, foreigners who lived in Argentina for several years were part of this plan. It appears that Samuel el-Reda, a Colombian convert to Islam — the husband of a secretary of the then-Iranian cultural attache, Moshen Rabbani, and a man from the Triple Frontier with a mobile telephone under the name of André Márquez coordinated the operation."
Rúa deflected criticism of his agency, saying that important, specific evidence exists that implicate both Rabbani and el-Reda in the AMIA attack.
"It's not like we're beginning now," he told the newspaper. "What happened is that we have been working for these last 10 years with a false and incriminating hypothesis. The judges decided that this was done intentionally, a political game aimed at covering up the financial links between Carlos Menem and Iran, before and during the electoral campaign in which he won."
In a subsequent interview with JTA, Rúa said his office is "fully cooperating" with Nisman and Burgos. Rúa, who will be testifying before the OAS next week in Washington, said the Kirchner government's new efforts to solve the AMIA bombing stand in stark contrast to those of Menem, who at some point may be called to testify in what nearly everyone now agrees was a coverup of almost Watergate proportions.
"We admit that the Argentine government at the time violated the human rights of the defendants," said Rúa. "We must recognize the reality of these facts. We can't tell lies."