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Thousands of Nazis estimated to still be hiding in South America some 62 years after the fall of the Nazi regime may soon be brought to light as they become the next target of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's "Operation: Last Chance."
According to the center, which announced the launch of the operation this week, the South American phase will probably be the final major effort to locate and bring to justice Nazis in hiding scattered around the world.
"Operation: Last Chance" offers money in exchange for information that helps find and prosecute former Nazis. It was first launched in Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in July 2002, and spread to countries throughout Europe, including Germany, Poland, Hungary and Croatia. It has brought forth some 488 suspected Nazi war criminals, of which 99 names were submitted to local law enforcement in the countries where the suspects resided. The result so far has been three arrest warrants, two extradition requests and dozens of continuing investigations.
The final number may not sound like much, "but it's actually a lot [considering] the late date and bureaucratic obstacles," says the center's chief Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff. "The problem is not finding these people, but getting them into a courtroom. Political will is turning out to be more difficult than finding information and catching the [suspects]."
While "the atmosphere is different now, and there is less willingness [than in the past] to give shelter to exposed Nazi war criminals" on the part of South America's center-left governments, "most have not been willing to undertake comprehensive investigations to find Nazis," Zuroff complains. Even so, "if we find the Nazis, today they will extradite them."
The operation will formally launch at a press conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Tuesday, in Chile on Friday and in Brazil and Uruguay the following week. The next step will involve advertising in media and setting up telephone hot lines in these countries calling on those with any knowledge to come forward. The third and final phase will be a thorough investigation to evaluate the information, using local detectives and researchers.
In the coming days, Wiesenthal Center officials will be meeting local political leaders and law enforcement officials to coordinate the launch, including Argentina's incoming interior minister Florencio Randazzo.
Though it will probably be the last stage of the operation, it is an important one, "given the large number of Nazi war criminals and collaborators who escaped to South America," says Zuroff, who believes the operation "has the potential to yield important results."
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