File photo: Many Nazi leaders managed to escape capture, including Adolf Eichmann. AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner

London - At least 9,000 Nazi war criminals were among the German exodus to South America after the war, it has emerged.

Secret documents held in Chile and Brazil reveal for the first time the extent of the numbers who fled after 1945.

German prosecutors investigating the files said they “provide the hottest leads for years”.

Of particular interest are details of the so-called ratlines, escape routes out of Europe that allowed an estimated 800 murderers to flee on passports provided by the Vatican.

The 9,000 included Germans and Croatians, Ukrainians, Russians and other Europeans. Most – perhaps 5,000 – went to Argentina.

Those who got away included Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele.

The German team found that during the war, president General Juan Peron sold 10,000 blank Argentine passports to Odessa – the organisation set up to protect former SS men in event of defeat.

Investigator Kurt Schrimm said while it was hoped the mountain of documents may reveal a living fugitive, “each day that passes makes that less likely”.

The Arquivo Historico records in Rio show 20,000 Germans settled in Brazil between 1945 and 1959. “Many are under a false name with a dark past,” he added. - Daily Mail