Cry for Argentina

To Kill Without a Trace

Gustavo Perednik,

Mantua Books, 2014, 350 pp.

On the chilly morning of July 18, 1994, at a busy intersection in Buenos Aires, a white Renault van sped in front of Mrs. Nicolasa Romero, who was walking her son, Nahu, to nursery school. "A real lout," thought Nicolasa, "no respect for pedestrians." He would have run us over, she fumed, had I not yanked Nahu back onto the pavement. "Idiot!" she yelled. The driver, she later recalled, "was dark-skinned, with large eyes; he wore a beige shirt and his dark hair was cut army-style." He looked impassively into Nicolasa's eyes as she held tightly to Nahu's hand.

Minutes later, a tremendous explosion, a deafening roar, shattered the morning. The screams and the storms of stones, rubble, and broken glass meant that it came from somewhere nearby, and Nicolasa and her son, together with many others, crouched on the ground in fear. People were yelling, "A bomb! A bomb!" When, dazed and covered in dust and shards of glass, Nicolasa managed to pull herself and Nahu up, she immediately saw that they were the lucky ones. Others lay on the bloodied ground mutilated, some dead.

Indeed, the explosion left 85 dead and hundreds seriously injured. This, the deadliest explosion in Argentina's history, completely destroyed the 3-level building known as the AMIA [Asociacion Mutual Israelita Argentina], the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, a community center that provided assistance to the needy and the elderly, as well as school programs, soup kitchens, a library, and cultural activities.

In To Kill Without a Trace, Gustavo Perednik, an Argentinian Israeli, tells the story of that horrific explosion, soon exposed as a suicide bombing. A thinly veiled autobiography, the novel employs the device of a narrator and his student, as well as other narrative devices that serve mainly to confuse the reader. (The book, translated from the Spanish, badly needs an index.) Nevertheless, Perednik clearly demonstrates the bungling, corrupt efforts and counter-efforts of the Argentine authorities to find and punish the culprits. It is tragedy-cum-farce, a Keystone Kops circus full of unpronounceable names, acronyms, back-slapping, and tales of breathtaking turpitude.

But then, suddenly, a Good Man, possibly the last honest man in Argentina, enters the picture. He is Alberto Nisman, a young prosecutor, a Jew, who joined the team in the first, farcical, trial and became chief prosecutor in 2006, when he formally accused the government of Iran of planning the bombing and Hezb’allah of carrying it out. Obsessively hunting down hints and threads and slimy people in dark places around the world, working fifteen-hour days, Nisman had painstakingly built a dossier of over 500 pages.

Then, on January 18, 2015, just one day before he was to present his conclusive findings to the Chamber of Deputies, Nisman was found dead in his bathroom, a bullet to the back of his head.

It is this shocking event that makes Perednik's book suddenly timely. Nisman had carried the case far beyond the point where, as Perednik writes,

…there was more than enough technical information to produce results, if local obstacles hadn't gotten in the way. During the investigation, one thousand five hundred witnesses gave evidence and two hundred premises were searched; there were four hundred wiretaps and almost three hundred thousand hours of calls were monitored.  The court had modern resources at its disposal, like the Excalibur search system, which allows electronic cross-referencing and the tracing of information through all programs and databases, the Internet, fax, e-mail and images….But none of this was enough for a single person to have been accused of the attack itself. After one thousand eight hundred and twenty-five days of investigation, nothing had been discovered that was not known a week after the massacre.

The AMIA bombing was not the first anti-Semitic event in Argentina. Two years earlier, on March 17, 1992, the Israeli Embassy had been attacked, leaving more than twenty dead and hundreds injured. There, too, “it took the court seven and a half years to make a vague finding about something that everybody already knew.” There, too, there was a van and a bomb, but that finding "merely led to a thick fog of conspiracy theories," all of which "clearly showed how corruption was eating away at the ruling classes in Argentina." It seemed that everyone from President Carlos Menem down had his hand out for a bribe.

Some of the "conspiracy theories" included the rusty canards that "the Jews had been attacked, so they must have done something. Or perhaps they had orchestrated the attack so people would feel sorry for them, or as part of some hidden plan…. And don't forget that [a police chief ] claimed that the embassy building had collapsed on itself, from which he deduced…that there had been a secret ammunition store in one of the basements." Others chattered about an Israeli terrorist group and /or disgruntled Israelis who wanted a change of government.

The first trial, a virtual comedy of errors, took place in July 1996, under a judge who knew very well that Iranians had planned the bombing, and who was himself later arrested for corruption.  The trial, however, "proved" that the guilty were 15 policemen, "thirteen active and two retired, including two of Arab origin who might be suspected of bearing a grudge against the Jewish community." who had taken a bribe from Carlos Telleldín, aka "the dwarf." Telleldín moved in "an underworld of pimps and dealers, of torturers and Mafiosi, of the corrupt and the violent." It was Telleldín who provided the Renault van to the suicide bomber, but this lead was ignored, while Telleldín remained fiddling in jail for three years.

The painful truth was that he wasn't in prison for what he had done, but for what somebody else had done, with his [van]…. What did it have to do with him?

But the policemen were also sent to prison. Meanwhile the real culprits, who remain at large, included Sheikh Mohsen Rabbani, a big shot in the Muslim community and an Iranian "cultural attaché, who decided that "the AMIA is the best building to blow up. It's at the heart of the Jewish community and it's a nest of Zionists." His co-conspirator, Ali Fallahijan, agreed, "because Argentina is an easy target.  Look what happened when we blew up the Israeli embassy.  Nothing." "Of course," agreed Ahmad Asghari, "we must kill without a trace." Five other Iranians were involved in the plan.

It fell to a troubled young Lebanese follower of Hezb’allah, Ibrahim Berro, who dreamed of  beautiful virgins "who show their breasts to martyrs," to drive the white Renault van, loaded with explosives, into the AMIA and into eternity.

Five years later, another AMIA trial began on September 24, 2001, "in a courtroom guarded by hundreds of police, under the watchful eyes of observers from Israel and the Interamerican Commission on Human rights, and of three hundred journalists…."Again, no convictions, and the policemen were soon released. Nisman was disgusted.

But all the while, despite repeated impediments, Nisman -- through the terms of four presidents -- was slowly building up his case against Iran with such scrupulosity that he found himself called to Interpol for questioning. At Interpol, he declared that he was pursuing "arrest warrants issued by an Argentine court in November 2006 for eight Iranians and one Lebanese man," which the Iranians consistently refused to answer. Unsurprisingly, at home, he was in need of constant security, which seems to have evaporated on the night of January 18.  The absence of security might have been related to the fact that Nisman's final report implicated President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in the coverup and called for her arrest.

Perednik's novel ends long before this dénouement. Perhaps he might consider a sequel; something like To Kill a Prosecutor Without a Trace.