Five days after a 1994 bombing at a Jewish community center here killed 85 people, the investigating judge on the case rushed to Venezuela after a lead. Upon his return, judge Juan Jose Galeano boasted to reporters that "when you find out what I've learned, it will knock your socks off."
Ten years later, the only men ever arrested and tried in the case -- a car thief and a group of local police officers -- were acquitted and set free. The attack on the Jewish center wounded more than 200 people and traumatized the 300,000 Jews who live here. Despite pressure to find the bombers and bring them to justice, the investigation -- and trial -- was fraught with blunders.
In October, a new panel of judges assigned to the case issued a 4,500-page finding that focused on allegedly criminal conduct of Judge Galeano himself. The panel said Galeano had "constructed" the case against the now-exonerated defendants with lies, at the service of "unscrupulous officials," including the head of the State Intelligence Service, Argentina's domestic and international spy agency.
Hundreds of hours of wiretap recordings were lost. Even though a suicide bomber was said to have set off the explosion, no DNA samples were taken from the scene. Galeano was videotaped discussing a $400,000 informant payment he had made to the car thief, the central defendant in the case.
The judicial panel traced the mishandling of the case to the former interior minister, Carlos Corach, and implicated a top Jewish leader, Ruben Beraja, now under arrest on fraud charges. Many observers here believe the case was manipulated to further the ambitions of then-President Carlos Menem.
In 2002, an exiled Iranian intelligence officer said Menem received $10 million from the Iranian government to cover up Tehran's role in the bombing. Menem, who would face unrelated corruption charges if he returned from exile in Chile, has denied any involvement in a coverup.
The investigation and the trial came apart because of two ills that plague the Argentine criminal justice system and other democratic institutions here: incompetence and corruption. That result has left many here feeling betrayed.
"I'm basically ashamed of what happened here," said Joe Goldman, an American television producer and longtime Buenos Aires resident. "The case was too big for the federal judge assigned to it. It was all done with a kind of planned incompetence."
In the weeks and months after the bombing, Goldman and a team of reporters gathered evidence in the surrounding neighborhood, finding many shards of metal and some human remains. They turned it over to Galeano, only to hear him say later he had "lost" it.
Although such blunders are common in judicial proceedings here, many had hoped they would not surface in the most important criminal trial since Argentina's former military rulers were hauled into court in the mid-1980s.
The irregularities in the cultural center case are "typical of the lack of oversight and the illegality with which the Argentine state has operated for many years," said Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentine reporter who has written on the justice system here. "This is the legacy of the dictatorship, and of the destruction of the values of accountability and responsibility."
At the time, newspapers across the globe noted that the bombing was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack outside Israel since the Holocaust.
Early suspicion focused on Iranian diplomats here. Just days after the attack, a witness told investigators that the bombing had its origins in the Middle East and a local cell of militant Islamic fundamentalists.
In the years since, more witnesses have stepped forward to say that a shadowy Colombian of Lebanese descent played a key role in its planning, and that the explosives used were smuggled in via ship from Brazil.
Upon his return from Venezuela, Galeano drove directly to meet Menem. The judge is said to have told Menem that four Iranian diplomats in Buenos Aires had planned the bombing, including Mohsen Rabbani, the embassy's cultural attache.
The Argentine Supreme Court eventually ruled there was insufficient evidence to try the diplomats.
Those who were still in Argentina left, never to return. Galeano's investigation focused instead on Carlos Telleldin, the car thief, who had been arrested nine days after the bombing.
Telleldin was the only man said to be linked by a piece of physical evidence to the bombing. He allegedly sold the van used in the attack -- a vehicle some experts doubt ever existed.
Many victims' families hoped that Telleldin's trial might reveal the larger, international conspiracy they believed was behind the bombing.
But Galeano and other court officials had been working privately to ensure that the trial would focus on others -- specifically, the notoriously corrupt Buenos Aires provincial police. Luisa Riva Aramayo, a Menem-appointed supervising judge, secretly visited Telleldin in prison and presented the car thief with a handwritten list of instructions that included the names of police officers to implicate in the crime.
"I don't know them," Telleldin said of the police officers in one of the meetings, which was videotaped. "I never met them in my life."
Evidence suggests the officers were tied to petty crimes and extortion schemes, but there was no evidence suggesting why they might have bombed the cultural center building.
"We believe that they [the police officers] had absolutely nothing to do with the attack," said Pablo Jacoby, an attorney representing Active Memory, a group of victims' relatives.
Clues indicating an international dimension to the plot were found in phone records. From July 1 to 18, 1994, the day of the attack, someone made calls on a Brazilian-registered cell phone from Buenos Aires to locations in Lebanon, Germany, Iran, New York and the border area where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet near Iguazu Falls.
Some of the cell phone calls were made near the cultural center building; the last one was made from a Buenos Aires airport just two hours before the bombing.
Another record indicates someone called a Hezbollah safe house in Lebanon from a Buenos Aires phone belonging to the wife of Samuel Salman El Reda, a Lebanese Colombian. Investigators believe he helped build the bomb.
El Reda has since fled to the Middle East.
Over the years, the picture of the alleged international conspiracy behind the bombing and its cover-up has been filled out too by a series of declarations by another Iranian dissident and former intelligence agent, Abolghasem Mesbahi.
In a series of depositions, Mesbahi described how the plot to blow up the cultural center building was hatched in Tehran, and how the explosives were smuggled in from Brazil. The Iranian government has denied any role in the bombing, however, and many investigators here believe other countries may have been involved.
"We may learn one day the full truth about the cover-up," Verbitsky said. "But we may never know the full truth about how the bombing itself was carried out."
Jacoby believes officials in Menem's government told Galeano to set up the police officers in a bid to discredit the governor of Buenos Aires province, Eduardo Duhalde, Menem's most serious political rival.
"What started out as judicial incompetence became a conscious effort to cover up the case," Jacoby said.
Galeano was removed from the case in December 2003 after a journalist obtained and broadcast a videotape of the judge and Telleldin discussing the illegal payment.
Telleldin and his co-defendants were found not guilty on Sept. 2, 2004.
The verdict provoked widespread outrage in Argentina. Days after the verdict, hundreds of mostly Jewish friends and relatives of the victims marched through this capital decrying the "impunity" that had allowed the killers to escape. They demanded too that the government prosecute the judges and officials who they say bungled the case.
President Nestor Kirchner, who took office last year, has promised relatives of the victims that he will not allow the case to fall by the wayside.