When ABC Television aired Sam Donaldson's in-your-face interview with Erich Priebke early in May, the U.S. network not only revealed the presence of an accused Gestapo war criminal in southern Argentina. It also put a prime-time spotlight on this South American country's shadowy role as a haven for World War II Nazis.
Priebke, a former German SS captain who participated in the execution of 335 Italian civilians in 1944, has lived peacefully and quietly in Argentina since 1948.
He and hundreds of other Nazis who came to South America after the war found anonymity and security, precious commodities for men who were hated and hunted elsewhere in the world.
How Third Reich killers and collaborators were able to hide out in this country is now becoming increasingly clear: In the last two years, the Argentine government has opened previously secret archives to researchers who want to trace the steps of Nazis in this country. And as the painstaking research proceeds, under the auspices of Argentina's Jewish community, it is turning up documents that detail a historical pattern of tolerance and complicity on behalf of fugitive Nazis.
"There was a network of protection--if not legal, at least bought--that made it very difficult to find them and bring them to justice," said Ruben Beraja, leader of the Delegation of Argentine Israelites Assns., which is sponsoring the research dubbed "Project Testimony."
Exactly how the protective systems worked and who was involved have long been a subject of speculation. Nazi-hunters have discovered some of the puzzle's pieces over the years as they tracked down war criminals in Argentina, including the notorious Adolf Eichmann.
But important information in the form of official documents--diplomatic notes, police reports, administrative memoranda--was largely out of reach until Project Testimony.
Although the documents uncovered have yet to be catalogued and cross-referenced, researchers showed The Times copies of hundreds of pages containing intriguing information on notable Nazi figures.
Many of the documents show that Nazis entered Argentina with travel papers issued by the International Red Cross, reinforcing allegations of Red Cross negligence or complicity in the flight of Nazi war criminals to South America.
Red Cross officials now say that it was not the organization's job to investigate applicants for travel documents.
An Argentine Federal Police memorandum from 1964 notes that death-camp doctor Josef Mengele "entered the country on 20 May, 1949, carrying passport No. 100,501, issued by the International Red Cross in the name of Gregor Helmut."
That document also shows that German authorities were also careless, at the very least, in Mengele's case.
"In November of 1956," the memo says, "he presented his birth certificate with his true name, certified by the Embassy of the Federal German Republic in our country, and requested the rectification of his name and surname."
Argentine authorities issued him a new identification card with his real name.
Another document shows that Mengele petitioned Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, to validate his medical degree.
Mengele was known as the "Angel of Death" for his role in the extermination of thousands of Jews at the Auschwitz death camp, where he performed experiments on prisoners.
Other documents found by Project Testimony say Mengele practiced medicine here, reportedly specializing in illegal abortions.
One paper explains Argentina's refusal to arrest Mengele for extradition because "the crimes attributed to the subject are political in nature."
An order for his arrest was finally issued in 1961, but he was never found.
Mengele later lived under another name in neighboring Brazil, where he drowned at an Atlantic resort in 1979, according to Brazilian authorities and international investigators.
Another Nazi war criminal who came to Argentina was Josef Schwammberger, an SS sergeant who participated in thousands of killings as the commander of Jewish slave labor camps in southeastern Poland during the war.
An Argentine police document says Schwammberger entered the country in 1949.
The only Nazi war criminal ever extradited from Argentina, Schwammberger was convicted in Germany and sentenced to life in prison in 1992.
In several notable cases, Argentine authorities have refused to extradite Nazi war criminals.
In 1947, the Communist government of Yugoslavia requested the extradition of Ante Pavelic, a former Croatian leader and Nazi collaborator, for war crimes. A previously secret Argentine Foreign Ministry document recommended refusal.
"The 'war crime' is what we could call a recent juridical creation . . . akin to that of political crime," the document says. "Argentine legislation only contemplates extradition for common crimes, and it prohibits it for political crimes."
A June, 1947, letter from the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires asked Argentina not to admit Milan Stoyadinovich, a pro-Nazi former premier of Yugoslavia. On Sept. 22, a man named Branko Benzon asked Director of Migration Pablo Diana to allow Stoyadinovich and his family to enter Argentina. The next day, Diana authorized the entry.
Beatriz Gurevich, coordinator of Project Testimony, said Yugoslav-born Benzon was a member of a secret commission that advised Diana's office on entrance permits for refugees from Europe.
According to Gurevich, the commission's members were natives of European countries and frequently made recommendations in favor of Nazis.
She said Project Testimony is preparing to release a document that shows how the commission played a key role in influencing immigration policy on behalf of fleeing Nazis.
Admiration for Germany was widespread in South American countries during the 1930s.
President Juan Peron, who governed Argentina with an authoritarian hand from 1946 to 1955, has been accused of neo-Nazi tendencies--an accusation that is heatedly denied by Peronists.
In interviews, Gurevich emphasized that Argentina was not the only Nazi haven, and not all Argentine officials were pro-Nazi.
"It would be mistaken to think that in Argentina there was a generalized anti-Jewish and pro-Nazi attitude, because it wasn't so," she said.
Some documents uncovered by Project Testimony have shown that some Argentine diplomats in Europe helped protect Jews from persecution before and during the war. Others, however, denied visas to Jews and helped Nazis after the war.
Argentine diplomats in China sold visas to Jews and Nazis alike for up to $2,500, according to researchers.
In the Foreign Ministry files, researchers have discovered a 1946 note from the U.S. Embassy that speaks of large-scale efforts to sneak Nazis into Argentina.
"There exists a concerted plan to arrange the clandestine departure from Spain and entry into Argentina of former German agents," the note says. "It appears that it is becoming increasingly difficult for such German agents in Spain to remain concealed and that, as a consequence, some 150 to 200 Germans expect to come to Argentina under false identification."
In 1948, U.S. authorities asked Argentina to look for Hitler deputy Martin Bormann, who disappeared at the end of the war.
A note from the U.S. Embassy reported that "a source abroad" said Bormann was "allegedly residing in Posadas, Provincia de Misiones," in northern Argentina.
An Argentine translation made the location "Posadas, Province of Mendoza," which is in western Argentina. If a search was ever conducted, it may have been in the wrong province, although Project Testimony has found no further documentation on the case or any other indication that Bormann may have entered Argentina.
Project Testimony is being carried out by a handful of researchers.
Gurevich keeps copies of some key documents in her office but often is unable to locate requested papers.
If the information were computerized, she said, it would be easier to access. But just one researcher is assigned to the laborious work of entering all the data into computers.
Research in the government archives is laborious. Uncounted boxes of documents, often in disorder and without indexes, remain to be studied.
Gurevich said many documents will never be found because they have been thrown away or purged.
Information on Nazi arch-criminal Eichmann, she said, "is almost all purged."
The government says the Eichmann files were lost. Eichmann, mastermind of Hitler's genocidal policy against Jews, was abducted from Argentina by Israeli agents in 1960, tried in Israel and hanged.
So far, the archives have yielded no information on Priebke, the former Nazi now being held in southern Argentina at Italy's request.
Gurevich said she had no knowledge of most other Nazis said to still be living in Argentina. Her project's purposes are historical, she said, with no priority on tracking down or gathering evidence against living war criminals.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview that Argentina should be commended for finally opening its archives to such research.
But most of the material is "on people who are no longer alive," Hier said. "The main issue is, who have they got out there like Priebke who are still alive?"
The Wiesenthal Center has proposed that Argentina form a special task force to look for Nazi war criminals in this country.
President Carlos Saul Menem recently said he believed that such an investigative group would be a good idea.
Menem has also said Priebke would be extradited "immediately, if all the documents are in order."
But Leonidas Moldes, the judge now in charge of the Priebke case, ruled in 1988 against the extradition of Abraham Kipp, a former SS policeman from the Netherlands who has lived in Argentina since 1949 and has been convicted in absentia of war crimes by a Dutch court.
Priebke has admitted that he was the second-in-command of troops that executed 335 Italians, including about 75 Jews, at the Ardeatine Caves south of Rome. But he told Argentine reporters recently that all the victims were Communist terrorists and were killed in reprisal for an attack that killed 33 Nazis.
In the lake and ski resort of Bariloche, 1,000 miles south of Buenos Aires, Priebke was prominent as the president of the local German-Argentine Cultural Assn., which sponsors a private school. Argentine newspapers have reported suspicions that the association served as a front for groups helping Nazi war criminals.
In late May, after Priebke's house arrest, the Italian Embassy asked Argentine authorities to take special security measures to prevent the ex-Nazi from escaping with the help of "organized groups."
Priebke, 81, is reported to be deeply depressed and in poor health, with high blood pressure and an irregular heartbeat. It remains to be seen whether he will live to become the second accused Nazi war criminal to be extradited from Argentina.