Brief History of a Terror Attack: The Day That Changed Argentina
Ilan Stavans on the 1994 Bombing of the AMIA
“…a circle with no end and no God.”
In a memorable poem called “The Diameter of the Bomb,” Yehuda Amichai wonders, appropriately, what the effects of a terrorist attack are. Depending on its ingredients, the diameter that results from the detonation of a small bomb, of the type made by suicide bombers—that is, the circumference delineated by the explosion—is approximately seven meters. But the circles of pain created around it are far wider, so wide as to build a kind of onion-like structure whose limits are impossible to ascertain: the nearby hospital where the victims are taken to is part of the immediate surroundings, as is the graveyard where those victims are interred. Then come the friends and relatives who knew those who perished or were wounded, and the strangers who attended the funeral, and the people who heard about the tragedy on TV and mourn in distant lands, and the disinterested for whom the whole episode becomes blurry yet asks, puzzlingly, where is God in all this?… So, before you know it, the entire world is part of the concentric circles.
The explosion of the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina), the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires, on July 18, 1994, at 9:53am, that left 85 people dead and more than 300 wounded, had such an effect. I immediately felt I was in one of its concentric circles. In fact, I remember thinking to myself, was this bomb meant to kill me?
The echoes of that tragedy weren’t only felt across space, within the neighborhood of Once to the rest of the city, Argentina as a whole, the entire region, and further beyond, the Americas and the whole world, but across time as well. Sadly, it continue to have repercussions to this day.
For starters, the incident, which given the monumental terrorists attacks we have gotten used to since then looks relatively small-scale, has a frightening resemblance to the September 11, 2001, attack against the World Trade Center in New York City. The latter is frequently described as “epic,” done after years of planning and using commercial airplanes. The one in the AMIA was caused by a white Renault Traffic van loaded with powerful explosives (about 275 kilograms of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer and fuel-explosive mixture) that was driven next to the building. The van appears to have been positioned about three to five meters away. The entire structure collapsed and so did numerous nearby buildings. The driver and two associates, one of them female, were seen wandering around Once a couple of hours before the incident.
Almost 20 years later, Argentine photographer Marcelo Brodsky, whose brother was one of the desaparecidos, and I felt the need to detail the clockwork that lead to the fatal incident because, although the amount of reporting was substantial, almost two decades after no one had been brought to justice.
The 9/11 attack was performed after years of planning, deep financial support from Al-Qaeda, and a cadre of terrorists willing to live in the shadows in the United States until the time was ripe for their ideological attack to unfold. The animosity, in this case, was against the United States, not Israel or the Jews, although, in the Al Qaeda rhetoric, all three were often intertwined. Perhaps more significantly, Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the attack, whose tentacles were felt even from his remote location in Afghanistan, portrayed himself as the fundamentalist leader of a stateless, hydra-like organization whose justification was to attacking “the Great Satan” in Washington, a force, it perceived, devoted to destabilizing true Muslims the world over.
To intelligence services, it is obvious that the 9/11 attackers learned from the mechanics of the AMIA event. Like the Twin Towers, which were seen as a symbol of American financial power, the AMIA was an attractive target because it represented Jewish interests. Or better, it was an extension of Israeli control beyond the Middle East. It was immediately evident that the perpetrators were Iranian operatives in Argentina. Rumors prevailed; exposés were published.
Actually, the AMIA incident was preceded. On March 17, 1992, by a somewhat smaller explosion, this one targeting the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires. Twenty-nine civilians were killed and 242 people were injured. Again, a pickup truck, driven by a suicide bomber, smashed in front of the building. A group called the Islamic Jihad Organization, connected with Hezbollah in Lebanon and also with the Iranian government, claimed responsibility. It said the event was in retaliation for Israel’s assassination of Abbas al-Musawi, Hezbollah’s Secretary General.
The U.S.’s National Security Agency intercepted communication that proved that Iran was involved in the Israeli Embassy case. It pointed to a terrorist cell in the border of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, where a large Muslim community is located. A Hezbollah operative was charged but nothing came of it.As in the AMIA explosion, no one was brought to justice.
Argentina was still reeling from the Dirty War, an ugly period, from 1974 (although some put it half a decade earlier) to roughly 1983, in which a military junta, in power through coup d’etats, had called for a Proceso de Reorganización Nacional, a process of national reorganization whereby dissident were “erased” from society through a variety of intimidating methods that included silencing, intimidation, torture, and disappearance. The atrocities committed during that period were deep and healing, logically, was painfully slow. The Jewish community had inevitably been at the center, dividing families often along generational lines, radicalizing opinions, and breaking solid friendships and political alliances apart.
A decade later, in the early 1990s, Argentina and Iran were hoping to develop a joined nuclear plant. Carlos Saúl Menem was the country’s president. Of Lebanese descent, he was at the helm of the collaboration. Iran was already in the ascent as a significant ideological force in the Middle East. When Menem left office, in 1999, in disgrace, fingers were still being pointed in countless directions for both attacks. No tangible results came about.
A financial crisis at the beginning of the 21st century only exacerbated the situation. A quick succession of ad-hoc presidents, some of them lasting only a few hours in power, put the AMIA attack in the back-burner. This changed when Néstor Kirchner, from a left-leaning side of the populist Partido Justicialista, refocused the attention by promising to solve the case. The effort was followed by his wife Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. (The Bill and Hilary Clinton of Argentina, he died of heart failure in 2010, having been expected to run for president again.) During her years in office, from 2007 to the end of 2015, Cristina publicly pushed for a resolution, going as far as to arrange a deal with Iran that included allowing Argentine judges to travel to Teheran to interview potential culprits.
Rather than a breakthrough, the deal was seen by many, including the country’s chief prosecutor, Alberto Nismana, a divorced father of two who was of Jewish descent, as a betrayal. Nisman believed Cristina’s agreement with the Iranians was a way to muddle the waters even more, so he prepared a dossier in which he blamed the president of criminal conspiracy to stall the AMIA case. Then, on January 18, 2015, hours before he was scheduled to make public his findings before the Argentine Congress, Nisman was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment.
His body was found in a pool of blood next to one of the apartment’s bathrooms. He had a bullet wound in his head. A .22-caliber gun was in his hand, as well as the casting from the bullet. The death was said to be a suicide, yet the circumstances were fishy. Nisman wasn’t a depressed type. In conversations with friends and acquaintances, he had expressed excitement about the revelations he was about to offer in his meeting with Congress. Why would he die in such way?
For a while, the Nisman case, which never acquired any anti-Semitic undertones, threatened to destabilize Cristina’s government. She defended herself against having ordered Nisman’s execution and explained that having been involved in an effort to silence him, she had provided evidence for him to build his case. Her arguments were contradictory. Public opinion was divided.
In the end, evidence was tainted and detective investigations became more labyrinthine than a Borges story. There was never any resolution. Political intrigue prevailed. Nisman’s case also resulted in impunity.
Argentina is a pluralistic society. It has depended on immigration much more than every other nation in Latin America. A large portion of the population traces its roots elsewhere. From the 19th century onward, the roots are in Italy, China, Africa, Spain, Russia, and elsewhere. It is in this context that the Jewish community, roughly between 280,000 and 300,000 (around 244,000 alone live in what is known as “Gran Buenos Aires,” according to newspaper La Nación), needs to be seen. Outside of Israel, it is the fourth largest concentration of Jews in the world, after the United States, France, and Canada, and followed by smaller concentrations, like England and Russia.
Within the Jewish communities in Latin America, Argentina is seen as a torch bearer. It has the only rabbinical school in the region, from which rabbis, cantors, and other religious leaders graduate to jobs as leaders of congregations from Mexico to Ecuador, Peru, and Cuba. (Some even get jobs in the United States). The Argentine community is solidly middle-class. It is highly represented in business, the medical and legal professions, but also in many others. It coexists with other minorities. The neighborhood of Once—its full name, as is stated in Once at 9:53am, is Once de Septiembre, meaning September 11—is roughly the equivalent of the Lower East Side in Manhattan, a brewing landscape of diversity where cultures and languages intertwine.
Jewish immigration to Argentina reaches back to the colonial period, when conversos, crypto-Jews, and New Christians slowly made their way to it after the expulsion from Spain. But it was in the second half of the 19th century when Jews came in large numbers. They came from the so-called ‘Pale of Settlement,” the region in Eastern Europe (Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Russia, Lithuania, and the surrounding areas). They were poor, lived in shtetls, and spoke Yiddish. Jewish immigration continued until before the Second World War. After the war, Argentina also received ex-Nazis and other Hitler sympathizers.
Even before the 1850s, the arrival of immigrants, many of them Italians, was greeted in the country with ambivalence. Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, an intellectual who would become the nation’s president, wrote a book called Facundo: Civilization and Barbarism (1845), talked about gauchos, cowboy types who lived in the Pampas and had their own native culture, as awkward. In Sarmiento’s eyes, the arrival of Europeans was an opportunity for Argentina to become “civilized.” In his view, the countryside was a bastion of primitivism. The city, in contrast, Buenos Aires as well as other urban centers, was where forward-looking culture could be achieved.
When the Jews arrived, that ambivalence was exacerbated, mutating into full-blown xenophobia. It was said that foreigners were spreading disease, taking away jobs, and lowering the education level. That, an impetus for stricter labor laws, and a dose of anti-Semitism, culminated in the Semana Trágica, the Tragic Week of January 7, 1919, a violent outburst in Buenos Aires that especially targeted Jewish businesses and individuals. It resulted in about seven-hundred deaths. The Argentine army and navy needed to be called to bring calm. Although it had peculiar elements to it connected with labor unrest, it is the only pogrom ever to take place in the Americas.
Up until recently, Argentina had been considered el país de advenimiento, a place where multiple races, religions, and nationalities could learn to cohabit. Among the early Jewish cultural figures in the country was Alberto Gerchunoff, an immigrant from Russia who arrived when still a child. His writing around 1910, in a book called The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas, published to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of Argentina’s independence, portrayed Argentina as a kind of Promised Land where Jews would find a benign, supportive home. By the time the Semana Trágica came around, Gerchunoff and others realized such dream was far less tangible than they had thought.
Between the 1910s and the 1990s, Argentina went through all sorts of upheavals. The promised of being “a European jewel in the Southern Hemisphere,” as it was often represented, was turned into a land of political, economic, and social unrest. Among the most important leaders was Juan Domingo Perón, a right-leaning populist who from the 1940s onward worked the masses into a type of hysteria about the nation’s potential. Occasionally, the Peronistas used anti-Semitic language. That and the constant economic instability and the recurrent military juntas taking over control of the government kept the Jewish community in check. After the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and especially in the 1960s and 1970s, a substantial number of Argentine Jews left for Israel.
Jews weren’t targeted as such during the Dirty War. However, since many of them were left-leaning and had been involved in anti-military activities, the number of Jews was high among the desaparecidos, around 2,000 of the 9,000 confirmed victims, which represent 22% of the confirmed victims or 6,6% of the estimated total of 30,000, that is, more than six out of every hundred. This is exorbitant given that the Jews of Argentina account for less than 1% of the total population.
At any rate, the attacks against the Israeli Embassy and the AMIA were defined by a different kind of animosity than the one that propelled Perón to sympathize with Nazism. By then Israel had become not only an economic miracle but also a major military force in the Middle East. The dispossession of Palestinian property in the Jewish state, the establishment of Palestinian refugees camps in Lebanon and elsewhere in the region, and the raise of an anti-Zionist rhetoric in the Arab world brought along a new type of anti-Semitism. Its focus was the Middle Eastern conflict. The terrorist events in Buenos Aires made it clear that the opposition between Israel and Palestinians had spilled into other parts of the world were this causes metastasized their anger concentrating on different targets.
I remember, with vivid emotion, the aftermath of the AMIA attack. As a Mexican Jew, I have been countless times to Argentina before. On each occasion, I am amazed at how different that country is from the rest of Latin America: more Europeanized, for one thing, but also fragile. When something happens to the Argentine Jewish community, the other Jewish communities in the Americas feel it as if it had happened to them.
Growing up in Mexico, I remember attending synagogue on the high-holidays in my early teens with absolute ease. We practiced our religion the way others did theirs, with respect. After the War of Yom Kippur in 1973, when Egypt and Syria invaded Israel, the sense of vulnerability was present but also was the vision that with a solid, well-equipped army the small nation could defend itself. The Jews in the diaspora rallied in favor of Israel. We saw ourselves as supporters.
By 1982, things turned in the opposite. Even though it was defending itself against terrorist cells, Israel was now immersed in a war in Lebanon that portrayed it as an aggressor. The tide had changed. In the university where I taught Jewish philosophy, I was once bullied outside the classroom by Palestinian sympathizes. Inside the classroom, rotten tomatoes were thrown at where I was. My own views were against the maneuvers of the Israeli military and in favor of the Palestinian people. But that didn’t matter: I was a Jew and in Mexico at the time the word Jew was synonymous with a supporter of the Israeli army.
Suddenly the synagogue in Mexico that I had attended since I was a child, where I had made Bar Mitzvah, needed to organize its own security. The police could be asked to come on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Trusting the police, everyone knew, was something done at one’s peril because, like Argentina, Mexico isn’t known for having a rigorous judicial system. The mordida, the bribe given to a politician, judge, or policeman, can get you out of trouble as fast as you might have gotten yourself into it.
Thus, from one day to the next I would see at the entrance of Jewish community centers a series of recently-trained young men whose task it was to provide security in case the police that was hired to do those jobs was unreliable. As I have written in my autobiography On Borrowed Words, I myself became part of that impromptu security apparatus.
On July 19, 1994, the day after the AMIA incident, I remember calling my mother by phone. She was in Mexico City and I was in New York. It was she, I recall, who told me about Yehuda Amichai’s poem “The Diameter of the Bomb.” “We are part of it, Ilan.” Weeks later, I heard from a friend that in order for any foreigner to visit during a Shabbat service in any synagogue in Mexico, a petition would need to be filed a month in advance, by fax and with the proper documents attached, and even then that petition could be summarily rejected.
I thought to myself, if this is what is happening in my country, the situation in Argentina must be far worse.
In short, what I laid out is how, in succinct terms, Latin American Jews became global, how we had lived only superficially in the periphery of world events when the AMIA tragedy made us realize we were in the diameter of the explosion.
The truth is we were its center.
Finally, I want to describe how the project came along. Brodsky and I met around 2008 through a mutual friend. An admirer of his photographic work, particularly of his artistic strategies to “intervene” historical images in order to make their message more emblematic, I was especially eager to talk to him about my interest on the fotonovela as a popular genre in Latin America that needed to be intervened—e.g., appropriated—in order to explore today’s politically-charged themes defining the region. We had a memorable lunch in which we discussed an assortment of topics, after which I asked him if he had read fotonovelas in his adolescence. I preceded my question by describing my own fascinating with the form, describing my assiduous readings of it almost every weekend, when new fotonovelas arrived to the corner newsstand in my neighborhood. I even told him that my father, a prominent actor of Mexican soap-operas, to make ends meet, had sometimes done some roles in fotonovelas.
As it happened, Brodsky was also an enthusiast. A few days later, he even sent me by FedEx a number of extra copies of Argentine fotonovelas in his personal collection. That conversation and a number of others we entertained in the next few weeks showed not only how much we had in common but, also, that a collaboration between us was a possibility.
I remember mentioning to him my distress at the quagmire the AMIA investigation had become over the last fifteen years or so and the extent to which I had become a buff of the whole terrorist incident, collecting in my library a plethora of items: photos, reportage, interviews, novels, books, documentaries, interviews, etc. I then suggested that through the format of the fotonovela, should we turn the 1994 incident into our central theme, we could achieve a multiple feat: explore through fiction—a type of fiction soundly based on facts–what journalism and police investigation had failed to uncover; renew the fotonovela as a legitimate genre of aesthetic exploration; and, equally important, collaborate in ways that would allow literature and photography to become partners, exploring ways in which words and images might work together.
I also had another objective in mind: I wanted to use the fotonovela as a platform for innovative scholarship. This needs an explanation. Over my career, I have tried to approach research in non-traditional ways. I don’t like the term “creative” because traditional scholarship is creative too, yet I’m conscious that, in the Manichean paradigm used in academic circles, knowledge is often perceived along those extremes: conventional and unconventional. After the AMIA tragedy, and more so as the unfinished business of finding the culprits dragged on for a long time, I remember thinking to myself that the episode merited from me a more thorough exploration, although I didn’t know what format it should take.
My chance encounter with Brodsky made that possibility a reality. After all, he was an insider: an Argentine with some personal knowledge of the situation, since he had found large pieces of granite from the frontispiece of the AMIA building, lying beside the River Plate, in Memory Park, a memorial to the victims of State Terror he had helped build. These pieces later became part of Brodsky’s artwork. He got in touch with survivors in order to identify the stones and get their testimonies. It is while doing this kind of research that he became friends with people that were at the AMIA that fateful day. I instead was an outsider, albeit one with a long devotion to the incident.
The collaboration was pleasurable from beginning to end. During the next few months, I wrote a first draft. Actually, at that point the narrative I envisioned was more ambitious. It was divided into three symmetrical chapters, only the first of which deal directly with the AMIA bombing. The other two looked at different characters and plots in various parts of Buenos Aires as people struggled to make sense of the incident. We then secured funding from various foundations.
We set a date for me to travel for the shooting and began to make arrangements with actor’s unions, dressing companies, car and prop rentals, as well as with the AMIA administration. Our production headquarters were in the building of Hebráica, a Jewish club in the Once neighborhood. We also needed to secure permission from the Buenos Aires municipality to be on location. As we set the production in motion, it became obvious to us that the storyline as it currently stood was unwieldy. It would take years to shoot it and about five times the budget we had secured to finance it.
Reality always wins in these kinds of battles. The decision, at that point, was for me to trim it, focusing exclusively on the first chapter. My intention now was to make it cohesive, to allow it to grow organically. I subsequently made a revised draft that is quite close to the final version of the fotonovela. From that draft Brodsky commissioned a storyboard. During the production, that storyboard was simultaneously a map and a compass. It grounded us and gave us confidence.
The principal roles were played by professional Argentine and Brazilian Jewish actors. We persuaded family and friends to take some of the other roles. For instance, the girl carrying the balloons is Brodsky’s daughter; and one of the terrorists was a member of our crew. I personally wanted some prominent figures in the Jewish community to participate. This desire came from my participation in the movie My Mexican Shiva (2007), which was based on a short story of mine. The director casted my father and other prominent Mexican Jewish actors in it. He even invited me to the shooting and asked me to have a small nonspeaking part (because of union requirements), but it was ultimately cut. With that in mind, while in Buenos Aires I called my friend Marcelo Birmajer, author of the parody Three Musketeers, who is among the most celebrated Jewish writers from Latin America today. He has a cameo in the scene where the protagonist is beaten down. Brodsky is seen having coffee with the protagonist. I myself play the Orthodox rabbi that shows up inconspicuously with several colleagues in the early part of the fotonovela and at the end announces, apocalyptically, that the end of time has come.
I mapped out each page meticulously: the number of frames it needed, the location of text, and use of color. Brodsky used these instructions as inspiration, adapting them according to his aesthetic needs. Like in comics and graphic novels, the success of the fotonovela as a genre depends on the degree in which illustrations drive the plot forward while text goes deeper into character formation. Take pages 24 and 25, where a group of rabbis on the street in the Once neighborhood discuss an assortment of topics: the frame consistently look at them at once from afar and in close-up, allowing for gestural nuance, locating them in context, while their consuetudinary dialogue allows the reader to understand their mood, their demeanor, and what they are feeling in these crucial minutes before the terrorist attack. Or else, look at the chase sequence on pages 47 and 48, as the complicit girl runs toward the white Renault Traffic: the suspense strives from her matching with the other culprits while passer-bys become suspicious of their activities.
Since the post-1994 investigations have done nothing but hide them behind innuendoes, my explicit objective was to give the terrorist a face. I used the format of the fotonovela to give them a physicality they otherwise lacked.
Brodsky and I were always sure we wanted to conclude the story with the photograph of the tragedy used on the front page of major newspapers worldwide. Almost from the outset he worked on getting permission. I remember the moment he told me he had secured it. I felt as if the whole endeavor was now kosher. The aim was to delve into the way stereotypes are approached in the Argentine milieu, from the photographer’s gaze at femininity (as a freelancer he works for Playboy) to the representation of Jewish and Arab characters objectivized on the streets. This is the original context in which the action took place. Needless to say, each culture is comfortable in its own excesses.
Shooting took a total of three days. Brodsky took close to ten thousand pictures. In the months that followed he organized the material and began collaboration with a designer who developed the narrative while also inserting dialogic balloons and other comic-strip devices. Brodsky sent me periodically batches of about 5-6 pages, to which I made all sorts of changes, fine-tuning the dialogue, exploring alternative subplots, and so on. The need emerged of inserting maps of the city. For purposes of managing the suspense, we used digital clock-numbers on strategic pages.
The overall production took about eight months. The fotonovela was published in Spanish, in Buenos Aires, by the publishing house Asunto Impreso, whose editor Guido Indij made valuable editorial suggestions. On July, 18, 2011, in time to commemorate the anniversary of the incident, a photographic exhibit, with the storyboard, a handful of pages in various stages of development, and a video walk through the neighborhood, including interviews with the AMIA witnesses and survivors, was scheduled to accompany the release.
Ultimately, my dream was to use the very tools of popular culture in order to produce rigorous knowledge and to disseminate that knowledge in an alternative scholarly format. I wanted it to look like a comic yet deliver a serious message about the intersection of politics and religious freedom in Latin America. I wanted to amuse and stimulate, to provoke thought and generate discussion. Mostly, I wanted to reach a diverse audience beyond the Ivory Tower.
I was thrilled when Brodsky told me, by phone, that Once @ 9:53am was being read in Argentina by people of all backgrounds, some of whom had little previous information in the actual events of 1994.
This essay is the afterword to Once @ 9:53 am: Terror in Buenos Aires, a fotonovela by Ilan Stavans and Marcelo Brodsky, due out in October from Penn State University Press.