Investigators searching for the perpetrators of two recent anti-Semitic terrorist attacks in Argentina are focusing their efforts on Ciudad del Este, a Paraguayan border crossing long known as Latin America’s contraband capital.
The town, whose commerce is dominated by Arabs, may also be a hotbed of support for Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed and Lebanese-based terrorist group believed to have masterminded both the 1992 car bombing of the Israel Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 30 people, and last year’s destruction of the Jewish community headquarters, which left nearly 100 people dead.
In January, Paraguayan police arrested six Lebanese men and one Brazilian woman in the house they had been renting just outside Asuncion, Paraguay’s capital.
All seven had entered through Ciudad del Este on Brazilian passports, and all had overstayed their tourist visas. They were eventually charged with drug trafficking, violating immigration law and illegal possession of weapons.
The following month, Argentine President Carlos Menem — who was re-elected Sunday — demanded that the seven be extradited to Argentina to face questioning in the two attacks.
But so far, despite mounting pressure from Buenos Aires and Washington, Paraguay has delayed turning the suspects over.
The seven — identified as Mohamad Hassan Alayan, Roberto Ribeiro Ruiz, Johnny Moraes Baalbaki, Luis Alberto Nader, Valdirene Vieira Ferguglia, Sergio Rodrigo Salem and Fadi Abdul Karim Checair — remain in police custody at a jail in Tacumbu.
“There’s been no interrogation and they haven’t been extradited yet,” said a foreign observer here with close knowledge of the case.
“It’s not clear what the holdup is, but apparently huge sums of money are involved. They have local lawyers, and they don’t want to go to Argentina,” the observer said.
Humberto Rubin, one of Paraguay’s most popular talk show hosts, said he is sure that the Argentine and Brazilian police, together with the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, have an agreement to investigate the case.
He added that the Paraguayan police department is not part of this agreement, either because it does not want to be, or because the Mossad does not trust the Paraguayans.
A prominent member of the Jewish community who asked not to be named said Israeli bodyguards — not Paraguayans — are protecting key judges involved in the case, however.
Israel’s ambassador in Asuncion, Yoav Bar-On, would not comment on the Mossad’s involvement. But he did say that Menem’s extradition request is being treated very seriously.
“Argentina has important evidence that makes these people suspects,” said Bar- On, who arrived in Paraguay less than two months ago.
“Israel has always been in the vanguard of fighting terrorism,” he said. “If they are extradited, it’s [because] they have evidence. We must know who participated in this bombing.”
Security at the Israeli Embassy in Paraguay is unusually strict in the wake of several bomb threats. In the 1960s, a terrorist attack against the embassy killed one person and left several injured.
Among Paraguay’s 1,000 or so Jews — long accustomed to sharing their isolated country with escaped Nazis — the fear is palpable.
Not a single Jewish institution in Paraguay is identified as such from the outside.
In Argentina, where the Jewish community is understandably paranoid in the wake of the latest attacks, it is now illegal — for security reasons — to photography Jewish buildings without the community’s permission.
That even includes the ruins of the Jewish community headquarters on Pasteur Street, where a makeshift memorial has since been erected with the same names of 100 Jews and non-Jews who died in the bombing.
Carlos Monge Lopez, a Paraguayan Supreme Court justice who received the Argentine extradition order by fax from Buenos Aires two months ago, said the CIA and Mosad are “90 percent sure” that three of the seven suspects now in Paraguayan custody were directly involved in that attack. He did not specify names those suspects.
Lopez also said an Argentine ex-intelligence agent who has since been arrested had trained at least four of the seven suspected terrorists on his ranch outside Buenos Aires, where military weapons and explosives were found.
According to Lopez, all seven suspects entered Paraguay last year from neighboring Foz do Iguacu, Brazil, and received 30-day tourist visas.
He said that at the time of their arrest in Santisima Trinidad, five miles from Asuncion, “they didn’t have any regular jobs or visible means of support, but spent lots of money.”
The Paraguay connection is not the only angle being pursued in the Jewish community headquarters bomb investigation.
Authorities are also questioning the role of officials at the Iranian Embassy in Buenos Aires, and have arrested at least two Argentines who may have had a hand in the bombing itself.
But the Ciudad del Este-Foz do Iguacu region has also become a focused of the investigation because of the presence of 25,000 or so undocumented Arabs, Chinese and other foreigners. Border controls here are extremely lax.
In Ciudad del Este itself, it is hard not to notice the Arab presence, with huge signs advertising Jebai Center and other duty-free shops that form the lifeblood of this town’s economy. Just over the river in Foz do Iguacu Falls – - tourists can change money at the Casa Jerusalem, order a shiskebob from the Restaurante Arabe Esfiha Libano or visit the large white mosque just off Avenida Juscelino Kubitschek.
Like most of the Arabs in this border region, Ibrahim Chiah — who manages liquor sales at La Petisquera, one of Ciudad del Este’s busiest stores — is of Lebanese-Brazilian descent. He says he condemns terrorism of any kind.
“If they did it, they should pay for it,” Chiah said of the seven suspects. “If they’re innocent, let them go.”
Rubin, whose own radio station endured years of harassment under the military regime of Alfred Stroessner, suspects that most of the Arabs in Ciudad del Este are legitimate businessmen who have nothing to do with Islamic fundamentalism.
On the other hand, he said, it is likely that some Arabs there pay a quota to Hezbollah as a percentage of their profits.
Indeed, Paraguayan sources quoted in late April by the Argentine newspaper Primera Edicion said more than $500,000 was recently deposited in a bank in Encarnacion — just over the river from Posadas, Argentina — in order to bribe Paraguayan officials to prevent the extradition of the seven suspects at all costs.
According to those same sources, Paraguayan Magistrate Jose Yaluk — the seventh judge to handle the case in three months — was forced to excuse himself from the case after Lebanese fundamentalists in both Ciudad del Este and Encarnacion made death threats against Yaluk’s wife and children.
Yaluk, the newspaper said, “was one of the few judges dedicated to complying with the extradition so that the terrorists would be indicted and tried in Buenos Aires.”
What happens next in anyone’s guess. The prominent Asuncion newspaper, Hoy, recently urged Paraguayan President Juan Carlos Wasmosy to approve the extradition of the seven suspects to Argentina immediately.
He warned in an editorial that any further delay “will give Paraguay a negative image that could affect its good name in the world community.”
More important, Wasmosy will be travelling to Washington later this mouth, seeking economic aid for his country, one of South America’s poorest.
The subject of Argentina’s extradition request is sure to be raised when he meets with President Clinton — especially in light of the Oklahoma City bombing and heightened concern over international terrorism.
Meanwhile, Lopez, the Supreme Court justice, said he would stay on the case, despite death threats made against himself, his family and the Israeli Embassy.
“It’s my job,” he said. “I’m not afraid of threats. I get threats every day.