Waiting for justice in Argentina: Culture of Impunity
By David Sax
Every Monday morning, a group gathers outside Argentina's federal courts in Buenos Aires. Their numbers shrink each year, their hair has grayed, their children have likely moved abroad. Yet the group, Memoria Activa, says it will not stop until those responsible for the July 18, 1994 terrorist attack on the Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina, a Jewish community center, are punished. Nine years since a car bomb took 85 lives and shattered hundreds more, justice remains a distant hope.
Justice delayed and denied is a recurrent theme in Argentina's history. After World War II, the country admitted Nazi war criminals, offering safe haven in exchange for money. Of these, only Adolf Eichmann was brought to justice after being kidnapped by the Mossad and brought to Israel. When Argentina was plunged under military rule, twisted justice was dealt by disappearance, torture and summary execution. Even after that traumatic period in the nation's history, impunity remained the legal norm. While imprisoning the junta's few leaders in 1983, President Raul Alfonsin pardoned lower ranking officers and soldiers; the torturers and murderers whose hands broke flesh. His successor, Carlos Menem, then pardoned the old dictators and led the nation into an era of crime and corruption unparalleled in Argentine history. It has been left for Spain to seek the extradition of the worst of the offenders under the dictatorship.
Like a black cloud, the bombing of the Jewish center shadow hangs over this legacy. The investigation has been ruled by incompetence, languishing in the courts for nine years. Reporters at the scene of the bombing tell stories of police pillaging cookies from a destroyed bakery truck, tossing possible evidence aside in the process. Lawyers recall how authorities cleared apartments in the area of residents, then stole from them.
Those few standing trial for the bombing are members of the provincial police force of Buenos Aires, a key arm of the justice system who appear to have been involved in the planning of the attack in conjunction with the radical Hezbollah movement based in Lebanon and Iranian operatives. For years, they managed to conceal evidence, obscure facts and lie to investigating judges. Evidence shows that SIDE, the state intelligence agency, and the Menem government aided in the cover-up, worried more about the incriminating skeletons any investigation would uncover than about truth and justice.
"In Argentina, after a big crime there is always a big cover-up," says Pablo Miguel Jacoby, the lawyer for Memoria Activa. "The bigger the crime the bigger the cover-up."
This is not the problem of one specific trial. Nor is it a "Jewish problem." The case is simply a gross example of Argentina's failure as a functioning state. The financial collapse in 2002 came as a direct result of this, when corporate corruption went unchecked by an equally corrupt judicial system. For a country worried about increasing crime and violence on its streets, law and order must start at the top. When frustrated Argentines see the nation's biggest crimes unpunished and its worst criminals walk free, their incentive to live by the law vanishes. Few Argentines pay income taxes or municipal fines. Impunity has become a cultural norm. This has to end.
If Argentina wishes to stop hobbling from crisis to crisis, the nation's leaders must finally and fully reform the justice system. Nestor Kirchner, the newly elected president, has taken some encouraging steps in that direction. He has sacked top leaders in the police and military, and called on the legislature to impeach several corrupt Supreme Court judges appointed by Menem. Most importantly, he has ordered SIDE's secret files on the bombing opened, and is forcing its agents to testify.
These are good indications, and those involved with the case have shown cautious optimism. But he must not stop there. Real change must be made in the broken justice system. This is the key to Argentina's recovery, as an economy and nation. Kirchner can bring the community center's legacy to its rightful conclusion, resurrecting Argentina's confidence.
[Source: David Sax, The International Herald Tribune, Paris, July 18, 2003. The writer is a Canadian freelance correspondent in Buenos Aires.]
This document has been published on 03ago03 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights, in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.