PANAMA CITY, Panama, July 12 (JTA) — Ten years after a bomber blew up a short-haul flight here, killing all 21 people on the commuter plane, including a dozen local Jews, authorities still have no idea who was behind the attack. On the afternoon of July 19, 1994, the Alas Chiricanas flight departed from the Caribbean port of Colon for Panama City, a trip of about 20 minutes. It was a familiar commute for most of those on board, passengers who worked at Colon’s tax-free wholesale market for Asian goods. Instead, the flight turned into a disturbing and enduring mystery. Because the bombing occurred during the deadliest week ever for Jews in Latin America — the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires had been bombed a day earlier, killing 85 people and wounding 300 — some Jews are convinced the Panama bombing was the work of Arab terrorists. Hezbollah terrorists are suspected in the AMIA bombing, which is believed to have been sponsored by Iran. But other evidence in the airline attack points to drug cartels in neighboring Colombia, who had used a similar modus operandi to eliminate rivals and debtors in the past. Panamanian authorities say they’re not certain about either theory. So far, they say, they are treating the bombing as a case of murder with possible terrorist overtones. A decade later and without a single arrest to show for their efforts, authorities concede they may never find out who was behind the attack unless someone comes forward with a credible claim of responsibility. That hasn’t happened. All the speculations “are indicators, nothing more, for forming a theory. But to present charges in front of a judge we have to have much more evidence,” the lead judicial investigator in the case, Maritza Royo, told JTA. Asked whether it was an anti-Semitic attack, she said, “the pieces never fully fit in place.” But she admits that the same holds true for the theory about a drug-related revenge bombing. Royo’s efforts are centered on determining the bomber’s identity. The man who blew up the plane checked in for the flight using the phony name Lya Jamal; his true identity never has been ascertained. Only the bomber’s torso was recovered from the crash, and no one claimed the remains, which lay in the country’s morgue for eight years before being buried in a local cemetery. Airline employees helped the police draw a sketch of the bomber, but even a $5 million reward for information — offered by the United States — has failed to produce anyone willing to identify the man, who witnesses say was uncommunicative but apparently of Arab origin. There is some evidentiary support for the theory that the bombing was the work of Arab terrorists. Most of the passengers on the flight were Panamanian Jews, members of a traditional and tight-knit community that is well-known in Latin America for its strong political and financial support for Israel. Given the disfigurement of the bomber’s body, he may have been trained to explode his bomb in such a way that authorities would be unable to identify him. Though less than a pound of explosives were used, the bomber sat in the seat in the small plane where the greatest damage could be inflicted. Israeli security agents claim there had been an increase in travel between Buenos Aires and Panama City by people of Arab origin in the months before the Alas Chiricanas and AMIA bombings. Shortly after the bombing, Panamanian officials detained three Arab men with false passports who had tried to cross the border into Costa Rica, a common route for illegal migrants heading to the United States. The men released after authorities could not link them to the attack. The other theory, that the plane was brought down by Colombian drug lords, has some support too. In an airliner bombing blamed on drug lords the previous year in Colombia, there also was no claim of responsibility. The explosives used to blow up the Panamanian plane matched the explosives used in the Colombian bombing. One of the Alas Chiricanas passengers, gold merchant Saul Schwartz, recently had had $2 million in assets frozen by authorities on suspicion of money laundering. Schwartz was away from his bodyguards only when aboard the plane, and authorities say the bomber insisted on getting on to the flight only after Schwartz had confirmed his reservation. In addition, Alas Chiricanas was not a Jewish-owned company, and more Jews were expected to be on a flight that left a few minutes later. The bombing came at a time when so-called narco-terrorism by drug lords was at its peak in Colombia. In any case, the inability to determine who was behind the bombing has left victims’ families frustrated and bewildered. With no one to blame, their grieving has been a combination of confusion and unease — a sense that pervades their lives to this day. “I want, for my own peace of mind, to know the final verdict,” said Mayer Attie, who lost his son Albert and brother Emmanuel on the flight. Knowing “is not going to bring my back either my son or my brother,” he said, but “by not knowing who it was, I cannot say who my anger is directed at.” Within the Jewish community, the lack of suspects or arrests has generated serious concern. Neither theory about the bombing bodes well for them. If Arab terrorists were responsible, it would shatter the Jews’ view of Panama as an inclusive and friendly country for Jews, sullying generations of amicable relations between Jews and Arabs here. On the other hand, if the bombing was meant specifically to kill Schwartz, that would make Schwartz — and his remaining family — somewhat responsible for the tragedy. Since the bombing, at least one victim’s daughter has become friendly with Schwartz’s children, the eldest of whom was 8 years old at the time of the bombing. Schwartz’s family is Ashkenazi, while most of the other Jewish victims were Sephardi, as is the majority of Panama’s Jewish community. “I want shalom — you understand,” community leader David Hanono said, speaking of the sense of peace the Jewish community seeks. Hanono helped out the victims’ families immediately after the attack, and now is the liaison between the Jewish community and authorities in charge of the investigation. Hanono refuses to speculate on who was behind the bombing. Caution in attributing blame has not always been shared by foreign security services. After the bombing, Israeli officials were quick to blame Hezbollah, though now they say only that Hezbollah “probably” perpetrated the bombing. Early on, U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officials cast suspicion on the drug cartels, but the $5 million reward they offered is more in line with terrorist events connected to Middle Eastern groups. The United States got involved in the case because an American businessman was among those aboard. In Panama, members of the Sephardi Jewish community live with constant reminders of the killings. The expansive Shevet Ahim synagogue has a memorial to the day’s dead. At the newer Ahvat Sion synagogue, opened in 1999, the dome is dedicated in memory of Albert Attie, and a large chandelier is dedicated to Issac Harrouche and his son Mauricio. All three were killed in the blast. With the 10th anniversary of the bombing only days away, the only commemoration ceremonies expected were services at some local Jewish schools and a likely Catholic mass for the victims.
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Brian Harris is a contributing writer to JTA.
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