BUENOS AIRES — When Argentines discovered that they had a Holocaust-denying bishop in their midst, the public outcry was forceful and the government response swift.
British-born bishop Richard Williamson was summarily expelled from the country last month, to the applause of Jewish rights groups and others. The official reason cited by immigration authorities was a visa technicality, but the message was clear: Argentina will not tolerate anti-Semitism within its borders.
The domestic response was part of a larger international debate that erupted after Pope Benedict XVI allowed Williamson back into the Catholic Church earlier this year. On March 12, the Vatican released a letter the pope wrote to bishops worldwide, in which he said the Vatican mishandled the reinstatement. The pope expressed regret for the event, which "upset peace between Christians and Jews."
For the largest Jewish community in Latin America, peace has often been hard to come by: Argentina has a long, dark history as a haven for anti-Semites and Nazis.
Even today, the number of spray-painted swastikas on the streets of Buenos Aires hints at the persistent anti-Semitism below Argentina's politically correct veneer. The graffiti, together with Argentina's history of serving as a refuge for Nazis and anti-Semites, might suggest a strong Argentine neo-Nazi movement.
Raul Kollman, a radio commentator who has written a book on the subject, however, says that there are only two organized neo-Nazi groups in Argentina — both politically impotent and with less than 300 adherents between them.
Sergio Widder — who leads the Latin American branch of the Simon Weisenthal Center, a prominent Jewish human rights organization — says that most anti-Semitism in Argentina these days comes from anti-Israel movements of militant Islamists and radical leftists, rather than from neo-Nazis. Buenos Aires has been the site of two of the deadliest attacks on Israeli institutions in the Western hemisphere: the bombings of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and the Argentine-Israeli Mutual Association in 1994.
Echoes of those attacks continue to this day. On March 6, an investigator into the 1994 bombing was abducted, tortured and interrogated about the investigation for several hours before being released.
It's not yet clear who his kidnappers were. But they left a chilling scar on their victim, whom they knew was of Eastern European Jewish ancestry: a six-digit number carved into his forearm, bearing a sinister resemblance to the tattoos printed on prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.
That resemblance may or may not have been deliberate — the numerical wound matches the bombing investigation's case number. But whatever the intent, the incident is a reminder of Argentina's history of anti-Semitism and Nazi ties.
The "Dirty War" of the repressive military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 is alleged to have disproportionately persecuted Argentine Jews. And during World War II, with the Nazi party's genocidal frenzy in full swing in Europe, Argentine bard Jorge Luis Borges lamented that anti-Semitism in Buenos Aires was "even worse than in Berlin."
When Borges made his pronouncement, the country had only just disbanded domestic Nazi groups, and would soon cut its ties with the Axis powers in order to remain neutral in World War II. The moves were an about-face: In the previous decade, public pro-Nazi demonstrations took place in Buenos Aires and Argentina strengthened diplomatic and commercial ties to Berlin.
But despite the publicly severed ties between the Axis powers and Argentina, the military opposition (of which future president Juan Peron was a member) cultivated strategic deals with Nazi officials during World War II. And after the war, Peron's ascent to the presidency led to an influx in Argentina of Nazis fleeing a vanquished Germany.
These Nazis sought refuge all over South America. But — as journalist Uki Goni chronicled in his book "The Real Odessa" — Argentina was the region's only country known to actively encourage the immigration and employment of former Nazi party members.
Historian Jorge Camarasa, who has written extensively on the post-war Nazi exodus to South America, guesses that between 15,000 and 20,000 Nazis and collaborators settled in Argentina after the war. Between 200 and 400 of them had been responsible for war crimes, experts say.
To date, five of those war criminals have been extradited from Argentina to countries where they can be prosecuted. And Adolf Eichmann — who became infamous for his direction of Hitler's "Final Solution," which sent millions to concentration camps — was captured by Israeli intelligence forces in the suburbs of Buenos Aires.
That was almost half a century ago, and Camarasa says that nature and history have changed the landscape since then. "I doubt that there are still any Nazi war criminals left in Argentina," Camarasa said, calculating that the youngest officers in 1945 would be about 90 years old by now.
But others are not so sure. Widder, of the Weisenthal Center, says he's "moderately optimistic" that there are still Nazi war criminals living in South America, and that they will be found. Of course, there's no denying that even the healthiest of them don't have many years left. Hence the name of the Weisenthal Center's initiative to find and bring them to justice: Operation Last Chance.
The initiative has turned up 515 suspects from almost 30 countries worldwide.
The bulk of them are not believed to be in Argentina — a handful of European countries that fell under Nazi control in World War II dominate the list, and the U.S. and Canada also turn out to be popular Nazi refuges. But Argentina has yielded some of the most important war criminals in history, and just may be the current home of Operation Last Chance's most wanted fugitive: Aribert Heim, also known as "Dr. Death."
The New York Times reported evidence last month that Heim died in Cairo in 1992, having lived out the end of his life under an assumed Muslim identity. But Ephraim Zuroff, director of Operation Last Chance, is unconvinced. "The fact that his body can't be found is too perfect," said Zuroff, emphasizing that forensic tests of a corpse — DNA, dental structure — are the only sure way to establish someone's death.
And Zuroff thinks there's evidence that Heim is still alive. "Why hasn't his family claimed the 2 million euros in his bank account, which they could have done by simply presenting the death certificate?" he asked.
Zuroff, who claims responsibility for the investigations leading to all five of Argentina's previous extradition requests, said that he has invested much of the last four years searching for Heim in consultation with the German police. "We analyzed this case from every possible angle," he said, "and the suspicion was that he's probably in Patagonia," a large, picturesque region of southern Argentina and Chile.
There have been a number of reported sightings of Heim in the area in recent years. Operation Last Chance offers a hefty reward — the bounty just increased to 1 million euros — for information leading to Heim's apprehension.
Since those at the Weisenthal Center have no authority to make arrests, however, it's unclear what would happen even if "Dr. Death" or another war criminal is found in Argentina. “Is there the political will to investigate them and bring them to justice?” Zuroff wondered when he came to South America in pursuit of Heim in 2008.
But Zuroff is feeling more confident about local political will nowadays, having seen the strong Argentine response to the Williamson affair.
"There's no question that there's been an incredible change in Argentina from the days in which they were looking for Nazis to help them until today," he said.
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