Argentina has emerged as the location of choice for websites set up by the world's ultranationalist and neo-Nazi political groups.
In recent years, race-hate groups in Europe and in other Latin American countries have come under increasing pressure to curtail their online activities. Authorities have dismantled some extremist sites, or pressured web-hosting companies to close sites temporarily for posting offensive or illegal content.
Neo-Nazi groups experience few such problems in Argentina.
Aided by inexpensive high-speed Internet access and an outdated antidiscrimination law, race-hate groups from all over the Spanish-speaking world are making Argentina their virtual home base.
"The late 1990s saw the re-birth of neo-Nazi groups in Argentina, both in the real world and on the Internet," says Sergio Widder, Latin America representative for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization. "The ultraright in Argentina is using the Internet to help create a neo-Nazi network in Latin America." According to the Wiesenthal Center, the number of sites worldwide it deems "problematic" has grown to 3,000 today from one in 1995. Specific numbers for Argentina were unavailable.
The highest-profile site in Argentina is City of Freedom of Opinion, run by the neo-Nazi New Triumph Party (PNT). Its leader, Alejandro Biondini, appears at public meetings in SS-style uniforms, giving the Nazi salute. Set up as a modest online newspaper in 1997, the site has since mushroomed into a much-visited portal connecting more than 300 extreme right-wing groups in Europe and Latin America.
The site, in Spanish and other languages, boasts a news agency and a bulletin board for neo-Nazis. The PNT offers free e-mail and web-hosting services for race-hate groups around the world. On the site, the PNT says it specifically offers hosting facilities to extremist groups whose websites have been prohibited or whose activities have been curtailed in other jurisdictions.
The portal allowed neo-Nazi groups from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay to plan a congress in April 2000, to be held in Chile on the anniversary of Adolf Hitler's birthday. The Chilean authorities eventually banned the meeting.
Numerous other Argentine race-hate and ultra-nationalist sites provide a regular channel of contact for extremists in Chile, Uruguay, Brazil, and Europe. Many glorify Germany's Nazi Party and Italy's fascism, championing the country's European roots, and lashing out against drug addicts, Marxists, Jews, and homosexuals.
One site, True Peace, set up by Carlos Torlaschi, president of the Group of Retired Admirals of Argentina, celebrates the military and police officers who killed some 30,000 Argentine citizens during Argentina's 1976-83 "dirty war" against suspected leftists.
Argentina is an ideal online location for many extremist groups. Despite the country's profound economic slump, Internet penetration remains one of the highest in Latin America, and super-fast Internet access is widely available. Both factors are a legacy of the decade in which Argentina's currency was fixed at parity with the US dollar, making the import and use of technology inexpensive for Argentines.
But since currency devaluation in January, the peso has plummeted by some 70 percent against the dollar, making Argentina a cheap place for foreign groups to set up hosting facilities.
Furthermore, a 1997 decree issued by then-President Carlos Menem explicitly stated the government's refusal to interfere with production, creation, and dissemination of information distributed on the Internet. The decree guaranteed Internet sites freedom from censorship.
Antidiscrimination advocates have found it impossible to use the country's antidiscrimination law, passed in 1988, as it does not cover Internet publication.
"We could try to act against the companies hosting these sites, but the legislation just isn't there to take action against them," says Adrián Jmelnizky, who investigates racial abuse cases for Argentina's National Institute Against Discrimination, Xenophobia, and Racism. "Internet use is beyond the scope of the antidiscrimination law and there are no initiatives to change that at present."
As a result, ultraright groups locating their sites in Argentina avoid the need to locate servers offshore, or to hide domain names behind a maze of sites located in unhelpful jurisdictions.
Police, already overburdened by a wave of kidnappings and a general rise in violent crime, say they have little time to monitor websites for incendiary content.
Despite the growing visibility of Argentina's far-right groups on the Internet, analysts say their fortunes remain stagnant in the real world. Unlike European far-right groups in places such as the Netherlands, which have exploited economic dissatisfaction to recruit a new generation of supporters that have made an impact in open elections, extremists in Argentina, a country founded on immigration, remain marginalized in the political arena.
The Argentine authorities appear unconcerned at their activities. "Our intelligence reports do not indicate that the extreme right is very active," says President Eduardo Duhalde's spokesman, Eduardo Amadeo. "They keep talking about racial issues, and anti-Semitism has never been a vote-winner in Argentina."