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Deadly Blasts and an Itinerant’s Tale

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The tipster surfaced a week before the terrorist bomb destroyed a Jewish community center here in 1994 and killed 86 people, the bloodiest anti-Semitic attack ever in the Americas.

His name was Wilson Dos Santos. He was a frightened Brazilian who talked his way into the Argentine Consulate in Milan, Italy, with a wild story to tell. He was 38, lean and dapper. He had green eyes, and he was missing the four fingers of his right hand.

Dos Santos had roamed from Sao Paulo to Pennsylvania to Italy, surviving on hustles and odd jobs. He had contacts in the underworld in the lawless tri-border region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet. He had married a well-to-do Brazilian woman while posing as an Italian engineer. His life, authorities would later say, had become a labyrinthine odyssey of deception.

The Argentine consul knew none of this, but she was skeptical nonetheless as Dos Santos explained that his ex-girlfriend, an Iranian prostitute whom he met in Buenos Aires, belonged to a terrorist cell that had bombed the Israeli Embassy in Argentina two years earlier. The terrorists were preparing to bomb another Jewish target in Buenos Aires, a building undergoing renovation, he said.

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“Something big is going to happen,” he said. He babbled that his life was in danger and that he had already sounded the alarm at the Brazilian and Israeli consulates in Milan.

The Argentine diplomat decided that his account was farfetched. Brazilian diplomats also had doubts, though they escorted him to the Israeli Consulate, where he spent several hours. Israeli officials have not disclosed their reaction. In any event, the warning went unheeded.

On July 18, 1994, a white Renault van packed with 600 pounds of explosives rammed into the entrance of the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Assn. (AMIA) in Buenos Aires’ congested Once garment district, the heart of Latin America’s largest Jewish community.

The bomb did not discriminate between Jews and Christians, old and young. The explosion tore Sebastian Barreiro, a 5-year-old walking past the building, out of his mother’s grip and hurled his broken body halfway across the street. It immolated Faiwel Dyjament, 73, who was in the agency’s job-placement office. It demolished the seven-story building, which was undergoing renovation, and its occupants with the force of a giant fist.

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So Dos Santos told the truth. Or did he?

Almost five years later, he could be the key to solving the two attacks, which left 115 dead and about 400 injured. His trail leads into a South American theater of operations of the Middle East conflict, a shadow world of spies and terrorists, prostitutes and politicians. A place darkened by a haze of intrigue so thick that almost anything seems possible except establishing hard facts.

Because Dos Santos’ prediction is one of the few facts in the AMIA case, the weary Argentine sleuths have circled back to the beginning. They questioned him after the blast, but then Dos Santos dropped out of sight for four years. He was finally tracked down last year.

How Did He Get the Information in 1994?

Investigators now want to determine how he gained the information and why he came forward in 1994. Fading hopes for a breakthrough hinge largely on one question: Who is Wilson Dos Santos?

“Did he obtain the information from [his Iranian girlfriend] or some other means?” asked Eamon Mullen, an Argentine prosecutor. “Is he an operative of the Brazilian intelligence services? That is a strong thesis.”

In fact, the investigation has focused on suspicions that he was a kind of double agent who provided fraudulent immigration documents to terrorists while working as an informant for police or an intelligence service.

“In that world of marginal activity it all goes together--selling papers, being an informant,” said a senior Argentine intelligence official, who says Dos Santos had ties to the Brazilian federal police. “It’s also a form of protection. Whatever he did, he did for money. Ideology had nothing to do with it.”

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But Brazilian officials reject such theories and say he easily could have been an operative of Argentine security forces or a third government.

“If he is a spy, he is not a spy of the Brazilian government,” diplomat Elena Gasparian said. “We have nothing to hide in this matter.”

Making the matter more ambiguous, Dos Santos now denies everything. He told exasperated interrogators in a Brazilian court recently that he didn’t predict the AMIA bombing but merely discussed the 1992 embassy bombing. The timing of his visits to the Milan consulates was an incredibly lucky coincidence: “a bingo,” he told the court.

In a rare interview last month, his first with a U.S. journalist, Dos Santos stuck to this new account. His smile became a jagged grimace when he was asked if he is a spy.

“I’m a fool,” he replied. “If I were smart, I wouldn’t have invented this story.”

During the tense conversation in a shopping mall in his native Sao Paulo, he insisted that he had hoped to make money by turning his tale into a book.

“Because I made up a story, I lost four years of my life,” he snapped. “I will answer all their questions, but I have nothing more to say. The Argentines are looking for somebody to crucify.”

No Arrests in Blast at Israeli Embassy

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Argentina is one of the few nations in the Americas to have suffered successive and unsolved terrorist attacks in the 1990s. The investigation of the embassy blast has produced no arrests. The AMIA probe snared a small-time gangster and four police officers, including a commander, who soon will stand trial for murder because they last had custody of the van used as a rolling bomb.

Both attacks appear to have been masterminded by Iranian agents and executed by Hezbollah terrorists, according to Argentine authorities. But investigators have yet to show how the accused Argentine accomplices in the second bombing fit into that plot.

Obstruction by renegade police and Argentina’s history of anti-Semitism contribute to a tangle of conspiracy theories typical of political crimes in Latin America. It seems likely that Argentina was targeted in part because President Carlos Menem, the son of Syrian immigrants, cooled his longtime friendship with Arab leaders and established closer ties to Israel and the United States after his election in 1989.

But critics allege a cover-up. They note that Arab-Argentine suspects who were questioned but not charged had political connections. And they allege that a mafia with Middle Eastern ties exerted control over airports, border agencies and law enforcement at the time of the bombings.

“It was an organization that managed to control and conceal the entry and exit of people, goods, drugs, guns, etc.,” said Domingo Cavallo, a former economy minister who is running for president in Argentine elections this year. “It could be that those who controlled this logistical system did not know they were contributing to a terrorist act until it happened. . . . [It] was not investigated because they created a mechanism of impunity that restricted judges and the security forces.”

Argentine officials say they simply lacked legislation, experience and resources.

“The system moves very slowly,” said Cmdr. Jorge Palacios, who leads a federal police anti-terrorist unit created in 1997. “There’s the old policeman’s saying that as time passes, the truth flees.”

The truth fled along with Dos Santos, whom authorities and others describe as an itinerant con man.

Since the late 1980s, Dos Santos has shuttled between Brazil, Argentina, Europe and the United States. He also visited Morocco. He speaks Spanish, English, Italian, and reportedly some German and French--without benefit of wealth or a university education.

In 1988, the U.S. Embassy in London granted him a tourist visa, which is unusual but not impossible for a Brazilian of modest means applying in a third country, U.S. officials say.

Dos Santos lived in the United States from 1988 to 1990. Records show two addresses in Lumberville, a town near Philadelphia, according to the FBI. Dos Santos says he scrounged a living as a soccer coach, waiter and landscaper. Then he got into trouble with the Immigration and Naturalization Service and lost a work authorization he had obtained, according to his recent testimony in Brazil. He went to Italy later that year and worked as a radio announcer for a Portuguese-language show during the World Cup.

Dos Santos also returned repeatedly to the place where investigators believe that he crossed paths with terrorists: the border zone where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet.

Mafias based in the Arab immigrant enclaves of Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, and Foz de Iguacu, Brazil, run veritable criminal industries such as money laundering and smuggling of contraband and people. Those mafias finance a clandestine network of terrorists of Hezbollah, Hamas and other groups that take advantage of porous borders, corrupt officials and availability of illicit documents and weapons, according to the FBI and Argentine agents.

Suspects in Bombing Linked to Border Zone

Investigators are convinced that the suspects in both bombings received logistics support in the border zone. In the embassy case, the pickup truck used by the suicide bomber was purchased in Buenos Aires by a man with a Brazilian identification card and a Portuguese accent.

In the AMIA case, several of the accused Argentines frequented the tri-border area. And the investigation has detected suspicious phone calls before the 1994 attack from a mosque and a travel agency in Foz de Iguacu, both alleged terrorist fronts, to suspected Iranian spies in Buenos Aires who did reconnaissance, according to Argentine officials and a confidential FBI report.

Dos Santos says he moved frequently through the border zone transporting leather goods and furniture he sold in Brazil. He ensured safe passage by cultivating a romance with the then-chief of the Argentine customs station, Nora Gonzalez, also known as “Fat Nora,” according to testimony in the AMIA case. Gonzalez, who died in an auto accident in 1994, allegedly helped Arab smugglers move people and goods across the border, according to testimony.

In Buenos Aires, Dos Santos hung around with Middle Easterners, offering help with immigration papers and presenting himself as a journalist, according to testimony in Argentina. In Sao Paulo, he purchased plane tickets on a weekly basis while freelancing for a major travel agency, according to testimony.

“He fits the profile of someone who deals in fraudulent passports and visas,” said Brazilian federal prosecutor Manoel Tavares, who hopes to pursue an investigation of possible document-related crimes that will aid the terrorism cases.

In April 1992, Dos Santos met Nasrim Mokhtari, the Iranian woman he later accused of being a terrorist. Mokhtari has eight prostitution-related arrests on her record and witnesses testified that she was a prostitute between 1988 and 1991, Argentine authorities say.

In a 10-hour deposition in 1994, Dos Santos told Argentine police that they struck up a flirtatious conversation in a cafe in Palermo, the plush neighborhood in Buenos Aires that houses numerous embassies. As the affair progressed, Dos Santos learned that Mokhtari picked up clients at a bar near the National Congress frequented by politicians. A legislator had helped her obtain an Argentine passport.

Mokhtari hung out at an Iranian butcher shop near the AMIA, Dos Santos told the Argentine investigators. There she introduced him to two Arab friends--Guillermo, a tough-looking, bearded man, and Hassan, a cabdriver who chauffeured her free of charge. Dos Santos accompanied the driver and Mokhtari on visits to the Iranian Embassy, waiting nearby while she did business inside, according to his account.

Dos Santos testified that he later helped Guillermo move merchandise into Argentina across the triple border. They traveled by bus to the border region, met with Arabs and returned from Ciudad del Este with a heavy metal suitcase that Dos Santos brought into Argentina with the help of Fat Nora and another customs official, according to his testimony. Guillermo said the suitcase contained video games, but Dos Santos suspected otherwise.

In December 1992, Dos Santos accompanied Mokhtari to Italy at her expense. She wanted to go to Canada, so he helped her apply for a Canadian visa at the consulate in Rome. But officials rejected Mokhtari’s application, enraging her.

They traveled to Zurich, Switzerland, where to Dos Santos’ surprise they met up with the bearded man from Buenos Aires. And that night, Dos Santos said, Mokhtari showed him a suitcase full of money and made her dramatic confession: She and her friends had taken part in the bombing of the Israeli Embassy. Although she was sick of the clandestine life, she was helping them prepare one last “job” in Buenos Aires scheduled for mid-1994. The target was a building undergoing renovation.

May Have Embellished Account of Confession

Dos Santos said he spent several weeks acting as a courier and interpreter for Mokhtari and Guillermo in Italy, Switzerland and Germany. Then, he said, he got scared, abandoned them early one morning and returned to Brazil.

But he did not go to the authorities until the following year, an omission that raises suspicions. Investigators believe he embellished part of the account of Mokhtari’s confession, perhaps to conceal his role as an accomplice.

In February 1993, he turned up in Santos, a Brazilian port city near Sao Paulo. He had created a whole new identity for himself, according to Brazilian court documents.

Dos Santos courted a woman from a prominent family while masquerading as Francesco Di Bianchi, a Sicilian engineer who designed Formula 1 auto racing tracks, according to court documents. He carried an authentic-looking Italian identification card and documents of an international automobile federation.

The couple’s wedding in November 1993 was attended by the city’s elite. They honeymooned in Europe.

“He is an artist of deception,” said businessman Carlos Lamberti, the bride’s father and the city’s deputy mayor at the time. “He dressed well. He charmed the entire family. He always brought gifts when he came back from his trips. He even fooled my uncle, who was born in Italy and speaks Italian.”

Dos Santos kept up his frequent travels and, in early 1994, persuaded his wife to sell her car, jewels and furniture to finance a move to Italy, according to interviews and court documents. After they moved in June, she grew suspicious because he left her in hotels and disappeared on “business trips,” according to the documents.

His wife had no idea, according to her lawyer, that Dos Santos visited the consulates in Milan to warn of the impending AMIA attack in July, and provided more information in frantic phone calls to police in Buenos Aires and meetings with Argentine agents in Rome just after the bombing.

Dos Santos soon ended up in Argentina. In November 1994, he gave his 10-hour deposition to federal police about Mokhtari and her friends.

A few days later, however, a terrified-looking Dos Santos retracted his account in front of investigative magistrate Juan Jose Galeano, who promptly charged him with perjury. Dos Santos spent about a week in jail, was released on verbal recognizance and fled to Brazil.

Investigators corroborated key details of his original version. The butcher shop he said he visited with Mokhtari, for example, was the sometime workplace of an Iranian immigrant related to the owners who has been identified as a spy by Argentine agents, according to Argentine authorities and the FBI report. Details such as Mokhtari’s shady cabdriver match prior evidence of Iranian cells operating under the guise of taxi drivers, students and meat-related businesses here, investigators say.

Investigators believe that this network, along with Hezbollah terrorists and Argentine accomplices who provided the van used in the bombing, was coordinated by the former cultural attache of the Iranian Embassy. Among clues pointing at the attache: his cellular phone was detected a few blocks away from the AMIA at a key moment before the bombing, according to Argentine authorities.

“He is the chief suspect,” said Palacios of the anti-terrorist unit.

The attache, Mohsen Rabbani, was barred from Argentina after testimony by an Iranian defector identified him as the espionage chief in the region. But Iran denies any role in the bombings.

They Enticed Her With the Promise of a Job

Raising hopes of a breakthrough, investigators tracked down Mokhtari and Dos Santos late last year. Argentine agents found the Iranian woman in Switzerland. Posing as businessmen, they enticed her back to South America with promises of a job in Uruguay and a Canadian visa. She was arrested when the plane made a stopover in Buenos Aires.

Today, Mokhtari is in judicial limbo. Investigators do not have enough evidence to charge her, but they are intrigued by her muddled testimony about her whereabouts during the attacks and her ties to politicians and suspected fronts for Iranian espionage. They think that she also could have played a role in furnishing documents and official contacts in one or both bombings.

“I must emphasize the suspicious and suggestive nature of her presence, lifestyle and activities in our country,” Judge Galeano said in a recent court document here.

So Mokhtari, 43, remains under investigation and is prohibited from leaving Argentina. She has appeared on television talk shows, looking haggard and declaring in broken Spanish: “I am not a terrorist!”

In her testimony, Mokhtari accused Dos Santos of hustling her with promises of obtaining a Canadian visa in Italy. She paid his way and then he abandoned her, she testified. And she said he was the one who hung around with suspicious Iranians in Argentina and smugglers in Italy.

In response, Dos Santos shrugs.

“I made up a story about her, so now she’s making up a story about me,” he said.

Brazilian intelligence agents found Dos Santos shortly before Mokhtari’s capture. Brazilian judges questioned him as a witness, not a suspect, in court hearings attended by Argentine investigators and relatives of victims in the AMIA blast.

Luis Czyzewski, who lost his 21-year-old daughter in the attack, traveled to Brasilia, Brazil’s capital, to watch Dos Santos testify in December. As Dos Santos squirmed and fidgeted on the stand, the bereaved father was overcome by frustration and broke down in tears.

“For the first time, I had the sensation that I was seeing a person who could have participated in my daughter’s death,” he said. “More than an interrogation, it was like a circus act. He overwhelmed himself with his own lies.”

After the formal questioning, Brazilian prosecutor Tavares sat down with Dos Santos in a one-on-one meeting. The amiable Tavares, who wears square glasses and is himself a former intelligence agent, gave it his best shot. He offered Dos Santos protection and appealed for the truth.

“I told him I knew he knew more than he was saying,” Tavares said. “I said I knew he was scared. . . .I said that if he didn’t collaborate, we couldn’t help him. And the terrorists weren’t going to believe that he will keep lying. But he didn’t open up at all.”

One question is why Dos Santos exposed himself to the risk of going public, then reversed himself. Some Argentine investigators think that an intelligence service pushed or paid him to come forward to try to prevent the bombing.

On the other hand, Tavares believes that Dos Santos somehow stumbled across information that he thought could make some money.

If Argentina ultimately charges him in the bombings, the trial would take place in Brazil because that nation does not extradite its citizens. And it may simply be too late. There are political obstacles: Brazilian officials believe that Argentina exaggerates the terrorist threat in the region and emphasizes the Dos Santos angle in order to deflect criticism at home over the lack of progress.

Argentine officials, meanwhile, complain that Brazil has been a reluctant partner in the anti-terrorist crackdown, though they have praised the cooperation since Dos Santos was located.

Today, Dos Santos shows no interest in the $3-million reward offered in the AMIA case. Despite the many contradictions, Dos Santos says he is telling the truth now. He denies he was in hiding, though he complains of a forced absence “from my normal life.”

And he insists that he is not being guarded, although Argentine and Brazilian officials said authorities in Brazil are keeping a watch on him to prevent a new disappearance and to ensure his safety.

“I am free,” he said, gesturing at shoppers around him at the mall. “I don’t have any kind of protection. I don’t need to be protected because I have done nothing wrong.”

Dos Santos does not want to talk about the 86 corpses in the rubble of the AMIA or the families’ pain. He said he is busy with a new job at a company that organizes public events--a show business venture.

Gathering his sunglasses and getting to his feet, the reluctant mystery witness said he just wants everyone--spies, prosecutors, journalists--to leave him alone.

“It’s been an immense pleasure, but I’ve got to go,” he said, his green eyes hard and skittish. “Someone might write the book about all this one day. But it’s not going to be me.”


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