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Documents Show Chile Foiled Nazi Plot to Attack Panama Canal

Files released by Chile’s Investigations Police show a special unit busted two Nazi spy rings in South America

USS Ranger traverses the Panama Canal during World War II (Wikimedia Commons)
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One reason Nazis still make waves on cable television 70 years after World War II is the scale of their ambition. Hitler sent researchers to Tibet to find a Yeti, had a 2-ton panel from Ghent stolen in hopes it was a map to the Holy Grail, and ordered plans for a solar-powered outer space death ray. Now, recently declassified documents from Chile indicate a less fanciful but equally grandiose plot: Deutsche Welle reports a Nazi spy ring in South America plotted to blow up the Panama Canal.

Last week, Chile’s investigations police declassified the files of a special unit called Department 50. The group hunted for Nazi spy rings in South America during World War II—an about-face in Chile's relationship with the Axis powers, which the country resisted declaring war against until 1943.

The Nazi spies monitored Allied merchant ships and listened in on Chilean naval communications, says Deutsche Welle. Eventually, Department 50 broke up two spy rings. Their work resulted in the arrests of 40 people and the collection of weapons, cash and plans for bombing mines in northern Chile.  

The documents also reveal that a cell of Nazis in the port of Valparaiso were planning to bomb the Panama Canal, though they offer no details of the plot, reports The TelegraphThe impact of such an attack may well have had repercussions on the outcome of the war. The Panama Canal was key in shuttling U.S. troops and supplies to the Pacific Theater. 

"If they had prospered in their objectives, it could have changed not only Chile's history, but the history of the whole world,” said Hector Espinosa, the director general of the investigations police, during a ceremony to hand over the reports to Chile's National Archives.

According to Prensa Latina, the Chilean police had 22 agents dedicated to working against the Nazis. “We were able to prevent much greater atrocities with the efficient work by these detectives of whom we are tremendously proud,” Espinosa tells the news agency. “Chilean youths and children deserve to know what this handful of detectives did to stop Nazism, which was irradiating its tentacles in almost the entire continent. We are making history with this gesture.”

But much of Chile and South America’s past with the Nazis is less heroic. Christopher Klein at History.com reports that high-ranking Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann and Dr. Josef Mengele, found refuge in South America, along with at least 9,000 Nazi officers and collaborators who fled to Argentina, Chile and Brazil.

The Nazi connection to Argentina has also been in the spotlight recently. Just last week police found 75 significant Nazi-related artifacts in a hidden room in Argentina. Photographs indicated some of them may have even been owned or used by Hitler himself.

Deutsche Welle reports that the Latin American nations are still wrestling with their Nazi past. The files were made public only after interested officials petitioned for their release in January. “Until yesterday, this was a state secret,” Gabriel Silber, a lawmaker and one of the authors of the petition, told DW. “Maybe, from today, we are going to recognize an uncomfortable truth that unfortunately some political and business figures in Chile supported the Nazis.”

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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