In 1940, the PDI created Departamento 50, a secret intelligence division that would combat the growing influence of Nazism in Chile. Their biggest victory came on June 30, 1942, when they uncovered and stopped a plot to blow up the Panama Canal. The story of these 22 detectives remained classified until 2017.
During World War II, Chile was determined in maintaining its neutrality, but the presence of Nazi saboteurs in the country threatened this stance, leading to the creation of a secret intelligence division within Chile’s Investigations Police (PDI). Called Departamento 50, the group’s only goal was to investigate and stop the Nazi influence that was slowly spreading through the country.
The team’s biggest accomplishment came in 1942: an investigation into a failed attempt to bribe a Chilean official led to the discovery of a plot to blow up the Panama Canal. When the war came to an end in 1945, the team was disbanded and their files classified until 2017.
Creation of the team
Chile was not exempt from the rise of global fascism in the 1930s. The Chilean National Socialist party attempted to overthrow the democratic government in 1938 so that it could rig the presidential election in its favor. That plan backfired and Pedro Aguirre Cerda, of the Frente Popular coalition, won the presidential race.
The new administration then made it a goal to counteract the growing fascist threat that was developing in the country – most notoriously in the south, where Germany had a strong presence in the country, due to the influx of German immigrants who had established numerous villages and colonies in the late 1800s.
Thousands of miles away, the United States feared that Chile was vulnerable to Nazi intervention, and closely monitored the situation. Through this, authorities discovered a radio in Quilpué in 1940 that was transmitting to Germany the schedules of vessels belonging to the U.S., England, and France.
That discovery in turn sparked PDI’s involvement against Nazi spies. Later that same year, the PDI discovered a paramilitary training camp in Puerto Varas that was recruiting young descendants of German families.
A year later, the head of the PDI entrusted Hernán Barros Bianchi with the creation of a special division of the agency that would detect and break up Nazi spy rings in the country. With the aid of an FBI agent, Bianchi created the International Confidential Section, more commonly known as “Departamento 50,” a reference to its telephone extension.
The group quickly gained notoriety by arresting numerous German spies, mostly Chilean residents with ties to the Abwehr, Germany’s military intelligence service. They also discovered another radio transmitter in Cerro San Cristóbal, Santiago, which resulted in the seizure of funds, communication devices, and other transmitters.
Department 50’s biggest arrest was Albert von Appen, the head of German Intelligence in Latin America. It wasn’t until two and a half years later when the war was coming to a close, however, that Chile was able to crack von Appen and he confessed to his actions on behalf of the Nazi government.
The Panama Canal
Stopping the Panama Canal plot was the apex of Department 50’s achievement.
On June 30, 1942, the PDI got word of an attempt to bribe a Chilean official for information on the Panama Canal. After the ensuing investigation, the division busted a Nazi safe house in Puerto Varas that had several large caliber weapons, over 50,000 rounds of ammunition, and plans to attack the Panama Canal to hurt the U.S. war effort.
The attack was slated for the end of 1942, with an unknown man, referred to as “Svennson,” hired to navigate a boat through the canal to blow it up mid-way. The arrest and interrogation of von Appen completely disrupted those plans.
When the war came to an end in 1945, Departamento 50 was shut down and all files relating to it were classified until 2017. Within the archives were commemorations by the head of the FBI for the department’s efforts against the Nazis; and, after the archives were declassified, the PDI also received a commemoration by the Jewish community.
Diego Rivera is currently a senior in University, finishing up his audiovisual degree. You can find him on Twitter as @Piover45.