This Saturday marks the 21st anniversary of the AMIA bombing: the worst terrorist attack in Argentina’s history that killed 85 people and left hundreds wounded, and is still unsolved. This year, as every year, family members of the victims and concerned citizens will gather to commemorate another year passed, remembering the victims and calling for justice in what have become all too familiar rituals of memory.
In a country marked by memory and the search for justice and truth, the remembrance of the unsolved AMIA case is just another community process of reflection in which justice remains a distant hope.
This week will see a familiar set of commemorative events, including a memorial organized by youth in the Jewish community on the 16th, various art events and performance protests (like the contramarcha or “anti-march” with 85 people, representing the victims, dressed in blue marching backwards from the courts to the AMIA building).
The largest will take place on July 17th (held a day before the actual anniversary because this year, the 18th falls on Saturday, a day of Jewish religious observance). It will include two commemorative protests taking place simultaneously on Friday morning, reflecting political divisions within the community. The event organized by the AMIA (Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina) and the DAIA (Delegación de Asociaciones Israelitas Argentinas) (official community institutions) takes place on Pasteur Street at the site of the bombing, where hundreds will gather in the street for a ceremony that begins with a piercing siren, followed by the recitation of every victim’s name and speeches.
Not far from this, there will be another event organized by Memoria Activa, in the plaza facing Argentina’s high courts. The location and planning is intended to be a protest against the failure to resolve the case as much as a commemoration of the victims. It will begin with the sound of the shofar (a ram’s horn traditionally used in religious practice) that has historically marked the beginning of their protests, followed by remembrance of the victims and speeches by important human rights leaders, such as Estela de Carlotto, head of the Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo (Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo) and Gastón Chillier, executive director of CELS (Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales). Later that day, another group of family members of the victims, 18J, will hold their own ceremony in the Plaza de Mayo, facing the Presidential Palace.
While these events have become a sad, familiar ritual in Argentina, what has changed is the broader context in which they are taking shape. This year, remembrance unfolds in the shadow of other processes—the ongoing investigation over the mysterious death of Alberto Nisman and on August 6 the start of a trial to investigate the cover-up of the bombing in which former President Carlos Menem as well as Judge Galeano (who presided over the AMIA trial that ended in 2004), Ruben Beraja (former president of the DAIA), and Hugo Anzorreguy (former intelligence secretary) will stand trial for their role in obstructing justice.
When the bombing occurred, Menem was in power, a presidency had been marked by impunity. Directly following the dictatorship, democratically elected President Raúl Alfonsín established an historic truth commission to investigate the human rights crimes of the 1976-1983 dictatorship and initiated the trials of high-ranking officers implicated in those abuses. However, those advances were short-lived, with amnesty laws enacted in the late 1980s, and President Menem issuing pardons for the few perpetrators who had been convicted.
The years of the ‘Dirty War’ resulted in thousands of deaths (estimated between 10,000 and 30,000), and the calls for justice gave rise to community organizations dedicated to truth and memory. These included the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and the Founding Line of the Mothers (seeking information and justice for their disappeared children), the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo (seeking to be reunited with their grandchildren, born in captivity), and the group H.I.J.O.S. (children of the disappeared). In the 1990s, after Menem pardoned the few officers who had been prosecuted, H.I.J.O.S. performed what they called “escraches,” protests and marches that often led to the homes of perpetrators, seeking to hold them socially accountable, even if they were not prosecutable under the law.
In this atmosphere of impunity, sustaining the memory of past violence became a central strategy for human rights groups.
After the 1994 AMIA attack, the family members of the victims and their supporters also turned to memory as a space for demanding justice and change. In the years that followed the bombing, the 18th of every month became an important day of remembrance with family members of the victims and their supporters gathering on Pasteur Street at the site of the attack. The space has developed into a memorial with a wall of the names of the victims, a clutch of trees and this year the renaming of the local subway stop on the B-line.
Weekly protests also took place on Monday mornings (the day of the attack) organized by Memoria Activa in the Plaza Lavalle, facing the high courts of Argentina. This group brought a case against Argentina before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which ruled in March 2005 that Argentina had failed to provide justice in the AMIA case.
Justice in Argentina is notoriously slow, a process often measured in decades. It took more than twenty years to overturn the amnesty laws, when in 2005, during Néstor Kirchner’s presidency, the Supreme Court ruled that the amnesty laws were unconstitutional, thus allowing for new trials of those guilty of human rights abuses under the Dirty War. Those trials continue today.
Yet for the AMIA case, the wait continues. Alberto Nisman spent years on an investigation that many believe led to his death and resulted in allegations that are now mired in a web of conspiracy theories and disputes. The controversial “Truth Commission” proposed in a 2013 Memorandum of Understanding with Iran—which had been implicated as the sponsor of the attack—has since been ruled unconstitutional. Meanwhile, another group, APEMIA (Asociación para el Esclarecimiento de la Masacre Impune de la AMIA), has supported a currently stalled proposal to create an independent investigatory commission to focus on the AMIA bombing and open the archives of the SIDE (the intelligence agency) that relate to the AMIA case, in hopes of establishing the truth of what happened.
That’s why the August 6th trials represent an important step. The trials were a recommendation of the IACHR ruling from 10 years ago. But even if the accused are found guilty of obstructing justice and impeding the investigation, it will only provide cold comfort to the families and the broader community affected by the tragedy.
The family members and supporters deserve to have their demands for justice met. When that finally happens, the commemorations on the anniversary can return to being a way to remember the victims, and not a form of protest against impunity.
Clearly, for Argentine society, their public acts of memory are also deeply connected to justice. Memoria Activa, in this year’s posters, proclaims that “Memory Takes the Shape of Justice.”
The AMIA and DAIA’s posters read, “Victims of terrorism. Victims of impunity”.