BUENOS AIRES — After a long lull, the Argentine government's investigation of last year's terrorist bombing of the Jewish headquarters here has sprung to life.
The sudden burst of activity, including a recent wave of arrests, has prompted local Jews and others to wonder whether the police action stems from international pressure.
Sharp criticism of the Argentine government's handling of the investigation surfaced at a recent U.S. congressional hearing. More than a year has elapsed since the July 18, 1994, bombing that destroyed the headquarters of the Argentine Jewish Mutual Aid Association, or AMIA, leaving 86 dead and over 300 wounded.
Until recently, the case had settled into a quiet routine, with only one suspect in detention and the investigation providing no satisfactory explanation for the attack.
All that changed Oct. 2, when Argentine authorities suddenly launched a vast operation involving over 400 police personnel.
Police raided 56 sites in Buenos Aires, arresting five people and confiscating cash, cars, safe deposit boxes and several cases full of documents.
The main target of the operation was Alejandro Monjo, a secondhand car dealer who owned the lot where terrorists allegedly bought the Renault van used as a car bomb in the AMIA terror attack.
Monjo avoided arrest Oct. 2, but police nabbed him two days later, after his cellular phone had been tapped and located.
Police also raided Monjo's safe deposit box at a local bank, finding almost $1 million in cash and bonds, as well as deeds for several properties in and around Buenos Aires.
Monjo is a business associate of Carlos Alberto Telleldin, another secondhand car dealer who had so far been the sole suspect detained in the case.
Judge Juan José Galeano, who is in charge of the AMIA investigation, termed Monjo's arrest an important step in solving the case.
Sources close to the investigation said Monjo's arrest had been planned for weeks.
But some here doubt that the police sweep of the Argentine capital was anything but a reaction to the American congressional hearing held four days earlier.
On Sept. 28, the House International Relations Committee held a session in which Argentine and American Jewish officials sharply criticized the Argentine government's handling of the investigation.
Argentine authorities have dismissed charges that the sudden reactivation of the AMIA bombing investigation stemmed from the congressional hearings.
Judge Galeano said the police sweep "was planned two months ago" and is "in no way related to any hearings anywhere."
Galeano's position was seconded by Luis Dobniewski, an attorney representing the AMIA in the case.
Dobniewski said the judge had planned the searches some six weeks before the hearings, adding, "It was a move planned well ahead."
But others disagree.
According to Joe Goldman, an American journalist and coauthor of "Smoke Screens," a book on the AMIA case, "Galeano's is a reactive investigation, not an active one.
"Every major move came when there was a congressional hearing in the U.S. or because of the first anniversary of the bombing" earlier this year, when there was another burst of government attention and attendant police activity, Goldman said in an interview.
"They knew about Monjo well over a year ago," Goldman said. "Pressure from abroad is what keeps this case alive."
Some of that pressure has come from the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B'nai B'rith International, AMCHA-Coalition for Jewish Concerns, the World Jewish Congress and DAIA, the Delegation of Argentine Jewish Associations.
The DAIA and these other groups have joined with relatives of the bombing victims in calling for more accountability from the Argentine government and a tightening of security to protect against future acts of terrorism.
In addition to being charged with delaying the investigation, the Argentine government has been accused of colluding with the foreign government believed most likely responsible for the bombing: Iran.
At the congressional hearing, Rubén Beraja, president of DAIA, the Argentine Jewish umbrella organization, charged that the Argentine government had "made a deal with Iran to avoid a third bombing."
An earlier fatal attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires also remains unsolved.
The bombing of the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires has been linked to Hezbollah, the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist organization based in Lebanon, which has close links to Iran.
"There were third countries that advised Argentina not to be confrontational with Tehran," Beraja stated at the hearing.
"After accusing Hezbollah and Iran of being behind the bombing and downgrading diplomatic relations with Tehran, [Argentine] President Menem's government dropped the subject. They started saying that there is no conclusive proof of Hezbollah involvement," Beraja said.
At first, Argentina hotly denied any contacts with Iranian officials.
"There were no secret meetings," said Foreign Affairs Minister Guido di Tella.
But on Oct. 5, di Tella admitted meeting with Iranian minister Ali Akbar Velayati in Copenhagen during a U.N. conference on social issues in March.
"We spoke about bilateral commerce," di Tella told the Argentine newspaper Clarin while on a visit to the Philippines. "He asked me to stop what he called Argentine harassment of his diplomats in Buenos Aires, and I asked him for information on Hezbollah. That's all. No appeasement policy."
Beraja, during his testimony at the congressional hearing in Washington, asked his government to declare Hezbollah illegal in Argentina.
But at a news conference last week, Argentina's president responded to Beraja's request with a cavalier attitude.
Saying he had "no problem in humoring Mr. Beraja," Menem asserted that "Hezbollah has neither legal status nor any effective presence in this country."
He then added, "But we could declare it illegal, no problem."
Menem's oddly jocular statement contrasted with the stand of other high-ranking officials in his administration.
State intelligence director Hugo Anzorreguy and interior minister Carlos Corach have informed Beraja that they would favor an Argentine statement officially declaring Hezbollah "an illegal terrorist organization."
Menem's statement was taken by Argentine Jewish community officials as a display of anger at Beraja's criticisms of the Argentine government before an American congressional committee.
"He did not appreciate being criticized in Washington, of all places," an official close to Beraja said of Menem, who has made close alignment with the United States a basic tenet of his government.
In the immediate aftermath of the congressional hearing, Menem was so incensed by the proceedings that he said he would instruct his foreign ministry to lodge a formal protest over the matter.