Copyright © Washington Post 1998
May 6, 1998
Extradition -- to a Hero's Welcome?
SANTA TERESITA, Argentina¿The unassuming red brick house in this resort town near the Atlantic coast does not look like the home of a monster. But the 76-year-old grandfather who was hauled out his front door with a grin on his face Thursday is believed to be the same man who was boss of Croatia's most notorious fascist death camp, where as many as 600,000 Jews, Gypsies and Serbs were killed during World War II.
Dinko Sakic, reputed to be one of the most infamous war criminals from World War II still living, boldly revealed his identity on national television here last month. And now, his arrest by Argentine authorities after an extradition request from Croatia -- where some predict he may actually receive a hero's welcome -- has sent a shock through Argentina and beyond. In the same region where such Hitler henchmen as Josef Mengele and Klaus Barbie once found safe haven and where countless films speculated about long-lost Nazis in hiding, Sakic's discovery -- coupled with other revelations -- has underscored the reality that the malignant Nazi chapter in South America's Southern Cone is anything but closed.
Sakic rose quickly through the military ranks of Croatia's World War II-era government, a Nazi puppet regime under the fascist Ustashe movement. In 1944, at age 21, Sakic was named commander of the notorious Jasenovac camp, where hundreds of thousands of prisoners were corralled, tortured and killed. Sakic reportedly favored a welder's blowtorch over more conventional weapons.
Sakic "came to the camp riding a white horse. . . . He was a dandy, handsome, brown-haired, always in a neat uniform, armed with a handgun and a submachine gun, with a whip in his hand," one of the camp's survivors, Mihailo Mari, told genocide researchers in Belgrade. Speaking of one incident involving a prisoner from Montenegro who asked that his life be spared, Mari recalled that "Sakic took his handgun and ordered him to lie down. [The prisoner] refused, and Dinko Sakic shot him in the back of the head. . . . It left an impression on all the other prisoners."
As stunning as Sakic's discovery is, there is growing evidence that he is hardly the last of his kind. The Argentine government has released its first comprehensive report of Nazi activity here. Among other findings, it shows that other notorious war criminals -- including Erich Mueller, one of Hitler's top propaganda officials, and Friedrich Rauch, an infamous member of the SS -- may still be hiding in Argentina.
Concern over the presence of fascist war criminals in this region is nothing new. Argentina, along with its neighbors, has long been accused of actively protecting Nazis. The difference now is that many nations -- including Chile and Brazil, as well as Argentina -- finally appear willing to confront the lingering and long-hidden Nazi issue. Brazil and Argentina have created special commissions designed to root out Nazi loot brought here during and after World War II. And this week, the Argentine government announced it would form a unique Nazi-hunting office to perform a job that regional police departments, which have been historically antisemitic, have been reluctant to do.
"This is very dangerous work for us," said Victor Ramos, head of the Argentine Interior Ministry's Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia and Racism. "These men -- if they are still alive, and they may very well be -- are powerful and protected by [Argentine authorities]. They have built a web of secrecy around them that is difficult to penetrate. . . . But I think our decision to go after them shows that we are willing to correct the errors of our past."
Yet the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center has produced a study indicating that there may be as many as 25 other Nazi criminals still living comfortable, secret lives in Argentina or other parts of South America -- far more than most government estimates.
There is also mounting evidence to suggest anti-Nazi efforts here are causing a backlash. The National Socialist Party -- in effect, heirs to the Nazi Party -- recently announced its decision to hold an international convention in Santiago, Chile, in two years.
Meanwhile, neo-Nazi violence in the region is on the rise. During one notable trial two weeks ago, the parents of an Argentine neo-Nazi youth accused of assaulting a teenager he believed to be Jewish got up from their courtroom seats and screamed, "Burn the Jews!"
Earlier this year, dozens of Jewish graves were desecrated in the province of Buenos Aires -- an act widely believed to have been committed by off-duty policemen. Meanwhile, no one has been jailed so far in the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy and the 1994 bombing of the Jewish Community Center in Buenos Aires. In southern Chile, authorities have been trying for two years to arrest Paul Schaefer, a former Nazi corporal who started a religious cult town the size of Washington, after the war.
"Let's not kid ourselves -- the Nazi issue is still alive in South America, and as much as we want to forget it, it's something that we have got to aggressively face if it is to be finally stamped out," said Ricardo Brodsky, secretary general of the Party for Democracy, part of Chile's coalition government. The Chilean Congress, he said, is considering legislation to ban the National Socialist convention.
For now, however, the most pressing and startling case remains that of Sakic. In a nationally televised interview last month, Sakic acknowledged his role as camp commander, but claimed -- as many in Croatia also now say -- that he was not responsible for any of the prisoners' deaths, arguing that they all died of natural causes. He also placed the number who died at less than 20,000. "There was a typhus epidemic, but no cremation ovens," Sakic told reporters.
According to dozens of interviews and documents, Sakic moved to South America in 1947 with his wife, Esperanza, whom some have accused of running a women's detention camp during the war. She is the sister of Maks Luburic, one of the highest-ranking Ustashe leaders.
The couple came to Argentina during the rule of President Juan Domingo Peron, who opened the country's doors to more than 50,000 Germans, Croatians and others following Hitler's fall. "Buenos Aires was the base for fleeing Nazis and Nazi sympathizers," said Sergio Widder, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Argentina branch. "They may not all have stayed here, but this was their point of entry."
Some of those immigrants, including Sakic and even Ante Pavelic, the former president of the Ustashe government, lived protected, insular lives within neighborhoods, suburbs or towns populated mostly by Germans and Balkan nationals. Even today, in some regions of the Southern Cone, there are communities where the children speak Spanish with thick German or East European accents.
Sakic, who ran a textile business in Buenos Aires province, moved around South America every few years, although he remained a vocal member of Argentina's Croatian community, estimated to number more than 10,000. In the late 1950s, according to a book by Ignacio Gonzalez Janzen, Sakic ran a "rest camp" for former Croatian fascists in Paraguay with the help of his friend and then-dictator Alfredo Stroessner.
In Argentina, where he had two children -- including a son who is a teacher in this tiny resort town 160 miles from Buenos Aires -- Sakic was highly regarded in the Croatian community but rarely associated with outsiders.
"I saw him four times in the [year and a half] he lived next door," said Alfredo, one of Sakic's neighbors in Santa Teresita, who would not give his last name. "He never spoke to anyone. We saw him behind his fence cutting his lawn sometimes, or hugging his wife goodbye. That was it."
Four years ago, during a state visit by Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, the two reportedly had a meeting, although the Croatian government issued an ambiguous denial. The fact that Tudjman has questioned the extent of the Holocaust and tried to portray the Ustashe government in a more positive light -- even suggesting that the remains of Ustashe leaders be buried with those of their victims -- has led some to question whether Sakic will have a fair trial in Croatia.
"I have a fear that the trial will not be conducted properly in a country where [Sakic] is clearly considered a hero," said Slavko Nikolesic, the charge d'affaires at the Yugoslav Embassy in Buenos Aires. The Yugoslav government also has asked for Sakic's extradition -- Croatia was a republic of Yugoslavia from 1945 to 1991 -- but the paperwork has yet to reach Argentina and likely will not arrive until Sakic is safely in Croatia.