The year 1997 ended in Argentina with the desecration of gravestones in two Jewish
cemeteries in Buenos Aires, 35 in the La Tablada cemetery on Christmas Eve and 19
in the Liniers cemetery on New Year's Eve. Cemetery desecration is by no means an
unusual occurrence in Argentina.1
A few days before these events a large number
of men had been dismissed from the Buenos Aires police force in the course of a
major reorganization, following charges of police corruption. Jewish leaders had
reason to suspect that some of the discharged policemen were responsible for the
As news of the extent of police corruption spread, so too did the
suspicion that certain groups within the federal police force were involved in
The following questions will be dealt with here: 1) Why is anti-Semitism so much
more prevalent in Argentina than in other Latin American countries? 2) What lies
behind police involvement in anti-Semitic acts?
Argentina's history is marked both by social anti-Semitism and official
anti-Semitism. It has been evident in the armed forces for decades, particularly
during the 1960s' military regime of Juan Carlos Onganía, known for his pro-Nazi
sympathies, and in the anti-Semitic leanings of the Catholic nationalist foreign
and interior ministers. Moreover, Enrique Horacio Green, Onganía's son-in-law,
served as Buenos Aires' chief of police and carried out a "purification" of the
moral climate in the city, through organized anti-Semitic groups.3
Anti-Semites have also held influential positions in the democratic regimes.
Jordán Bruno Genta, a lecturer and instructor in the air force, found an
interested audience there. He published a book, Guerra contrarrevolucionaria:
Doctrina Política, which encouraged the struggle against subversive left-wing
forces, of which Jews, described as "unpatriotic foreigners," were clearly a part.
Bruno Genta was a disciple of the well-known anti-Semitic priest Julio Meinville,
a prolific writer and the spiritual leader of Tacuara, a violent, anti-Semitic
group of upper-class young people, active in the 1960s.4
This continual and
intense ideological framework of beliefs and subsequent acts is unparalleled in
other countries in the region.
The 1970s, too, were a period when anti-Semitism in the government and the armed
forces was prevalent. In the Peronist government of 1973, Perón's own personal
secretary and a close aide of Peron's wife Vice-President María Estela de Perón,
was José López Rega, a former member of the AAA (Argentine Anti-communist Alliance),
a right-wing, anti-Semitic, paramilitary group.5
In 1971 a leaflet appeared
among officers in the Argentinean army under the name "Plan Andinia," which
accused international Jewry and Zionists of planning to take over southern
Argentina. It has been circulating ever since.
The most violent, anti-Semitic eruption of hatred surfaced during the military
rule of 1976-83, when Jews were labeled "subversive" and "left wing" and were
treated in an especially violent manner. Of the Jews who were arrested and later
disappeared, many were students, intellectuals and liberal professionals who were
unconnected to the extreme left-wing urban guerrilla movement pursued by the
regime. Here, too, groups within the armed forces and the police force played
central roles in state terrorism.6
The Buenos Aires police force has a long tradition of involvement in corruption,
connections to violent, right-wing groups and anti-Semitic acts. When the AMIA
Jewish community center was blown up on July 18, 1994, hopes of finding those
responsible were not high. It is believed that although the bombing was carried
out by Muslim militants, they were aided by the local police, who provided them
with the necessary intelligence, vehicles, explosives and immigration
In 1997, there appeared to be a major breakthrough in the case of the AMIA bombing.
Links between the car bomb that blew up the building and the Buenos Aires police
force led to the arrest of four police officers. It was discovered that the father
of police commander Juan José Ribelli, a retired railway worker, had received 2.5
million dollars prior to the bombing. This sum of money had apparently been given
to his sons, who then signed it over to him. Investigators believe that the money
was payment for aiding the terrorists. Juan José Ribelli has since been charged
with supplying the van used to carry out the attack. Ex-chief of police Pedro
Klodczyk, who retired in 1996, admitted that some policemen did make money
illegally. He conceded that those under his command were out of control and he
called Ribelli a "criminal."
Prosecutors have yet to prove that the 2.5 million dollars came from terrorists.
Ribelli was rich long before the bombing of the AMIA, having profited for years
from the supervision of illegal police activity. It is not uncommon in Argentina
for government and police officials to amass large sums of money illegally and
then publicly declare that these riches were a family inheritance. While still not
a definite breakthrough, the case against Ribelli is gaining strength.8
On December 23, 1997, the governor of Buenos Aires announced that the province's
police force would be reformed. The entire framework of the Buenos Aires police
force was dismantled. An intervenor was assigned chief of police for 90 days and a
number of significant positions were eliminated. The police force was made
directly accountable to the Supreme Court of Justice, a measure unprecedented in
Argentina. President Menem said the government supported the reform.9
Senior officials, in most cases former government employees, were replaced by
It was announced that future investigations, including security and
narcotics trafficking investigations, would also be conducted by civil servants.
In March 1998, a new Ministry of Security was to have been established. These
reforms were supported by all major political forces, but repudiated by the police
It is claimed by both Jewish and local leaders that the desecration of the Jewish
cemeteries was a direct response to the reforms within the police force. After
all, they argue, so many gravestones could not have been smashed without
attracting the attention of the police who patrolled the area. But why did the
police choose Jewish targets? The answer appears to lie partly in their
traditional anti-Semitism, reflected in their repeated attempts to cleanse society
of what are perceived to be its darker elements. At the same time, they were
attempting to punish the government by attracting negative attention in the
See, for example, "Profanan 40 tumbas en cemeterio judío," Diario Popular, 24
Sept.1993; "Sin Pistas sobre profanadores de cemeterio judio," Crónica, 25 Sept.
1993; "La Ofensiva Antisemita", Nueva Sion, 29 Nov.1996..
See Informe, DAIA, Dec. 1997 (unpublished report).
Haim Avni, "Antisemitismo en la Argentina: las dimensiones del peligro," in El
Legado del Antisemitismo, ed. Leonardo Senkman and Mario Sznajder (Buenos Aires,
About Julio Meinvielle and his influence, see Graciela Ben-Dror, "The Catholic
Church in Argentine and the Jewish People during the Holocaust, 1933-1945" (Ph..D.
Diss., The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1993.[Hebrew]). On Jordán Bruno Genta,
see Guerra Contrarrevolucionaria: Doctrina Politica (Buenos Aires, 1965)
Leonardo Senkman, "The Restoration of Democracy in Argentina and the Impunity
of Antisemitism," Patterns of Prejudice 2/4 (1990), pp. 36-59.
pp. 39-40; Leonardo Senkman, "El Antisemitismo bajo dos experiencias democraticas,
Argentina 1955-56 y 1973-78," in El Antisemitismo en la Argentina ed. Leonardo
Senkman (Buenos Aires, 1989), pp. 109-87.
See Edy Kaufmann and Beatriz Cymberknopf, "La Dimensión judía en la represion
durante el gobierno militar en la Argentina 1976-1983," in El Antisemitismo en la
Argentina, pp. 235-73. See also, Mario Diament, "The Timmerman Affair," Present
Tense 6 (Sept-Oct. 1988), pp. 23-7.
See La Denuncia, DAIA - AMIA, document presented to Judge José Galeano in
The New York Times (internat. ed.), 23 Nov. 1997.
Clarín, 23 Dec. 1997; "Argentina Grave Desecration," Jerusalem Post, 28 Dec.
1997; "Ex-police Officers Suspected of Vandalizing Jewish Tombs," The Jerusalem
Post, 4 Jan. 1998.
Informe, DAIA, op. cit.