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Nazi Smuggling Ring Is Back in Spotlight

Peron's intelligence agency helped bring Adolf Eichmann and other war criminals into Argentina, documents reveal.

March 25, 2003|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — Rodolfo Freude is an old man now, with an office in a nondescript high-rise in the center of this capital. Once upon a time, he was one of the most powerful men in Argentina, a right-hand man to President Juan Peron and friend to his charismatic wife, Eva.

He was also, according to historians here, a savior to some of the most notorious war criminals in history. Thanks to him, hundreds of Nazi officers and alleged French, Belgian and Croatian collaborators found a haven in this faraway South American country.

Peron named Freude, the scion of a wealthy Argentine German family, his chief of intelligence in 1946.

According to documents obtained by Argentine historians, Freude's agency organized a network of agents who smuggled the fugitives to Buenos Aires through way stations in Milan, Italy; Madrid; and other cities.

More than five decades later, the work of that smuggling ring has come under a microscope, thanks to an enterprising historian and investigative journalist.

The revelations in Uki Goni's "The Real Odessa," published in Argentina this year, have led Jewish organizations here to demand that the government release documents related to the Nazis.

In polite, brief letters, the secret service and the Foreign Ministry have said their files contain no such documents.

"It's totally inconceivable that the Argentine secret service has nothing on this period," Goni, a writer and investigative journalist, said in an interview.

"All they have to do is call Rodolfo Freude. His name is in the phone book."

Calls to Freude's office over two months by The Times always produced the same answer: He was unavailable for interviews.

Freude was part of a secret assistance network for suspected Croatian, Belgian, French and German war criminals, according to documents uncovered by Goni and other investigators.

Given new identities by Argentine spies and by sympathizers in the Italian church, the suspects would receive visas from immigration officials here to work as "technicians."

Josef Mengele, the infamous doctor of Auschwitz, escaped to Argentina in 1949 thanks to the network, arriving in Buenos Aires still in possession of the records of his ruthless experiments on twins in the Nazi death camps.

Discussion of Argentina's role in the Nazis' escapes has remained taboo here for decades, with generations of Argentine government officials blocking access to key archives. The revelations tarnish the image of Juan Peron, a man whose shadow still dominates Argentine politics almost 30 years after his death.

The current president and three of the four leading candidates in next month's presidential election are Peronists.

"Covering up for this sort of past sin is part of the political culture of Peronism," said Carlos Escude, an author and advisor to Argentina's Foreign Ministry in the 1990s. "Peron's ties to the Nazis are an embarrassment. They think they're doing their patriotic duty by shutting out any investigation of the past."

Argentine officials briefly opened key files to investigators in 1997, when then-President Carlos Menem created the Commission for the Clarification of Nazi Activities in Argentina, known here by its Spanish initials, CEANA.

Beatriz Gurevich, then an investigator with the Delegation of Argentine Israelite Assns., joined the commission and traveled to Argentine embassies and consulates in Stockholm, Milan and other cities to pore through their records.

But it was in the National Archives in Buenos Aires that Gurevich found perhaps the most revealing document. It detailed the existence of "secret advisors" with the authority to smooth the passage of suspected war criminals through Argentine immigration.

"Their signatures carried the weight of law," Gurevich said, even though most of the advisors were themselves suspected war criminals, such as Branko Benzon, who was ambassador to Berlin for the Nazi puppet state in Croatia. "The documents made it clear their authority had come directly from the president."

Perhaps the most important man in the Argentine intelligence network aiding the entrants was Carlos Fuldner, an Argentine-born captain of German descent who served in Hitler's SS.

After the war, Fuldner joined Freude's secret service, establishing "rescue offices" in Italy and Switzerland. Some fleeing suspected war criminals were granted an audience with President Peron just days after their arrival in Buenos Aires, according to documents uncovered by Goni.

A strongman who ruled Argentina from 1946 to 1955 and from 1973 to 1974, Peron told friends privately that he believed the Nazi leadership had gotten a raw deal in the landmark war crimes trials at Nuremberg.

Marcelo Fuhrman, a Jewish refugee from Austria who traveled to Argentina in 1946, remembers encountering fugitive Nazis on the ship, Cabo de Hornos, that took him to South America.

"I would listen to them talk," he said. "They had no idea who I was."

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