DESPITE international pressure, the government of Argentina is doing very little to extradite ex-Nazi officers, although President Carlos Saul Menem has promised to create an agency to locate and prosecute alleged war criminals who have found safe haven in his country since the late 1940s.
The recent case of Erich Priebke, an 81-year-old former SS trooper who was accused of having murdered 335 Italians during World War II, has renewed resistance in some political circles in Argentina to the trials of aging ex-Nazis who live there.
After ABC's ``Prime Time Live'' revealed Mr. Priebke's whereabouts on a tip from a former Nazi officer, Mr. Menem renewed his promises to investigate Priebke and other ex-Nazis. Little has been done so far, as in many other occasions in the past.
Since he took office in 1989, Menem has repeatedly offered to Jewish organizations to ``open the files'' of the federal police and the foreign ministry on ex-Nazis living in Argentina. In at least one case, that of Adolf Hitler's deputy, Martin Bormann, the archives showed very little about his stay and activities in Argentina.
It all has a lot to do with Argentina's postwar history. The late dictator Juan Domingo Peron, who ruled between 1946 and 1955 and again in 1973-74, facilitated the resettlement of former Nazis in Argentina after the war. As a military officer, Mr. Peron had been detached to Italy in the late 1930s and never concealed his admiration for the fascism of Benito Mussolini and the discipline of the German Army. Many of the former Nazis he accepted into the country ended up like Priebke, living in Patagonia and establishing reputations as good neighbors. Few denied their past.
IN 1960, when Israeli commandos kidnapped Adolf Eichmann, who was later tried and hanged in Israel, Argentines felt their sovereignty had been violated. All files on him have been lost, to the humiliation of Argentine historians and officials.
The list of ex-Nazis presumably living in Argentina is long. Some, like Abraham Kipp, a former SS official accused of murdering thousands of Jews in Holland, and Erich Schroeder, who was the head of the Gestapo in Portugal, have never been located, but are known to have entered Argentina under Pers protection.
A few gained notoriety only when they were extradited in recent years. Such was the case of Josef Franz Schwammberger and Jan Oly Ottentot, who were delivered to Germany and Holland by the government of Menem's predecessor, Raul Alfonsin. In 1992, after a visit by leaders of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), only seven files of ex-Nazis were found available for inspection in Buenos Aires. They had been delivered to the National Archives by the interior ministry when Menem signed a decree abrogating the secrecy under which access had been denied.
The batch included the dossiers on Bormann and Walter Kutschmann, but the AJC clearly indicated, after inspecting them, that ``the contents were disappointing. Much of the material consisted of newspaper clippings and routine police reports of investigations.''
Fifty years after the Nazi defeat, Menem is just paying lip service to the Argentine Jewish community, the second largest in the Americas. The president, well known for reneging on his word for political expediency, is protecting himself from negative reactions within his Peronist Party.
Also, in an electoral year, it is important for him to avoid tarnishing the image of his party's revered founder. Two decades after his death, the name of Peron is still a powerful magnet for the masses. Menem intends to continue using it to attract the votes necessary for his reelection in 1995.
If anything in the files of former Nazis revealed more clearly Pers involvement, the centrist and leftist opposition parties could use it to smear Peronism and hurt Menem's electoral possibilities.
A debate on Pers alleged sympathies for Nazism would not help Menem's bid, even if he could claim, as he does, that by supposedly opening up the files he is making Argentina ``pay its debt to humanity.''
If he prosecutes former Nazis, he risks reopening the wounds from Argen-tina's political violence of the 1970s, when thousands disappeared or were murdered in an undeclared civil war. When he took office, Menem tried to close that bloody chapter by giving amnesty to those convicted of human-rights violations.
His rivals point out a blatant contradiction: Why condemn former German Nazis for war crimes and not do the same with Argentine ex-military officers and guerrillas, who killed, kidnapped, and murdered?
Some Jewish leaders, like Manuel Tenembaum of the Latin American Jewish Congress, have expressed hopes that the current Argentine government will do ``the utmost'' to bring ex-Nazis to justice. They would do better to bear in mind an old lesson of politics: Never use a silver tray to serve your enemies an opportunity to defeat you. Menem knows that quite well. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.