Argentina Banned Hezbollah a Year Ago. Latin America Must Follow
For over a quarter of a century, Argentina’s Jewish community has been seeking justice for victims of Hezbollah’s terrorist bombings in Buenos Aires in the 1990s. Advocate Miguel Bronfman, who represents the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA), explains how the Argentine government was convinced of the threat the radical organization poses to the country, and reflects on the difficulties of purging the continent of its presence
An elderly couple near the destroyed AMIA building, July 18, 1994 | Photo: Julio Menajovsky, from his 2019 exhibition "Twenty-Five" (permission obtained by the author)
On the afternoon of March 17, 1992, a powerful car bomb exploded outside the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires, Argentina, reducing it to rubble and destroying a church and a nearby school as well. Four Israelis and 25 Argentinians were killed, and more than 200 people were injured. Two years later, on July 18th, 1994, another car bomb exploded in front of the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) building in Buenos Aires, killing 85 people and injuring hundreds more. It was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack since World War II.
Up to that tragic day in 1994, very few people in Argentina were aware that a terror organization called Hezbollah even existed, let alone operated in their country. More than a quarter of a century later, this name is commonly referred to in the news and has become familiar to the public. During those years, the Lebanese Shi’ite Islamist militant group and Iranian proxy has continued to expand its criminal presence in Latin America with impunity, while justice remains elusive for the victims of those terrorist attacks.
Nevertheless, recent developments give reasons to hope that the tide is turning. In July 2019, the Argentine government took a bold political decision and created a public registry for people and entities with ties to terrorism. Hezbollah was among the first organizations to be designated and added to the registry. Since then, several other Latin American governments have also followed in Buenos Aires’ footsteps and designated the organization as illegal.
For AMIA, which, it is fair to say, represents the Argentine Jewish community, these events are the fruits of a campaign for justice that have spanned over a quarter of a century. This article describes the efforts by AMIA and its local and global allies to bring about the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in Argentina – a pioneering policy change in the region – and to assess, exactly one year later, the impact it has had on the continent.
Middle East wars arrive in Argentina
The judicial investigations in Argentina of the 1992 and 1994 bombings faced enormous difficulties, irregularities, deviations, and obstacles. A major hardship was the ambiguous, and at times completely indifferent, attitude taken by the Argentine government then in office towards the investigations. It was clear from the beginning that the attacks were not deemed a matter of national importance, as the government devoted scarce resources to the investigations.
Moreover, while from the very beginning of the investigation the government had intelligence alleging that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the AMIA attack, the government considered Argentina too weak to openly confront and accuse Iran. This early decision by the government left the judge in charge of the investigation quite isolated and deprived him of essential state support in what should have been a matter of national security. The judicial investigation, propelled only by the victims’ efforts, progressed slowly. It remained focused mainly on the “local connection”, i.e., those Argentinians who had provided the vehicle used as a car-bomb by the terrorists.
The ruins of the AMIA building | Photo: Julio Menajovsky, from his 2019 exhibition "Twenty-Five" (permission obtained by the author)
Things changed dramatically after the September 11, 2001 attacks, and even more so after the terrorist bombings in Madrid (2004) and London (2005). The Argentina bombings were now viewed through the prism of these recent tragic events, which led to increased cooperation from the U.S., Israel, and Western European countries.
While foreign support for the criminal investigation was instrumental in uncovering new evidence and pressuring the Argentinian government, Argentine investigators and prosecutors had long been sitting on incriminating evidence unequivocally demonstrating Hezbollah’s responsibility for the attack on AMIA. The first judge in charge of the case formally stated in 2003 that Hezbollah and “radical elements of the Iranian government” had planned and executed the bombing. With additional evidence, developed both at home and abroad, judicial investigators gathered sufficient evidence after 2003 to show that the Iranian government (and not just “radical elements”) had ordered and funded the terrorist attack which Hezbollah, its longtime proxy, carried out.
Based on this evidence, in 2006 an Argentine Federal Court issued arrest warrants against eight suspects in the attack, all Iranian or Lebanese citizens. The court also ruled that both Iran and Hezbollah had decided, planned, and executed the AMIA bombing, and labeled the attack as a “crime against humanity.” Between 2007 and 2009, Interpol – acting upon the request of the Argentine government – issued six arrest warrants, known as “red notices.” Among those implicated were senior officials from the Iranian government and its embassy in Buenos Aires. These red notices, despite Tehran’s continuous efforts to have them lifted, are still in full effect to this day.
The deal with Iran and the death of Alberto Nisman
During President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s second term in office (2011-2015), Argentina’s diplomatic relations with the U.S. and Israel deeply deteriorated. President Néstor Kirchner (2003-2007) and his wife, President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner who succeeded him (2007-2015), pursued a confrontational foreign policy. They believed the US, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the international order were working against Argentina’s economic and political interests. Their approach led to Argentina’s isolation from global markets and financial resources. It also drove their governments to seek commercial alliances hitherto unknown in Argentine history (with Vietnam and Angola, for example), and also with Venezuela and Iran.
The one act that stands above all others was the Kirchner administration's widely-criticized 2013 Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Iran. The memorandum allegedly “solved” the case of the AMIA bombing – together with the accused, no less. However, the agreement was never put into effect: in April 2013, AMIA sued the Argentine government, claiming the MoU was unconstitutional. In May 2014, a federal court ruled in AMIA’s favor and upheld its main legal argument against the Memorandum, asserting it was a forbidden intrusion by the executive power into an open and ongoing judicial investigation.
While judicial authorities have ruled that Alberto Nisman was murdered, Argentinians are still deeply divided on what they believe happened
The consequences of the Argentine government’s decision to tamper with the investigation in this manner reverberate to this day. In 2015, the prosecutor of the AMIA case, Alberto Nisman, claimed he had gathered sufficient evidence to argue in front of a court that President Fernández de Kirchner, along with other government officials, had used the MoU with Iran as a façade for a quid pro quo deal between the countries. According to Nisman´s complaint, Iran sought to sign a beneficial trade deal with Argentina if, in return, Buenos Aires would void the arrest warrants on the Iranian suspects and bury the case. With the evidence he had gathered, Nisman filed a criminal complaint before a federal court on January 14, 2015.
On Sunday, January 18, 2015, the night before his scheduled congressional testimony about his criminal complaint against President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and a group of high officials in her administration, Nisman was found dead in his Buenos Aires apartment with a bullet wound to his head. To this day, his death remains a mystery. While judicial authorities in charge of the investigation believe Alberto Nisman was murdered, Argentinians are still deeply divided on what they believe happened. What is evident, though, is that his death stalled the investigation into President Fernández de Kirchner’s actions vis-à-vis Iran. While the case is still formally open, it will require a truly independent and courageous court to fully investigate the case considering the main defendant is now the Vice President.
Towards the first steps against Hezbollah
When President Mauricio Macri took office in December 2015, he decided to shift Argentina’s economic and diplomatic affiliations, in part for ideological reasons but especially for financial ones. The Kirchners’ successive administrations had left the country in complete isolation from global markets and its traditional partners, and its search for new commercial alliances had all failed.
Macri intended to change Argentina´s image and show the world that it could be a reliable partner. He realigned with both the U.S. and Israel and distanced Argentina from Venezuela, Cuba, Iran, Russia, and other countries which had close ties with the previous administrations.
The election of Donald Trump – an old business acquaintance of Macri – to the White House helped restore the historical collaboration between Argentina and the U.S. Likewise, Israel’s new ambassador to Argentina, Ilan Sztulman, who arrived during the same period, played a significant role in reestablishing Israeli-Argentine relations after the tension created by the Kirchner administrations.
In late 2018, it became evident that the ground was fertile for a change in Argentina's policy vis-à-vis Hezbollah
While things were starting to change in the political arena, two significant events that took place in 2018 paved the way for the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.
In Brazil, Assad Ahmad Barakat, who had long been accused by the U.S. of being the “treasurer” of Hezbollah in the Tri Border Area (TBA), was arrested. Argentine authorities accused Barakat of laundering 10 million USD on Hezbollah’s behalf. Soon thereafter, a federal judge in Argentina issued a judicial order to freeze all of Barakat’s assets. At the same time, the Financial Information Unit (FIU) of the Ministry of Economy froze the assets of 14 members of the Hezbollah-affiliated Barakat clan. This was the first time a judicial investigation in a federal court dealt with Hezbollah’s illegal activities in Argentina, and also the first time an Argentine court issued an order to freeze some of its members’ assets.
The second event occurred in December 2018, at the first Hemispheric Counterterrorism Ministerial in Washington, D.C. During the high-level conference, and following sustained pressure from AMIA in private meetings with government officials, Argentina offered to host the follow-up meeting on July 19, 2019, in Buenos Aires. It also suggested commemorating the 25th anniversary of the 1994 terror attack during the Ministerial. The offer was welcomed and accepted by all attending countries.
Participants in the 2020 3rd Hemispherical Counterterrorism Minesterial in Bogota, January 2020. True commitment by the region's nations | Photo: State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain.
In late 2018, it became evident that the ground was fertile for a change in policy vis-à-vis Hezbollah. In private conversations held with AMIA representatives, Argentine government officials indicated that President Macri intended to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. AMIA had managed to bring together not only the U.S.’ and Israel´s interests in the matter, but also key actors on the domestic front, like Security Minister Patricia Bullrich, Justice Minister German Garavano, and the FIU´s Executive Chief, Mariano Federici, who were also convinced of the importance of this move.
These influential ministers in the Macri administration had been exposed during their tenure to concrete evidence highlighting the threat Hezbollah poses to Argentina. Consequently, they seemed willing to not only support these steps, but also to finally take effective action by designating Hezbollah as a terrorist organization and placing it on the terror registry. Furthermore, they understood that this designation represented not only a long debt towards AMIA, nor just the rectification of miscarried justice after the bombings of 1992 and 1994. Macri additionally saw this move – the first of its type in Latin America – as an opportunity to enhance his standing as a regional leader.
Nevertheless, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Jorge Faurie was doubtful and worried about the repercussions of taking this measure against Hezbollah, and his opinion weighed heavily with Macri. Faurie´s concern was shared by many, fearing that this move would make Argentina a target for terrorism again.
The last few yards
Senior officials in AMIA, and myself as their legal advisor, understood that Macri was close to reaching his decision, but still required more convincing. We used the critical timing of the upcoming 25th anniversary as leverage on the government. AMIA held strong commemorative actions, organized several cultural events to take place around the anniversary (such as an art exhibition at the UN international forum), and launched a global campaign to encourage the remembrance of the attack and its victims in several Argentine embassies around the globe (the first was the Argentine embassy in Israel, on June 12, 2019).
Israeli Ambassador Sztulman, who at the time was nearing the end of his mission in Argentina, also played a critical part in these efforts. Until that point, he had been working – as diplomats usually work – silently behind the scenes towards the Argentine decision to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. However, at that period Stulzman made the strategic decision to make this policy debate public.
In his last public statement as ambassador in Argentina, he claimed that “today, anybody can raise a Hezbollah flag and donate money to the organization, with no problem at all.” Stulzman’s strong comments were widely reported in the printed media, bringing what had been covert discussion between bureaucrats and AMIA and its allies into the public discourse. It was another step in pressuring the Argentine government to pursue a stronger counterterrorism strategy — one that would also address the largest terrorist attack in the history of the country and the continent.
Individuals or an organizations that are added to the new terrorist registry can now have their assets frozen by the government - a strong enforcement and investigative tool
On July 17, 2019, President Macri finally announced the creation of a database of people and entities with ties to terrorism, which would fall within the purview of the Ministry of Justice. A prosecutor, judge or the FIU would now have the authority to recommend adding a person or organization to the registry. After they are listed on the registry, the Government could freeze an individual’s or organization’s assets—an immensely strong enforcement and investigative tool.
Following the establishment of the registry, the FIU immediately requested Hezbollah’s inclusion and the freezing of all its known or suspected assets in the country. In the following days, the Argentine government added additional terrorist groups to the registry, which stymied domestic criticism that it was only targeting Hezbollah.
On July 18, 2019, the 25th anniversary of the AMIA bombing was commemorated in a mass gathering in front of the reconstructed AMIA building, where the massacre took place. Later that morning, US Counterterrorism Coordinator Ambassador Nathan Sales opened the Second Hemispheric Counterterrorism Ministerial. On the first day of the proceedings, as AMIA’s representative, I advocated strongly for a regional adoption of this policy to designate Hezbollah a terrorist organization, especially in Paraguay and Brazil. The Ministerial concluded the following day, quite symbolically, at AMIA, in the presence of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Concern about the future
Despite the Hezbollah decision and other achievements regarding the country’s foreign policy, President Macri ended his first and only term on December 10, 2019 mainly due to poor economic performance. It has always been a trademark of Argentine politics that every new administration immediately tries to undo whatever policies its predecessors had enacted, often without even assessing their success or effectiveness. Thus, there was some concern that the new administration of President Alberto Fernandez, with the former President Fernández de Kirchner now his Vice President, might not view Hezbollah in the same light.
Even before taking office, the new Security Minister Sabina Frederic said that she didn’t think Hezbollah was actually a “true problem” for Argentina, and that its designation as a terrorist organization should be revised. President Fernandez, well aware of his reliance on the U.S.’ help to renegotiate the USD 57 billion bailout from the IMF, was not pleased with this statement. A few days later, Frederic retracted it, saying that “[I]f Hezbollah’s designation as a terrorist organization, according to the experts, is better for the country and the region, then we are willing to keep it.” However, in that same interview, she explained that Hezbollah was also a social organization whose communal and charitable activities deserve praise.
Despite the cool winds blowing from the Presidential Palace, early this year, AMIA’s president Ariel Eichbaum and I met with both the Ministers of Justice and Security, who pledged to sustain the efforts made with Interpol regarding the red notices, and to keep Hezbollah’s designation as a terrorist organization in full effect. In addition, President Fernandez made his first official trip abroad to Israel, where he attended the ceremony commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. After the ceremony, he had bilateral meetings with both Israel´s President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Fernandez and Netanyahu also held a joint press conference, where Fernandez ratified his commitment to “find the truth in the AMIA case." It was surprising, however, that neither Fernandez nor Netanyahu even mentioned Iran, though Netanyahu did praise the Argentine government for keeping Hezbollah´s designation as a terrorist organization. Overall, these are positive signs, and AMIA hopes the government’s support will continue throughout its term.
Most recently, on July 3, 2020, Federal Judge Miguel Angel Guerrero, in charge of the investigation against the Barakat clan in the Province of Misiones, extended asset freezes on several individuals and entities, including Hezbollah and its leader, Hassan Nasrallah; Hezbollah’s External Security Organization (ESO), and one of its senior members, Salman Raouf Salman; and the Barakat clan, the family of merchants based in the TBA who are accused of money laundering and terrorist financing.
What has been the impact of last year’s Macri declaration? Looking back, it is apparent that much work still lies ahead.
None of the suspects in the AMIA bombing have been arrested; Iran still funds Hezbollah’s terrorist activities overseas; Alberto Nisman’s tragic death has not yet been solved, and although the judicial investigation has stated that he was murdered, the new Fernandez government has pressured for the death to be ruled a suicide. Additionally, claims that Iran and Hezbollah had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks in 1992 and 1994 are still being circulated.
At the regional level, action against Hezbollah has remained mostly declaratory. Though Paraguay followed Argentina and in 2019 designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, Asunción has not taken any further, concrete action against the organization, including against its huge economic activity in Ciudad del Este. Unlike Argentina, Paraguay has not frozen any of Hezbollah's assets.
In early 2020, Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia all designated Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Brazil, despite being pressured by various sources, has only released vague statements but has yet to decide on its policy. Finally, Uruguay´s President Lacalle Pou recently said that he was “considering” making a similar move.
Despite these policy declarations, campaigns against Hezbollah across South America have largely stalled as the whole continent struggles to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. At the time of writing, the virus is hitting especially hard in Brazil, Chile and Peru. It is difficult therefore to imagine that, even when this crisis is over, the fight against terrorism will be high on their governments’ agendas.
Nevertheless, there are reasons to be optimistic. The Third Hemispheric Counterterrorism Ministerial was held in Colombia on January 20, 2020. It began with strong remarks by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who called for determined action by the rest of the region’s nations. The designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization by Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Honduras, and the sustained commitment of all the continent's nation to hold the Hemispheric Ministerial Conferences, are not just important steps towards fulfilling a commitment to truth and justice; with sustained local and international pressure, they could represent the starting point for true shift in the region.
These latest aforementioned regional developments show the importance of the work AMIA and the victims’ families have done throughout these painful years: to keep the memory of those who perished alive; to tell the world what happened that tragic morning of July 18, 1994; to keep searching for those responsible; to maintain pressure on the Argentine government and other countries in the continent; and to seek international collaboration and support in pursuing effective counterterrorism strategies.
We need to ensure these steps are just the beginning of this process, and not the end.
Adv. Miguel Bronfman is an Argentine lawyer based in Buenos Aires, specializing in criminal and international law. He has been representing AMIA in the criminal proceedings for the terrorist attack since 1998. In 2013, he led the legal action against the MoU Argentina signed with Iran, which after a two-year process was deemed unconstitutional by a federal Court and thus was never put in effect.
 Carlos Ruckauf, Interior Minister at the time of the bombing and the vice president from 1995 to 1999, explained this when he offered sworn testimony in the AMIA oral trial against the “local connection,” in 2001-2004. He told the Court that while SIDE (“Secretaría de Inteligencia del Estado” – the National Intelligence Service) told President Carlos Menem about Iran’s involvement, then-Minister of Foreign Relations Guido Di Tella advised the President not to publicly accuse Iran, for fear of further retaliations. In Di Tella´s view, Ruckauf told the court, Argentina could not afford an open confrontation with Iran, even if only in the diplomatic sphere, and President Menem followed Di Tella´s advice. Ruckauf offered sworn testimony before Federal Court Nr. 3 on August 12, 2003. See also AMIA Case File page 66.673.
 According to Argentine law, first-instance criminal judges can also be in charge of the preliminary investigations, alongside the prosecutors.
 A used cars seller named Carlos Telleldín and four police officers from the Province of Buenos Aires were arrested and investigated for years after they were accused of being accomplices to the bombing. But in September 2004, after a three-year oral trial, they were all acquitted.
 SIDE, “Final report” on the AMIA case, submitted to Court in 2004.
 AMIA case judicial file, March 5, 2003, sentence issued by Federal Judge Juan José Galeano.
 AMIA case judicial file, November 9, 2006, sentence issued by Federal Judge Rodolfo Canicoba Corral, upon request of Federal Prosecutor Alberto Nisman.
 These include Ali Fallahijan (at the time, Minister of Intelligence); Ahmad Vahidi (in charge of Iran’s elite “Al Quds” force); Mohsen Rezai (head of the Pasdaran); Ahmad Reza Ashgari (Secretary at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires); Mohsen Rabbani (Cultural Attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires) and the Lebanese citizens Imad Moughniyeh (head of Hezbollah’s exterior operations unit, who was killed in 2008) and Samuel Salman El Reda, also known as Salman Raouf Salman.
 “Cristina Kirchner entabló relaciones comerciales durante su viaje a Angola”, El Territorio, 12/5/2012 (link).
 Federico Merke, “Examining Argentina´s New Foreign Policy under Macri”, RUSI Newsbrief 36:2, 17/03/2016 (link) ; Oxford Business Group, “Argentina's foreign policy to focus on multilateralism and trade”, n.d. (link).
 Criminal Complaint formally submitted by Federal Prosecutor Alberto Nisman before Federal Court Nr. 4, on January 14, 2015; “Argentina’s President Kirchner Named in Criminal Complaint,” The Wall Street Journal, 14/01/2015 (link).
 “Five years on from his death, Nisman debate still rages on”, Buenos Aires Times, 17/1/2020 (link).
 After the October 2019 national election the Peronist party came to power again in December 10, with Alberto Fernandez, President, and Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner as Vice-President.
 Merke, “Examining Argentina´s New Foreign Policy.”
 Agustino Fontevecchia, “Argentina’s Love-Hate Relationship With The US And The Roles Of Venezuela And Cuba In a Fernández-Fernández Administration”, Forbes.com, October 23, 2019 (link).
 During his ambassadorship in Argentina, Argentine Vice President Gabriela Michetti visited Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu visited Argentina (being the first official Israeli PM’s visit in the country). Before he finished his mission in 2019, the Argentine government gave Sztulman the highest national accolade, the “Gran Cruz of the Mayo Order”, previously given, for example, to the King of Spain.
 "Brazilian police arrest alleged Hizballah financier", Reuters, 21/9/2018 (link).
 JTA, “Argentina freezes assets of suspected Hezbollah fundraising network”, The Times of Israel, 16/7/2018 (link).
 Lucia Sigal, “A photo exhibition depicts the horror 25 years after the worst terrorist attack in Argentina,” LatinAmerica Post, 19/7/2019 (link).
 Jaime Rosemberg, “Macri se dispone a firmar el decreto que declara terrorista a Hezbollah,” La Nacion, 11/07/2019 (link).
 www.jus.gob.ar; “Macri paves way for Hizballah to be deemed a ‘terrorist organization’ in Argentina”,
MercoPress.com, 17/7/2019 (link).
 “UIF ordena congelamiento de activos de Hezbollah, su ala militar y lideres de la organization.” Ministerio de Justicia (Ministry of Justice) Argentina, July 18, 2019.
 Martin Dinatale, “La Argentina ya tiene un registro con 1100 terroristas y organizaciones extremistas islamicas”, Infobae, 2/8/2019 (link).
 “Rechazo al decreto de Macri que declara a Hezbollah como agrupación terrorista”, Pagina12, 17/7/19 (link).
 “Sabina Frederic calificar a Hezbollah como una organización terrorista es comprarnos un problema que no tenemos,” visavis.com.ar, 30/10/2019 (link).
 “Sabina Frederic: ‘Si mantener a Hezbollah como organizacion terrorista, nos protégé a todos, estoy de acuerdo,’” Infobae, 16/12/2019 (link).
 “El Gobierno se comprometio ante la AMIA a mantener los pedidos de captura de los iraníes acusados por el atentado”, Infobae 13/1/2020 (link); “El presidente de la AMIA se reunió con la ministra de seguridad”, AJN, 15/12020 (link).
 “Argentine federal judiciary extends freeze of Hezbollah funds”, The Jerusalem Post, 12/07/2020 (link).
 Mar Centenera, “Alberto Fernández cambia de postura frente a Nisman y pone en duda su asesinato”, El Pais, 3/1/2020 (link).
 Herb Keinon and Rachel Wolf, “Paraguay labels Hezbollah a terror group, Brazil may follow,” The Jerusalem Post, 19/8/2019 (link).
 “Guatemala, Colombia and Honduras take ‘important step’ in designating Hezbollah a terrorist organization,” World Jewish Congress, 22/1/2020 (link).
 “El presidente de Uruguay considera declarar a Hezbollah una organización terrorista”, ItonGadol, 21/5/2020 (link).
 “The Anti-Terrorism Conference arrived in Colombia”, LatinAmerica Post, 21/1/2020 (link).
 U.S. Department of State, “Secretary Michael R. Pompeo at the Opening Plenary of the Third Western Hemisphere Counterterrorism Ministerial” (link).