Diplomatic Pouch / July 18, 2008
By Larry Luxner
Fourteen years after Latin America's deadliest terrorist attack, the individual perpetrators still haven't been located — though few doubt which country was behind it.
At an event last night at the Argentine Embassy, speakers mourned the 14th anniversary of the truck-bombing that destroyed the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994, killing 86 people and injuring 300.
They also renewed calls for tighter U.S. surveillance of Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed fundamentalist groups said to be brazenly operating throughout Latin America, particularly Venezuela and the tri-border area where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.
"The Argentine government reaffirms its commitment to bring to justice those responsible for this painful and cruel aggression against Argentina," said the embassy's deputy chief of mission, José L. Pérez Gabilondo. "This terrible act had a profound impact on Argentine society, which is respectful of all religions and values."
Gabilondo spoke on behalf of Ambassador Héctor Timerman, who was en route from Buenos Aires to Washington and could not attend. Around 50 people showed up for the event, which was organized by Access DC, the young professionals division of the American Jewish Committee.
Dina Siegel Vann, director of the AJC's Latino & Latin American Institute, said that after an initial coverup of the AMIA investigation during President Carlos Menem's administration, subsequent Argentine governments have been far more cooperative. She praised former President Néstor Kirchner and his wife, current President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, both of whom "have expressed eloquently their administrations' unwavering commitment" to solving the case, she said.
"Fourteen long years have made the Jewish community a tad skeptical about the possibilities for closure. We at the AJC remain guardedly hopeful," Siegel told her audience. "We commend the Argentine government for having come through with its promises, but there is yet much to be done, making sure those responsible for the coverup are brought to justice."
Last November, the general assembly of Interpol — meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco — voted to issue arrest warrants against five Iranians and one Lebanese in connection with the AMIA attack. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has denied his country was involved in any way, accusing Argentina and Israel of hatching a "Zionist plot" against Tehran. But officials in Buenos Aires say they have hard evidence linking Iranian-backed Hezbollah operatives to the bombing.
"The aggression of President Ahmadinejad in denying Israel's right to exist is unacceptable to Argentina. The denial of Israel is the denial of the Jews themselves," said Gabilondo, reading a message from Timerman, who is Jewish and who accompanied Argentina's new president on her recent trip to Israel.
Charles S. Shapiro, senior coordinator for the State Department's Western Hemisphere FTA Task Force, warned of Iran's attempts to gain influence throughout the region, especially in two areas: Venezuela's northern Caribbean coast, and the tri-border area. The latter, he said, is home to thousands of Muslims — many of them Hezbollah sympathizers engaged in criminal contraband activity in the Paraguayan border city of Ciudad del Este
"Hezbollah, backed by Iran, is active in Latin America, and Venezuela has in some ways served as the host to Iran's new engagement," said Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela,. He noted that at least on paper, Iran is said to have invested $20 billion in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador.
"The hard drives with the Colombian government seized from [the guerrilla group] FARC point to Iran's growing presence in Latin America. Two weeks ago, our Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control froze accounts of Hezbollah fund-raisers in Venezuela," Shapiro told his audience. "This is very troubling for all of us, and the experience of Argentina should be instructive. These go way beyond normal diplomatic and commercial interchange."
On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed a resolution sponsored by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Howard Berman (D-CA) condemning the AMIA attack and praising the Argentine government for its progress in the ongoing investigation.
"The regime in Iran and its Hezbollah proxies must be held accountable for planning and facilitating this attack — one of the earliest examples of Islamist terrorist activity in our hemisphere," said Ros-Lehtinen, ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "The mullahs and their Islamist pawns are responsible for attacks that have taken the lives of countless Americans and other civilians around the world. On the anniversary of the AMIA bombing, which was carried out on Iranian orders, the reality of the Iranian threat becomes truly terrifying."
Exactly a week earlier, the Cuban-born lawmaker issued an appeal urging the State Department to add Venezuela to list of state sponsors of terrorism. Five nations — Iran, Sudan, Syria, Cuba and North Korea — are already on that list.
"Reports that the regime of Hugo Chávez has been providing money and refuge to Hezbollah militants are extremely troubling and demonsrate the growing presence of Islamist extremist elements in the Western Hemisphere," she said. "Chávez continues to strengthen ties and work intimately with these groups and their state sponsors, including Iran's radical regime."