Pope Francis, CIA and ‘Death Squads’

Exclusive: In the 1970s, Father Jorge Bergoglio faced a moment of truth: Would he stand up to Argentina’s military neo-Nazis “disappearing” thousands including priests, or keep his mouth shut and his career on track? Like many other Church leaders, Pope Francis took the safe route, Robert Parry reports.

By Robert Parry

The election of Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis brings back into focus the troubling role of the Catholic hierarchy in blessing much of the brutal repression that swept Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, killing and torturing tens of thousands of people including priests and nuns accused of sympathizing with leftists.

The Vatican’s fiercely defensive reaction to the reemergence of these questions as they relate to the new Pope also is reminiscent of the pattern of deceptive denials that became another hallmark of that era when propaganda was viewed as an integral part of the “anticommunist” struggles, which were often supported financially and militarily by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency.

It appears that Bergoglio, who was head of the Jesuit order in Buenos Aires during Argentina’s grim “dirty war,” mostly tended to his bureaucratic rise within the Church as Argentine security forces “disappeared” some 30,000 people for torture and murder from 1976 to 1983, including 150 Catholic priests suspected of believing in “liberation theology.”

Much as Pope Pius XII didn’t directly challenge the Nazis during the Holocaust, Father Bergoglio avoided any direct confrontation with the neo-Nazis who were terrorizing Argentina. Pope Francis’s defenders today, like apologists for Pope Pius, claim he did intervene quietly to save some individuals.

But no one asserts that Bergoglio stood up publicly against the “anticommunist” terror, as some other Church leaders did in Latin America, most notably El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero who then became a victim of right-wing assassins in 1980.

Indeed, the predominant role of the Church hierarchy from the Vatican to the bishops in the individual countries was to give political cover to the slaughter and to offer little protection to the priests and nuns who advocated “liberation theology,” i.e. the belief that Jesus did not just favor charity to the poor but wanted a just society that shared wealth and power with the poor.

In Latin America with its calcified class structure of a few oligarchs at one end and many peasants at the other, that meant reforms, such as land redistribution, literacy programs, health clinics, union rights, etc. But those changes were fiercely opposed by the local oligarchs and the multinational corporations that profited from the cheap labor and inequitable land distribution.

So, any reformers of any stripe were readily labeled “communists” and were made the targets of vicious security forces, often trained and indoctrinated by “anticommunist” military officers at the U.S.-run School of the Americas. The primary role of the Catholic hierarchy was to urge the people to stay calm and support the traditional system.

It is noteworthy that the orchestrated praise for Pope Francis in the U.S. news media has been to hail Bergoglio’s supposedly “humble” personality and his “commitment to the poor.” However, Bergoglio’s approach fits with the Church’s attitude for centuries, to give “charity” to the poor while doing little to change their cruel circumstances as Church grandees hobnob with the rich and powerful.

Another Pope Favorite

Pope John Paul II, another favorite of the U.S. news media, shared this classic outlook. He emphasized conservative social issues, telling the faithful to forgo contraceptives, treating women as second-class Catholics and condemning homosexuality. He promoted charity for the poor and sometimes criticized excesses of capitalism, but he disdained leftist governments that sought serious economic reforms.

Elected in 1978, as right-wing “death squads” were gaining momentum across Latin America, John Paul II offered little protection to left-leaning priests and nuns who were targeted. He rebuffed Archbishop Romero’s plea to condemn El Salvador’s right-wing regime and its human rights violations. He stood by as priests were butchered and nuns were raped and killed.

Instead of leading the charge for real economic and political change in Latin America, John Paul II denounced “liberation theology.” During a 1983 trip to Nicaragua then ruled by the leftist Sandinistas the Pope condemned what he called the “popular Church” and would not let Ernesto Cardenal, a priest and a minister in the Sandinista government, kiss the papal ring. He also elevated clerics like Bergoglio who didn’t protest right-wing repression.

John Paul II appears to have gone even further, allowing the Catholic Church in Nicaragua to be used by the CIA and Ronald Reagan’s administration to finance and organize internal disruptions while the violent Nicaraguan Contras terrorized northern Nicaraguan towns with raids notorious for rape, torture and extrajudicial executions.

The Contras were originally organized by an Argentine intelligence unit that emerged from the country’s domestic “dirty war” and was taking its “anticommunist” crusade of terror across borders. After Reagan took office in 1981, he authorized the CIA to join with Argentine intelligence in expanding the Contras and their counterrevolutionary war.

A key part of Reagan’s Contra strategy was to persuade the American people and Congress that the Sandinistas represented a repressive communist dictatorship that persecuted the Catholic Church, aimed to create a “totalitarian dungeon,” and thus deserved violent overthrow.

A special office inside the National Security Council, headed by longtime CIA disinformation specialist Walter Raymond Jr., pushed these propaganda “themes” domestically. Raymond’s campaign exploited examples of tensions between the Catholic hierarchy and the Sandinista government as well as with La Prensa, the leading opposition newspaper.

To make the propaganda work with Americans, it was important to conceal the fact that elements of the Catholic hierarchy and La Prensa were being financed by the CIA and were coordinating with the Reagan administration’s destabilization strategies. [See Robert Parry’s Lost History.]

Evidence of Payments

In 1988, I discovered evidence of this reality while working as a correspondent for Newsweek magazine. At the time, the Iran-Contra scandal had undermined the case for spending more U.S. money to arm the Contras. But the Reagan administration continued to beat the propaganda drums by highlighting the supposed persecution of Nicaragua’s internal opposition.

To fend off U.S. hostility, which also included a harsh economic embargo, the Sandinistas announced increased political freedoms. But that represented only a new opportunity for Washington to orchestrate more political disruptions, which would either destabilize the government further or force a crackdown that could then be cited in seeking more Contra aid.

Putting the Sandinistas in this “inside-outside” vise had always been part of the CIA strategy, but with a crumbling economy and more U.S. money pouring into the opposition groups, the gambit was beginning to work.

Yet, it was crucial to the plan that the CIA’s covert relationship with Nicaragua’s internal opposition remain secret, not so much from the Sandinistas, who had detailed intelligence about this thoroughly penetrated operation, but from the American people. The U.S. public would get outraged at Sandinista reprisals against these “independent” groups only if the CIA’s hand were kept hidden.

A rich opportunity for the Reagan administration presented itself in summer 1988 when a new spasm of Contra ambushes killed 17 Nicaraguans and the anti-Sandinista internal opposition staged a violent demonstration in the town of Nandaime, a protest that Sandinista police dispersed with tear gas.

Reacting to the renewed violence, the Sandinistas closed down La Prensa and the Catholic Church’s radio station both prime vehicles for anti-Sandinista propaganda. The Nicaraguan government also expelled U.S. Ambassador Richard Melton and seven other U.S. Embassy personnel for allegedly coordinating the disorders.

Major U.S. news outlets, which had accepted their role treating the Sandinistas as “designated enemies” of the United States, roared in outrage, and the U.S. Congress condemned the moves by a margin of 94-4 in the Senate and 385-18 in the House.

Melton then testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee first in secret and then in public, struggling to hide the open secret in Washington that Nicaragua’s internal opposition, like the Contras, was getting covert help from the U.S. government.

When asked by a senator in public session about covert American funding to the opposition, Melton dissembled awkwardly: “As to other activities that might be conducted, that’s they were discussed that would be discussed yesterday in the closed hearing.”

When pressed by Sen. Howard Metzenbaum on whether the embassy provided “encouragement financial or otherwise of dissident elements,” Melton responded stiffly: “The ambassador in any post is the principal representative of the U.S. government. And in that capacity, fulfills those functions.” He then declined to discuss “activities of an intelligence nature” in open session.

On the Payroll

In other words, yes, the U.S. government was covertly organizing and funding the activities of the supposedly “independent” internal opposition in Nicaragua. And, according to more than a dozen sources that I interviewed inside the Contra movement or close to U.S. intelligence, the Reagan administration had funneled CIA money to virtually every segment of the internal opposition, from the Catholic Church to La Prensa to business and labor groups to political parties.

“We’ve always had the internal opposition on the CIA payroll,” one U.S. government official said. The CIA’s budget line for Nicaraguan political action separate from Contra military operations was about $10 million a year, my sources said. I learned that the CIA had been using the Church and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo to funnel money into Nicaragua.

Obando was a plodding but somewhat complex character. In the 1970s, he had criticized the repression of the Somoza dictatorship and expressed some sympathy for the young Sandinista revolutionaries who were trying to bring social and economic changes to Nicaragua.

However, after the murder of El Salvador’s Archbishop Romero in 1980 and Pope John Paul II’s repudiation of “liberation theology,” Obando shifted clumsily into the anti-Sandinista camp, attacking the “people’s church” and accusing the Sandinistas of “godless communism.”

On May 25, 1985, he was rewarded when the Pope named him Cardinal for Central America. Then, despite mounting evidence of Contra atrocities, Obando traveled to the United States in January 1986 and threw his support behind a renewal of military aid to the Contras.

All this made a lot more sense after factoring in that Obando had essentially been put onto the CIA’s payroll. The CIA funding for Nicaragua’s Catholic Church was originally unearthed in 1985 by the congressional intelligence oversight committees, which then insisted that the money be cut off to avoid compromising Obando further.

But the funding was simply transferred to another secret operation headed by White House aide Oliver North. In fall 1985, North earmarked $100,000 of his privately raised money to go to Obando for his anti-Sandinista activities, I learned from my sources.

I was also told that the CIA’s support for Obando and the Catholic hierarchy went through a maze of cut-outs in Europe, apparently to give Obando deniability. But one well-placed Nicaraguan exile said he had spoken with Obando about the money and the Cardinal had expressed fear that his past receipt of CIA funding would come out.

What to Do?

Discovering this CIA funding of Nicaragua’s Catholic Church presented professional problems for me at Newsweek, where my senior editors were already making clear that they sympathized with the Reagan administration’s muscular foreign policy and felt that the Iran-Contra scandal had gone too far in undermining U.S. interests.

But what was the right thing for an American journalist to do with this information? Here was a case in which the U.S. government was misleading the American public by pretending that the Sandinistas were cracking down on the Catholic Church and the internal opposition without any justification. Plus, this U.S. propaganda was being used to make the case in Congress for an expanded war in which thousands of Nicaraguans were dying.

However, if Newsweek ran the story, it would put CIA assets, including Cardinal Obando, in a dicey situation, possibly even life-threatening. So, when I presented the information to my bureau chief, Evan Thomas, I made no recommendation on whether we should publish or not. I just laid out the facts as I had ascertained them. To my surprise, Thomas was eager to go forward.

Newsweek contacted its Central America correspondent Joseph Contreras, who outlined our questions to Obando’s aides and prepared a list of questions to present to the Cardinal personally. However, when Contreras went to Obando’s home in a posh suburb of Managua, the Cardinal literally evaded the issue.

As Contreras later recounted in a cable back to Newsweek in the United States, he was approaching the front gate when it suddenly swung open and the Cardinal, sitting in the front seat of his burgundy Toyota Land Cruiser, blew past.

As Contreras made eye contact and waved the letter, Obando’s driver gunned the engine. Contreras jumped into his car and hastily followed. Contreras guessed correctly that Obando had turned left at one intersection and headed north toward Managua.

Contreras caught up to the Cardinal’s vehicle at the first stop-light. The driver apparently spotted the reporter and, when the light changed, sped away, veering from lane to lane. The Land Cruiser again disappeared from view, but at the next intersection, Contreras turned right and spotted the car pulled over, with its occupants presumably hoping that Contreras had turned left.

Quickly, the Cardinal’s vehicle pulled onto the road and now sped back toward Obando’s house. Contreras gave up the chase, fearing that any further pursuit might appear to be harassment. Several days later, having regained his composure, the Cardinal finally met with Contreras and denied receiving any CIA money. But Contreras told me that Obando’s denial was unconvincing.

Newsweek drafted a version of the story, making it appear as if we weren’t sure of the facts about Obando and the money. When I saw a “readback” of the article, I went into Thomas’s office and said that if Newsweek didn’t trust my reporting, we shouldn’t run the story at all. He said that wasn’t the case; it was just that the senior editors felt more comfortable with a vaguely worded story.

Hot Water

We ended up in hot water with the Reagan administration and right-wing media attack groups anyway. Accuracy in Media lambasted me, in particular, for going with such a sensitive story without being sure of the facts (which, of course, I was).

Thomas was summoned to the State Department where Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams heaped more criticism on me though not denying the facts of our story. Newsweek also agreed, in the face of right-wing pressure, to subject me and the article to an internal investigation, which quietly reconfirmed the facts of the story.

Despite this corroboration, the incident damaged my relations with senior Newsweek editors, particularly executive editor Maynard Parker who saw himself as part of the New York/Washington foreign policy establishment and was deeply hostile to the Iran-Contra scandal, which I had helped expose.

As for Obando, the Sandinistas did nothing to punish him for his collaboration with the CIA and he gradually evolved more into a figure of reconciliation than confrontation. However, the hyper-secretive Vatican has refused to open its archives for any serious research into its relationship with the CIA and other Western intelligence services.

Whenever allegations do arise about the Catholic Church’s hierarchy winking and nodding at the kinds of human rights atrocities that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in Latin America during the 1970s and 1980s, the Vatican PR department lashes out with sternly worded denials.

That practice is playing out again in the days after the election of Pope Francis I. Rather than a serious and reflective assessment of the actions (and inactions) of Cardinal Bergoglio, Cardinal Obando, Pope John Paul II and other Church leaders during those dark days of torture and murder, the Vatican simply denounces all allegations as “slander,” “calumny” and politically motivated lies.

[For a limited time, you can purchase Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush family for only $34. For details, click here.]

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).

Evita, the Swiss and the Nazis

From the Archive: Jorge Bergoglio’s election to be Pope Francis has revived troubling questions about the Catholic Church’s role in the Argentine “dirty war” and other right-wing repression in Latin America of the 1970s  and ’80s. But the history goes back to ties to the Nazis, as the late Georg Hodel wrote in 1999.

By Georg Hodel (Originally published Jan. 7, 1999)

On June 6, 1947, Argentina’s first lady Eva Peron left for a glittering tour of Europe. The glamorous ex-actress was feted in Spain, kissed the ring of Pope Pius XII at the Vatican and hobnobbed with the rich-and-famous in the mountains of Switzerland.

Eva Peron, known as “Evita” by her adoring followers, was superficially on a trip to strengthen diplomatic, business and cultural ties between Argentina and important leaders of Europe. But there was a parallel mission behind the high-profile trip, one that has contributed to a half century of violent extremism in Latin America.

According to records emerging from Swiss archives and the investigations of Nazi hunters, an unpublicized side of Evita’s world tour was coordinating the network for helping Nazis relocate in Argentina. This new evidence of Evita’s cozy ties with prominent Nazis corroborates the long-held suspicion that she and her husband, Gen. Juan Peron, laid the groundwork for a bloody resurgence of fascism across Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s.

Besides blemishing the Evita legend, the evidence threatens to inflict more damage on Switzerland’s image for plucky neutrality. The international banking center is still staggering from disclosures about its wartime collaboration with Adolf Hitler and Swiss profiteering off his Jewish victims. The archival records indicate that Switzerland’s assistance to Hitler’s henchmen didn’t stop with the collapse of the Third Reich.

And the old Swiss-Argentine-Nazi connection reaches to the present in another way. Spanish “superjudge” Baltasar Garzon sought to open other Swiss records on bank accounts controlled by Argentine military officers who led the so-called “Dirty War” that killed and “disappeared” tens of thousands of Argentines between 1976-83.

During World War II, Gen. Peron — a populist military leader — made no secret of his sympathies for Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. Even as the Third Reich crumbled in the spring of 1945, Peron remained a pro-fascist stalwart, making available more than 1,000 blank passports for Nazi collaborators fleeing Europe.

With Europe in chaos and the Allies near victory, tens of thousands of ranking Nazis dropped out of sight, tried to mix in with common refugees and began plotting escapes from Europe to Argentina across clandestine “ratlines.”

At the Argentine end of that voyage was Rodolfo Freude. He also was Juan Peron’s private secretary, one of Evita’s principal benefactors and the chief of Argentine internal security. Freude’s father, Ludwig, played another key role. As managing director of the Banco Aleman Transatlantico in Buenos Aires, he led the pro-Nazi German community in Argentina and acted as trustee for hundreds of millions of German Reichsmarks that the Fuehrer’s top aides sent to Argentina near the war’s end.

Finding New Homes

By 1946, the first wave of defeated fascists was settling into new Argentine homes. The country also was rife with rumors that the thankful Nazis had begun to repay Peron by bankrolling his campaign for the presidency, which he won with his stunning wife at his side.

In 1947, Peron was living in Argentina’s presidential palace and was hearing pleas from thousands of other Nazis desperate to flee Europe. The stage was set for one of the most troubling boatlifts in human history. The archival records reveal that Eva Peron stepped forward to serve as Gen. Peron’s personal emissary to this Nazi underground. Already, Evita was an Argentine legend.

Born in 1919 as an illegitimate child, she became a prostitute to survive and to get acting roles. As she climbed the social ladder lover by lover, she built up deep resentments toward the traditional elites. As a mistress to other army officers, she caught the eye of handsome military strongman Juan Peron. After a public love affair, they married in 1945.

As Peron’s second wife, Evita fashioned herself as the “queen of the poor,” the protector of those she called “mis descamisados” — “my shirtless ones.” She created a foundation to help the poor buy items from toys to houses.

But her charity extended, too, to her husband’s Nazi allies. In June 1947, Evita left for post-war Europe. A secret purpose of her first major overseas trip apparently was pulling together the many loose ends of the Nazi relocation.

Evita’s first stop on her European tour was Spain, where Generalissimo Francisco Franco — her husband’s model and mentor — greeted her with all the dignified folderol of a head of state. A fascist who favored the Axis powers but maintained official neutrality in the war, Franco had survived to provide a haven for the Third Reich’s dispossessed. Franco’s Spain was an important early hide-out for Nazis who slipped through the grasp of the Allies and needed a place to stay before continuing on to more permanent homes in Latin America or the Middle East.

While in Spain, Evita reportedly met secretly with Nazis who were part of the entourage of Otto Skorzeny, the dashing Austrian commando leader known as Scarface because of a dueling scar across his left cheek. Though under Allied detention in 1947, Skorzeny already was the purported leader of the clandestine organization, Die Spinne or The Spider, which used millions of dollars looted from the Reichsbank to smuggle Nazis from Europe to Argentina.

After escaping in 1948, Skorzeny set up the legendary ODESSA organization which tapped into other hidden Nazi funds to help ex-SS men rebuild their lives — and the fascist movement — in South America.

Meeting Pius XII

Evita’s next stop was equally fitting. The charismatic beauty traveled to Rome for an audience with Pope Pius XII, a Vatican meeting that lasted longer than the usual kiss on the ring.

At the time, the Vatican was acting as a crucial way station doling out forged documents for fascist fugitives. Pope Pius himself was considered sympathetic to the tough anti-communism of the fascists although he had kept a discreet public distance from Hitler.

A top-secret State Department report from May 1947 — a month before Evita’s trip — had termed the Vatican “the largest single organization involved in the illegal movement of emigrants,” including many Nazis. Leading ex-Nazis later publicly thanked the Vatican for its vital assistance. [For details, see Martin A. Lee’s The Beast Reawakens.]

As for the Evita-Pius audience, former Justice Department Nazi-hunter John Loftus has charged that the First Lady of the Pampas and His Holiness discussed the care and feeding of the Nazi faithful in Argentina.

After her Roman holiday, Evita hoped to meet Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth. But the British government balked out of fear that the presence of Peron’s wife might provoke an embarrassing debate over Argentina’s pro-Nazi leanings and the royal family’s own pre-war cuddling up to Hitler.

Instead, Evita diverted to Rapallo, a town near Genoa on the Italian Rivera. There, she was the guest of Alberto Dodero, owner of an Argentine shipping fleet known for transporting some of the world’s most unsavory cargo.

On June 19, 1947, in the midst of Evita’s trip, the first of Dodero’s ships, the “Santa Fe,” arrived in Buenos Aires and disgorged hundreds of Nazis onto the docks of their new country. Over the next few years, Dodero’s boats would carry thousands of Nazis to South America, including some of Hitler’s vilest war criminals, the likes of Mengele and Eichmann, according to Argentine historian Jorge Camarasa.

On Aug. 4, 1947, Evita and her entourage headed north to the stately city of Geneva, a center for international finance. There, she participated in more meetings with key figures from the Nazi escape apparatus.

A Swiss diplomat named Jacques-Albert Cuttat welcomed the onetime torch singer. The meeting was a reunion of sorts, since Evita had known Cuttat when he worked at the Swiss Legation in Argentina from 1938 to 1946.

Swiss Bank Accounts

Documents from Argentina’s Central Bank showed that during the war, the Swiss Central Bank and a dozen Swiss private banks maintained suspicious gold accounts in Argentina. Among the account holders was Jacques-Albert Cuttat.

The Swiss files accused Cuttat of conducting unauthorized private business and maintaining questionable wartime contacts with known Nazis. In spite of those allegations, the Swiss government promoted Cuttat to chief of protocol of the Swiss Foreign Service, after his return from Argentina to Switzerland.

In that capacity, Cuttat escorted Eva Peron to meetings with senior Swiss officials. The pair went to see Foreign Minister Max Petitpierre and Philipp Etter, the Swiss president. Etter extended a warm welcome to Evita, even accompanying her the next day on a visit to the city of Lucerne, “the doorway to the Swiss Alps.”

After her “official” duties had ended, Evita dropped out of public view. Supposedly, she joined some friends for rest and recreation in the mountains of St. Moritz. But the documents recounting her Swiss tour revealed that she continued making business contacts that would advance both Argentine commerce and the relocation of Hitler’s henchmen. She was a guest of the “Instituto Suizo-Argentino” at a private reception at the Hotel “Baur au Lac” in Zurich, the banking capital of Switzerland’s German-speaking sector.

There, Professor William Dunkel, the president of the Institute, addressed an audience of more than 200 Swiss bankers and businessmen — plus Eva Peron — on the wonderful opportunities about to blossom in Argentina. Swiss archival documents explained what was behind the enthusiasm. Peron’s ambassador to Switzerland, Benito Llambi, had undertaken a secret mission to create a sort of emigration service to coordinate the escape of the Nazis, particularly those with scientific skills.

Already, Llambi had conducted secret talks with Henry Guisan Jr., a Swiss agent whose clients included a German engineer who had worked for Wernher von Braun’s missile team. Guisan offered Llambi the blueprints of German “V2” and “V3” rockets.

Guisan himself emigrated to Argentina, where he established several firms that specialized in the procurement of war materiel. His ex-wife later told investigators, “I had to attend business associates of my former husband I’d rather not shake hands with. When they started to talk business I had to leave the room. I only remember that millions were at stake.”

The Second Nazi Emigration

Intelligence files of the Bern Police Department show that the secret Nazi emigration office was located at Marktgasse 49 in downtown Bern, the Swiss capital. The operation was directed by three Argentines — Carlos Fuldner, Herbert Helfferich and Dr. Georg Weiss. A police report described them as “110 percent Nazis.”

The leader of the team, Carlos Fuldner, was the son of German immigrants to Argentina who had returned to Germany to study. In 1931, Fuldner joined the SS and later was recruited into German foreign intelligence.

At war’s end, Fuldner fled to Madrid with a planeload of stolen art, according to a U.S. State Department report. He then moved to Bern where he posed as a representative of the Argentinean Civil Air Transport Authority. Fuldner was in place to assist the first wave of Nazi emigres.

One of the first Nazis to reach Buenos Aires via the “ratlines” was Erich Priebke, an SS officer accused of a mass execution of Italian civilians. Another was Croat Ustashi leader Ante Pavelic. They were followed by concentration camp commander Joseph Schwamberger and the sadistic Auschwitz doctor, Joseph Mengele.

Later, on June 14, 1951, the emigrant ship, “Giovanna C,” carried Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann to Argentina where he posed as a technician under a false name. Fuldner found Eichmann a job at Mercedes-Benz. (Israel intelligence agents captured Eichmann in May 1960 and spirited him to Israel to stand trial for mass murder. He was convicted, sentenced to death and hanged in 1962.)

Though Evita’s precise role in organizing the Nazi “ratlines” remains a bit fuzzy, her European tour connected the dots of the key figures in the escape network. She also helped clear the way for more formal arrangements in the Swiss-Argentine-Nazi collaboration.

Additional evidence is contained in postwar diplomatic correspondence between Switzerland and Argentina. The documents reveal that the head of the Swiss Federal Police, Heinrich Rothmund, and the former Swiss intelligence officer Paul Schaufelberger participated in the activities of the illegal Argentine emigration service in Bern.

For instance, one urgent telegram from Bern to the Swiss Legation in Rome stated: “The (Swiss) Police Department wants to send 16 refugees to Argentina with the emigration ship that leaves Genoa March 26 [1948]. Stop. All of them carry Swiss ID cards and have return visa. Stop.”

Scientific Help

Besides political sympathies, the Peron government saw an economic pay-off in smuggling German scientists to work in Argentine factories and armaments plants. The first combat jet introduced into South America — the “Pulque” — was built in Argentina by the German aircraft designer Kurt Tank of the firm, Focke-Wulf. His engineers and test pilots arrived via the illegal emigration service in Bern.

But other Nazi scientists who reached the protected shores of Argentina were simply sadists. One physician, Dr. Carl Vaernet, had conducted surgical experiments on homosexuals at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Vaernet castrated the men and then inserted metal sex glands that inflicted agonizing deaths on some of his patients. [See Lee’s The Beast Reawakens.]

For the Swiss, the motives for their cozy Nazi-Argentine relationships were political and financial, both during and after the war. Ignacio Klich, spokesman for an independent commission investigating Nazi-Argentine collaboration, said he believes the wartime business between Nazi Germany and Argentina was handled routinely by Swiss fiduciaries.

That suspicion was confirmed by Swiss files released to the U.S. Senate as well as papers from the Swiss Office of Compensation and correspondence between the Swiss Foreign Ministry and the Swiss legation in Buenos Aires.

One target of the commission’s investigation is Johann Wehrli, a private banker from Zurich. During World War II, one of Wehrli’s sons opened a branch office in Buenos Aires which, investigators suspect, was used to funnel Nazi assets into Argentina. The money allegedly included loot from Jews and other Nazi victims. (Later, the giant Union Bank of Switzerland absorbed the Wehrli bank.)

Swiss defenders argue that tiny Switzerland had little choice but to work with the powerful fascist governments on its borders during the war. But the post-war assistance appears harder to justify, when the most obvious motive was money.

According to a secret report written by a U.S. Army major in 1948, the Swiss government made a hefty profit by providing Germans with the phony documents needed to flee to Argentina. The one-page memo quoted a confidential informant with contacts in the Swiss and Dutch governments as saying, “The Swiss government was not only anxious to get rid of German nationals, legally or illegally within their borders, but further that they made a considerable profit in getting rid of them.”

The informant said German nationals paid Swiss officials as much as 200,000 Swiss francs for temporary residence documents necessary to board flights out of Switzerland. (The sum was worth about $50,000 at the time.) Moreover, that memo and other documents suggest that KLM Royal Dutch Airlines may have illegally flown suspected Nazis to safety in Argentina, while Swissair acted as a booking agent.

The Beloved Evita

Back in Argentina, the rave reviews for Evita’s European trip cemented her reputation as a superstar. It also brought her immense wealth lavished on her by grateful Nazis. Her husband was re-elected president in 1951, by which time large numbers of Nazis were firmly ensconced in Argentina’s military-industrial apparatus.

Evita Peron died of cancer in 1953, touching off despair among her followers. The fearful military buried her secretly in an unannounced location to prevent her grave from becoming a national shrine.

Meanwhile, a feverish hunt began for her personal fortune. Evita’s brother and guardian of her image, Juan Duarte, traveled to Switzerland in search of her hidden assets. After his return to Argentina, Duarte was found dead in his apartment. Despite her husband’s control of the police — or maybe because of it — the authorities never established whether Duarte was murdered or had committed suicide.

In 1955, Juan Peron was overthrown and fled to exile in Spain where he lived as a guest of Franco. Peron apparently accessed some of Evita’s secret Swiss accounts because he sustained a luxurious lifestyle. The money also may have greased Peron’s brief return to power in 1973. Peron died in 1974, leaving behind the mystery of Evita’s Nazi fortune. In 1976, the army overthrew Peron’s vice president, his last wife, Isabel.

Paradoxically, the cult of Evita flourished still. The idolatry blinded her followers to the consequences of her flirtation with the Nazis.

Those aging fascists accomplished much of what the ODESSA strategists had hoped. The Nazis in Argentina kept Hitler’s torch burning, won new converts in the region’s militaries, and passed on the advanced science of torture and “death squad” operations.

Hundreds of left-wing Peronist students and unionists were among the victims of the neo-fascist Argentine junta that launched the Dirty War in 1976.

The Butcher of Lyon

When the junta started its “war without borders” against the Left elsewhere in Latin America, it used Nazis as storm troopers. Among them was Klaus Barbie, the Gestapo’s Butcher of Lyon who had settled in Bolivia with the help of the “ratline” network.

In 1980, Barbie helped organize a brutal putsch against the democratically elected government in Bolivia. Drug lords and an international coalition of neo-fascists bankrolled the putsch. A key supporting role was played by the World Anti-Communist League, led by World War II fascist war criminal Ryoichi Sasakawa of Japan and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.

Barbie sought assistance from Argentine intelligence. One of the first Argentine officers to arrive, Lt. Alfred Mario Mingolla, later described Barbie’s role to German journalist Kai Hermann.

“Before our departure, we received a dossier on [Barbie],” Mingolla said. “There it stated that he was of great use to Argentina because he played an important role in all of Latin America in the fight against communism.”

Just like in the good old days, the Butcher of Lyon worked with a younger generation of Italian neo-fascists. Barbie started a secret lodge called “Thule,” where he lectured his followers underneath swastikas by candlelight.

On July 17, 1980, Barbie, his neo-fascists and rightist officers from the Bolivian army ousted the center-left government. Barbie’s team hunted down and slaughtered government officials and labor leaders, while Argentine specialists flew in to demonstrate the latest torture techniques.

Because the putsch gave Bolivian drug lords free reign of the country, the operation became known as the Cocaine Coup. With the assistance of Barbie and his neo-fascists, Bolivia became a protected source of cocaine for the emerging Medellin cartel. Two years later, Barbie was captured and extradited to France where he died in prison. [For more details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]

Most of the other old Nazis are dead, too. But the violent extremism that the Perons transplanted into South America in the 1940s long haunted the region.

In the 1980s, the Argentine military extended its operations to Central America where it collaborated with Ronald Reagan’s CIA in organizing paramilitary forces, such as the Nicaraguan Contras and Honduran “death squads.”

Even today, as right-wing dictators in Latin America are called to account for past atrocities, fledgling democracies must move cautiously and keep a wary eye on rightists in the region’s potent militaries. The ghosts of Evita’s Nazis are never far away.

[This story was based, in part, on a Swiss German-language documentary directed by Frank Garbely and entitled “Evitas Geheimnis – Die Schweizer Reise.”]