Essays - Autumn 2008

The Torture Colony

Print

In a remote part of Chile, an evil German evangelist built a utopia whose members helped the Pinochet regime perform its foulest deeds

By Bruce Falconer


 

Deep in the Andean foothills of Chile’s central valley lives a group of German expatriates, the members of a utopian experiment called Colonia Dignidad. They have resided there for decades, separate from the community around them, but widely known and admired, and respected for their cleanliness, their wealth, and their work ethic. Their land stretches across 70 square miles, rising gently from irrigated farmland to low, forested hills, against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Today Colonia Dignidad is partially integrated with the rest of Chile. For decades, however, its isolation was nearly complete. Its sole connection to the outside world was a long dirt road that wound through tree farms and fields of wheat, corn, and soybeans, passed through a guarded gate, and led to the center of the property, where the Germans lived in an orderly Bavarian-style village of flower gardens, water fountains, and cream-colored buildings with orange tile roofs. The village had modern apartment complexes, two schools, a chapel, several meetinghouses, and a bakery that produced fresh cakes, breads, and cheeses. There were numerous animal stables, two landing strips, at least one airplane, a hydroelectric power station, and mills and factories of various kinds, including a highly profitable gravel mill that supplied raw materials for numerous road-building projects throughout Chile. On the north side of the village was a hospital, where the Germans provided free care to thousands of patients in one of the country’s poorest areas.

All this was made possible by one man, a charismatic, Evangelical preacher named Paul Schaefer, who founded the community and who, until several years ago, remained very much in charge. Tall, lean, and of strong build, with thin gray hair and a glass eye, Schaefer lived most of his adult life in Chile but possessed only a rudimentary knowledge of Spanish; like his followers, he spoke primarily in German. Although the colonos of Colonia Dignidad dressed in traditional German peasant clothes—the men in wool pants and suspenders, the women in homemade dresses and headscarves—Schaefer wore newer, more modern clothes that denoted his stature. His manner was serious; he seldom smiled. The effect only deepened the sense of mystery that surrounded him.

Few outsiders ever gained access to the Colonia while its reclusive leader remained in power. An old Chilean newsreel, however, filmed at Schaefer’s invitation in 1981, provides a rare picture of life inside the community, a utopia in full and happy bloom. The footage shows a bucolic paradise of sunshine and verdant fields set among clean, fast-flowing rivers and snowy peaks. Its German inhabitants improve the land and work their trades. A carpenter assembles a new chair for the Colonia’s school. A woman in a white apron bakes German-style torts and pastries in the kitchen. Teenaged boys clear a new field for planting. Children laugh and splash in a lake. Schaefer himself, wearing a white suit and brown aviator sunglasses, takes the camera crew on a tour. Standing next to the Colonia’s flour mill, he extols the quality of German machinery. “We bought this mill in Europe,” he says in broken Spanish. “It is 60 years old, but we have not had to do any repairs on it.” Even today, this remains one of the only known recordings of his voice. It is crisp and baritone. Back outside, Schaefer leads the television crew to a petting zoo, where the reporter feeds chunks of bread to baby deer and plays with the colonos’ collection of pet owls. The newsreel concludes with a performance by a 15-piece chamber orchestra composed of young, female colonos in flowing white skirts and colorful blouses. The music is beautiful and expertly played.

These images were a reflection of Colonia Dignidad as Schaefer wanted it to be seen. Today, a quarter century later, with Schaefer gone and his utopia open to visitors for the first time, it looks much the same. On a recent trip to Chile, I made the four-hour drive south from Santiago. The village remains an oasis of German tidiness, with blooming flower gardens and perfectly tended copses of willows and pines. As I walked through it, there were very few people on the streets, and those I encountered smiled politely, then quickly retreated indoors. They did not invite conversation. I was reminded of what a Chilean friend, a journalist, had told me as I prepared for my visit. “You will get the uneasy feeling of crossing into some sort of twilight zone,” he had said. “You will see the way they dress, their haircuts. It’s like going back in time to Germany in the 1940s. Even though it is easier to talk to the colonos than it was a few years ago, things are still a long way from being ‘normal.’ Most of them are still quite afraid of speaking openly.”

The truth, so unlikely in this setting, is that Colonia Dignidad was founded on fear, and it is fear that still binds it together. Investigations by Amnesty International and the governments of Chile, Germany, and France, as well as the testimony of former colonos who, over the years, managed to escape the colony, have revealed evidence of terrible crimes: child molestation, forced labor, weapons trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping, torture, and murder. Orchestrated by Paul Schaefer and his inner circle of trusted lieutenants, much of the abuse was initially directed inward as a means of conditioning the colonos to obey Schaefer’s commands. Later, after General Augusto Pinochet’s military junta seized power in Chile, the violence spilled onto the national stage. Schaefer, through an informal alliance with the Pinochet regime, allowed Colonia Dignidad to serve as a torture and execution center for the disposal of enemies of the state. The investigations continue. In the months preceding my visit, police found two large caches of military-grade weapons buried inside the compound. Parts of cars had also been unearthed, their vehicle identification numbers traced back to missing political dissidents. Even as I stood in Schaefer’s house drinking apple juice, elsewhere on the property a police forensics unit was excavating a mass grave thought to contain the decomposed remains of dozens of political prisoners.

Colonia Dignidad perpetuated itself through a complex system of social controls. The pilgrims thought of themselves as an extended family based not on blood, but on absolute devotion to Schaefer. They called him “The Permanent Uncle.” Schaefer himself had selected the title and drilled into his disciples a definition of family he found in the Bible. “Who are my mother and father?” he liked to say. “Those that do the work of God.”

Schaefer offered his flock the possibility of a pure existence in the service of God. All that was required was the regular confession of sin. His followers proved eager to unload their guilt, and confession—personally received by Schaefer in a practice he called “Seelesorge,” or “care of the soul”—became the vehicle for their salvation. The pilgrims confessed to him in a variety of forums. Schaefer would summon them in small groups each day to discuss their sins; public confessions were heard at lunch and dinner; and, on Sundays, the entire community assembled for prayer and confession in a meeting hall adjacent to Schaefer’s house.

Within that family, people were divided into groups by age and gender, each with its own flag and insignia. A boy born inside the Colonia would spend the first years of life not with his parents (who themselves lived apart from each other) but with nurses in the hospital as one of “The Babies.” At six, he would graduate to a group called “The Wedges” and from there, at 15, to “The Army of Salvation.” By his mid-30s he would become one of “The Elder Servants,” a status he would retain until, at 50, he was ready to join “The Comalos,” a term that has no obvious meaning. Girls progressed through a similar series of groups, including “The Dragons,” “The Field Mice,” “The Women’s Group,” and “The Grannies.”

Group members lived together, six or more to a room, in dormitory-type buildings. They had few individual possessions: pajamas, a set of work clothes, a set of leisure clothes, and a week’s supply of underwear. Everything else, including their shoes, was kept locked away in a closet. Each morning, the colonos would assemble with their respective groups in the cafeteria for a breakfast of milk and bread with jelly. Then it was off to work, the men to the plants, mills, and craft shops, the women to less skilled jobs in the henhouse, the stables, and the kitchen. Some women were also assigned as nurses in the hospital. Both men and women labored together in the fields.

The days were productive. Schaefer exhorted his colonos to righteous sacrifice, frequently reciting the words “Arbeit ist Gottesdienst” (“Work is divine service”). Large signs attached to garden trellises and decorative iron latticework inside the Colonia reinforced the message with pious declarations like “Supreme Judge, We Await Thee” and “We Withstand the Pain for the Sake of Dignity.” The pilgrims worked 12 hours a day, often longer, with a short break for lunch. It was taken as a point of pride that they expected no payment for their labor, but gave it willingly for the good of the community. Their success with industry and agriculture provided the financial means necessary to fuel their philanthropic mission.

Given such high ideals, it is hardly surprising that the centerpiece of Schaefer’s utopia was a charity hospital. A gray, two-story building with unadorned windows and a tapered tile roof, the hospital stood on the far side of the village from the entry gate, with 65 beds, a maternity ward, and sterile operating rooms. Funded in part by state subsidies, its quality of care was excellent—the hospital was always busy and over the years provided full and recurring treatment for 26,000 people. The colonos sent buses or hired the few locals with cars to collect patients from their isolated villages. Sometimes entire families would arrive at once. The maternity ward was especially popular, as the hospital continued to supply local women with four and half pounds of powdered milk every month for the first six years of a child’s life. To this day, pictures of some of the thousands of Chilean babies born there remain posted on the wall of the reception area.

Paul Schaefer was born in 1921 in the quiet town of Troisdorf, near the Dutch border of Germany. He was a poor student, so clumsy that one day, while using a fork to untie a stubborn shoelace, he accidentally gouged out his right eye. It is said that Schaefer tried to join the elite Nazi SS corps a few years later, but was rejected because of this infirmity. Although he spent the war as a nurse in a German field hospital in occupied France, later in life he claimed that his glass eye was the result of a war wound.

After Germany’s surrender, Schaefer worked for a short time in the Evangelical Free Church as a youth leader, but he was fired when suspicion arose that he had somehow mistreated the boys in his care. He struck out on his own as a solo preacher, roaming the German countryside dressed in lederhosen, strumming an acoustic guitar, and encouraging all who would listen to confess their sins. Schaefer was a gifted speaker with a powerful charisma that, according to one colono who first met him at a prayer meeting in 1952, radiated from his body like beams of light. Within a few years, Schaefer had attracted several hundred followers and founded an orphanage outside of Troisdorf for war widows and their children, many of whom were impoverished refugees from East Prussia who had fled the Soviet occupation. Schaefer told them they were God’s chosen and that their destiny had been predetermined, offering them the sense of security they craved as they struggled to mend their lives. Those who joined the congregation agreed to pay 10 percent of their income to Schaefer and to confess daily.

Schaefer’s first experiment in community building did not end well. The mothers of two young boys living in the orphanage charged that he had molested their children, an accusation taken seriously enough for local judicial authorities to issue a warrant for his arrest. Schaefer fled to the Middle East, where, with two trusted lieutenants, he searched for a place to relocate his congregation. Soon after, he came into contact with the Chilean ambassador to Germany, who, unaware of Schaefer’s legal troubles, invited him to Chile.

A faded black-and-white photograph shows Schaefer stepping off the plane in Santiago in January 1961 in a long black winter coat and matching fedora, smiling faintly. Within a year, using funds collected from his congregation back in Germany, Schaefer bought an abandoned 4,400-acre ranch several hundred miles south of Santiago, which he and some 10 original settlers from Germany began to rebuild. By the end of 1963, an initial group of approximately 230 Germans—the bulk of Schaefer’s congregation—had emigrated from Europe to the newly named Colonia Dignidad (“dignity colony”). Two more waves of German pilgrims followed, in 1966 and 1973, most belonging to the 15 families that formed the core of Schaefer’s following. Over the years, the community expanded further through the adoption of Chilean children from impoverished local families. These Chilean colonos learned to speak German and became full members of the community.

In Germany, Schaefer’s congregation had been a loose gathering of devotees who lived on their own in scattered towns and villages. In Chile, that distance was closed, and Schaefer rapidly consolidated control. First, there could be no secrets. Private conversations were forbidden. “If two are gathered,” he often said, “they are under the Devil. If three are gathered, they are under Jesus.” Second, everything had to be confessed: whether the sin was in thought or in deed, he had to be informed. Third, no one could leave the property without Schaefer’s permission. Any violation, or perceived violation, of these rules would be punished.

All of this begged the question: why would so many people have chosen to subordinate themselves to Schaefer’s will? How did he achieve such power over them? In Santiago in early 2006, I spoke with Dr. Neils Biedermann, a Chilean psychiatrist, who, in association with the German Embassy, had been making monthly trips to Colonia Dignidad to study the psychology of its inhabitants. He offered observations from his work. “Everything was done to further the religion,” he explained. “Like in any sect, the colonos had a spiritual leader in Paul Schaefer, to whom they formed a strong attachment. There was a complex network of emotional connections in the Colonia. It was not a concentration camp system in which prisoners tend to think of themselves as individuals. It was a community, and the children suffered most of all.” The pilgrims may have come to Chile for their religion, but once there they became prey to a brutal and relentless cult of personality. “The older colonos punished the younger ones under orders from Schaefer,” Biedermann continued. “They were also the ones who were supposed to educate them. This involved keeping them away from their families, keeping them active all day, and principally keeping them obedient and disciplined. They did whatever they needed to do, including psychopharmacology and electroshock.” Over time, physical coercion became less necessary as the social system became rooted in the psyche of the individual.

Schaefer reinforced his power through an elaborate system of mutual betrayal. Members of the community were encouraged to confess not only to him, but to one another. A colono who heard the sinful confession could expect to be rewarded—typically with a reprieve of his own sins—if he informed Schaefer of the offense.

Every day at lunch and dinner, members of the community were expected to write the names of sinners on a blackboard near the entrance to the cafeteria. After everyone was seated, Schaefer would take his place at a small table facing the group, and, while his minions ate, he’d read through a microphone the names listed on the board. Each sinner was required to stand up and confess. To deny wrongdoing was a great offense, and the prudent among them became adept at inventing sins on the spot.

According to Schaefer’s teachings, women were temptresses whose sexuality, if uncontrolled, would drive men wild with desire and lead them to stray from God. Schaefer considered sexual intercourse a tool of the Devil. To protect men from corruption, he created in the Colonia an environment of minimal temptation. Women lived and worked separately from men. They wore ugly homemade dresses, so baggy that almost no trace of the female form remained visible. They rolled their long hair into tight, passion-proof buns, and the endless days spent toiling in the workshops or in the fields further depressed their frustrated libido.

But even then, men and women found ways of getting together. They still felt lust. They fell in love. Nature would not be denied so completely. When romantic relationships did develop, Schaefer decided their course. Sometimes he permitted couples to marry and, occasionally, to have children. More often he did not. When a man asked Schaefer for permission to marry, he entered into a game of sexual roulette. Schaefer might grant the request but then require that he be the one to select the bride. This seldom worked in the man’s favor, for the women Schaefer chose were almost always well beyond childbearing years. If, despite these elaborate precautions, a woman somehow managed to get pregnant, Schaefer would isolate her from the community until she gave birth. Afterwards she returned to work, while nurses in the hospital cared for her child. By Schaefer’s design, pregnancy was uncommon. To this day, no one knows why he discouraged couples from having children. What seems clear is that he did not care if the community endured after he was gone. Only about 60 children were born in the Colonia in the 30-odd years he spent at its helm; between 1975 and 1989, there were no births at all.

For Schaefer and his pilgrims, evil manifested itself most tangibly in the scourge of international communism. It should be remembered that they were Germans, many of whom had suffered terrible losses as the Russians swept through eastern Germany on their way to Berlin. Fear of a Soviet attack on Western Europe was, for many, the deciding factor in their choice to follow Schaefer to Chile. Their fearful worldview was heightened by their isolation: their only source of information about the outside world was faked television news spliced together from old footage, depicting a world overcome by war, famine, and death.

To assure the defense of his utopia, Schaefer organized a paramilitary unit of several dozen men, trained in military tactics and martial arts. On some Saturday nights, a shrill alarm would summon them to a meeting. As one former unit member later testified to German government investigators, once the troops were assembled, Schaefer would enter the room and say, without apparent irony, “Good evening, Comrades,” to which those present were required to respond, “Good evening, General.” If the reply came late or lacked sufficient enthusiasm, Schaefer grew upset. Each man was required by regulation to carry a sidearm. Schaefer checked the weapons carefully to make sure that they were loaded and had their safeties on. Any man who failed the inspection lost his right to carry a gun. With any urgent business related to Soviet world domination resolved, the men dispersed into the night, searching the darkness for communists.

The outer perimeter of Colonia Dignidad was marked by eight-foot fences topped with barbed wire, which armed groups of men patrolled day and night with German shepherd and doberman attack dogs. Guards in observation posts equipped with shortwave radios, telephones, binoculars, night vision equipment, and telephoto cameras scanned the landscape for intruders. These were, of course, imaginary. But if invaders were to succeed in getting through the perimeter, they would come upon a second tier of inner defenses: strands of copper wire hidden around the village, which, if stepped on, triggered a silent alarm. Doors and windows in most buildings were equipped with armored shades that could be drawn shut in the event of an invasion. Dormitories were outfitted with alarms and surveillance cameras, and the entire village sat atop an extensive network of tunnels and underground bunkers. When the alarm sounded, as it frequently did during practice drills, men belonging to the security force grabbed their rifles and waited on their doorsteps for instructions.

With no genuine external enemies to fight, Schaefer and his most trusted lieutenants turned their energies inward. The practice of confession provided them with plenty of people to punish. The guilty were starved, threatened with dogs, or beaten—sometimes by Schaefer himself, more often by others acting on his orders. The harshest treatment was reserved for those who, for one reason or another, Schaefer simply did not like. He called them “the rebels.” They could be identified by their clothing: the men wore red shirts and white trousers, the women potato sacks over their long dresses. The other colonos despised them, usually without knowing why.

One such rebel was a Chilean colono named Franz Baar, adopted by the Germans at 10. By the time he was a teenager, Schaefer singled him out as a troublemaker. As Baar now remembers it, a group of men approached him one day while he was working in the carpentry shop and accused him of stealing the keys to one of the dormitories. When Baar denied it, he was beaten unconscious with electrical cables—his skull broken—and loaded into an ambulance. He awoke some time later in the Colonia’s hospital, where he would remain as a prisoner for the next 31 years.

Baar was kept in an upstairs section of the hospital never seen by the local Chileans who sought treatment there. As he later described to me, his days began with a series of intravenous injections, after which the nurses brought him bread and a plate with 12 to 15 different pills. Once satisfied that he was properly medicated, nurses delivered his clothes and shoes, hidden from him to reduce the likelihood of escape. After he dressed, a security detail escorted him to his job at the carpentry shop. Baar worked on heavy machines in a cramped space. The injections and pills slowed his movements and made him clumsy. Today, scar tissue on his forearms maps the places where the electric saws bit into his flesh. Baar was forced to work late into the night, sometimes until 3 A.M. He was not permitted to eat with the rest of the community. Instead, his meals were delivered to him at the carpentry shop, where he devoured them in isolation.

A still worse punishment awaited in rooms nine and 14 of the hospital, where Baar and other colonos unfortunate enough to draw the full measure of Schaefer’s fury were subjected to shock treatments. A female physician worked the machines, her manner detached and clinical. Patients were strapped down and fitted with crowns attached by wires to a voltage machine. Baar told me how the doctor seemed to enjoy watching him suffer. “She kept asking me questions,” he said. “I heard what she was saying and wanted to respond, but I couldn’t. She was playing with the machine and asking, ‘What do you feel? Are you feeling something?’ She wanted to know what was happening to me as she adjusted the voltage.”

Escape was difficult, even for those not held in the hospital. A rebel named Wolfgang Mueller tried to escape on three separate occasions. Twice—once in 1962, and again in 1964—he fled to the home of a Chilean family in a nearby town, and twice members of the Colonia’s security force found him there and brought him back. Both times, Mueller was beaten and forcibly sedated. On his third and final escape attempt in 1966, he made it as far as Santiago, where he received police protection and sought refuge in a German Embassy safe house. On orders from Schaefer, 15 colonos stormed the house in an attempt to recapture him. After a fistfight with police, they fled. Soon after, Mueller left Chile and found safety in Germany, where, despite his repeated accusations against Schaefer, government officials took no action. Mueller remains there today and operates a small nonprofit organization to combat the abuse of children by religious sects.

At the opposite end of the social spectrum from the rebels was a group of boys Schaefer affectionately called his “sprinters.” If Schaefer wanted to speak with someone working in a remote corner of the property, he sent a sprinter off to summon him. Schaefer trained his sprinters to assist in even the most mundane of personal tasks, like helping him to put his shoes on or holding the phone to his ear as he spoke. No job was too small. For the boys lucky enough to be chosen, the position brought pride and power.

But this special status was also a source of trouble for them. It was an open secret that Schaefer was a pedophile, just as the authorities had accused him of being long before in Germany. He enjoyed taking sprinters along during his daily tour of the Colonia. Because zippers were inconvenient, their uniforms included loose-fitting athletic shorts with an elastic waistband. He allowed his favorite sprinters to stay overnight in his room in a child-size bed set up alongside his own, sometimes sleeping with two or more sprinters at once. His routine, it later emerged, included feeding them sedatives, washing them with a sponge, and sexual manipulation.

All challengers to Schaefer’s authority—real or imagined—were rooted out and destroyed. No one inspired greater love and admiration among the children of the Colonia than Santa Claus. It is said that in the days shortly before Christmas one year in the mid-1970s, Schaefer gathered the Colonia’s children, loaded them onto a bus, and drove them out to a nearby river, where, he told them, Santa was coming to visit. The boys and girls stood excitedly along the riverbank, while an older colono in a fake beard and a red and white suit floated towards them on a raft. Schaefer pulled a pistol from his belt and fired, seeming to wound Santa, who tumbled into the water, where he thrashed about before disappearing below the surface. It was a charade, but Schaefer turned to the children assembled before him and said that Santa was dead. From that day forward, Schaefer’s birthday was the only holiday celebrated inside Colonia Dignidad.

The Colonia was, in effect, a state within a state, and Schaefer aggressively expanded the reach of his territory. Its original 4,400 acres ultimately grew to some 32,000. The expansion was not always peaceful. In a particularly brutal case, Schaefer seized control over a small chapel and several acres of church lands that lay adjacent to the Colonia’s entrance. The nuns who lived there were determined to stay, but the colonos stole their animals, cut off their water supply, flooded their latrines, fired off guns, and shined bright lights into their windows at night. They beat young children on their way to catechism, surrounded the chapel in barbed wire, and circulated fake videos of the nuns participating in orgies with priests. Finally they set fire to the nuns’ house and watched while it burned to the ground. Schaefer then claimed the church’s land as his own.

He had a favorite saying: “Every man has his price.” And, in an impoverished country like Chile, that price was well within Schaefer’s means. He selected his friends for their strategic value and lavished the most important of them with gourmet cakes and cheeses, money, cars, and free vacations. He seldom failed to get what he wanted.

On September 11, 1973, the right-wing military junta of Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile, toppling the socialist government of Salvador Allende in a bloody coup that left the former president dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. In the chaotic days that followed, scattered groups of Allende’s supporters fought isolated street battles against Pinochet’s soldiers, but the resistance was short-lived. Within a week, the entire country was under military control. The new regime declared a state of emergency, suspended the constitution, disbanded congress, banned political parties, and imposed strict censorship on the press—all in the name of turning back Allende’s socialist experiment and rescuing the country from international communism.

Despite his early success, Pinochet was convinced that underground networks of leftist plotters remained. In the months following the coup, at least 45,000 people were rounded up and hauled off to makeshift detention centers for interrogation. There are no reliable statistics for how many thousands were tortured, but, by year’s end, more than 1,500 people had been killed. In June 1974, Pinochet created the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA)—a secret police force, separate from the rest of Chile’s intelligence establishment and loyal only to him, designed to hunt down and eliminate his political enemies. DINA agents routinely kidnapped regime opponents and delivered them to secret torture and execution centers located throughout Chile—including Colonia Dignidad.

Germany and Chile enjoyed a long history of military cooperation, reaching back to the late 19th century, when Prussian officers from the renowned Kreigsakademie in Berlin oversaw the modernization of the Chilean army. A mutual respect developed and persisted through World War II, during which the young Lieutenant Pinochet, fresh of out of military school, openly sympathized with the Nazis and became “enchanted by Rommel,” as he later admitted. Drawing as it did on this history, the connection between the colonos and the Pinochet regime was classically symbiotic. Paul Schaefer needed political allies and protection for his eccentric community; Pinochet’s agents needed discreet services and a secure base of operations.

Colonia Dignidad, according to a former DINA agent assigned there in the mid-1970s, maintained powerful radio equipment, facilitating communication between DINA commanders in Chile and their agent saboteurs and assassins stationed abroad. In 2005, Michael Townley, an American expatriate and former DINA officer implicated in several high-profile assassinations and bombings, testified to a Chilean judge that the Colonia had also housed a secret laboratory, where government scientists developed chemical weapons. Schaefer’s primary contribution to Pinochet’s operations, however, came in the instruction of DINA agents in the science of torture. Soon after the coup, arrested political dissidents began to disappear into Colonia Dignidad.

One who survived is Luis Peebles, a 60-year-old psychiatrist at a public hospital in a working-class neighborhood of Santiago. In early 2006, we sat down together in an empty office in the hospital, where he described the week he spent as a political prisoner in Colonia Dignidad in February 1975. Peebles had been the commander of a clandestine anti-Pinochet militia until his capture by government soldiers. Initially jailed at a naval base in the coastal city of Concepción, he remembers how, early one Sunday morning, several plainclothes agents arrived at the base, bound his hands and feet, blindfolded him, and stuffed wet cotton into his ears. They forced him into the back of a truck and drove for several hours. Along the way, Peebles tried to piece together his location. He felt the truck turn off the highway and slow onto a dirt road. There was the strong odor of cow manure. Peebles thought he heard the muffled sounds of birds and flowing water. When the truck finally stopped, he took a deep breath. The air was clean.

He was taken to an underground cellar that smelled of linoleum and wood polish, stripped to his underwear and fastened down with leather straps to an iron bed frame. His blindfold was replaced with a leather cap that came down over his eyes. It had a chinstrap that held his jaw firmly in place and earflaps equipped with metal wires. More wires were taped to his ankles, thighs, chest, throat, anus, and genitals, all hooked into a voltage machine. The first session lasted six hours. As Peebles was being shocked, his torturers sometimes beat him with a rubber cattle prod that emitted still more electric currents. They stabbed him with needles that caused his skin to itch. They put out their cigarettes on his body and applied a sticky substance to his eyes and mouth; sometimes, if he screamed, they shoved it down his throat.

His interrogator wanted to know the identities of regime opponents and the locations of weapons caches, but for long periods there were no questions at all. An older man, directing the others, spoke with a strange accent that Peebles first understood to be Brazilian or Portuguese, but later recognized as German. “He was teaching them how to do their job,” Peebles told me. “He was saying, ‘You have to do it slowly. You have to push here.’ Once or twice he punched me very hard below the belt. He realized that they weren’t doing anything to me down there, so he said, ‘You should also do it here,’ and he started beating me.” As he was being shocked, Peebles thrashed around violently. His muscles tensed and his struggling caused the bed frame to buckle almost in two. Sometimes his blinders slipped out of place, allowing him brief glimpses of his surroundings. There were egg cartons and potato sacks on the walls, presumably to absorb the sound of his screams. At one point, he caught a glimpse of the older man who was directing his torture. He had tan skin, sunken eyes, and thin lips. “He gave the impression of being a hard man,” Peebles remembered.

In the following days, as his torture continued, Peebles lost all sense of time. He fell in and out of consciousness. At times, he believed he was going mad. He thought he was going to die. When he asked for a blanket, his torturers doused him with warm water, quickly followed by cold water. When not being tortured, Peebles was kept in a cell about 20 paces down a corridor, blindfolded and strapped to a metal grate. He received no food or water for what must have been several days. When he was finally fed, it was what his torturers called “pig food”—a dense mass served in a rusty can. The smell turned his stomach. He ate it anyway. At night, he tried to sleep, but his guards kept him awake. He heard the steady hum of an electric generator. Above the noise, he could hear footsteps upstairs. He came to believe that he was being held in a basement of some kind, maybe underneath a cafeteria or a restaurant.

Eventually the torture stopped. Peebles’ clothes were returned—laundered and neatly folded—and his captors drove him back to the naval base in Concepción. Several months later, he was released and he fled to Europe. Over the next few years, as rumors of Colonia Dignidad’s alliance with the Pinochet government emerged, he came to suspect that he had been tortured there. He told his story to the German chapter of Amnesty International, which, in 1977, used his testimony, together with that of other torture survivors, to produce a 60-page report called “Colonia Dignidad: A German Community in Chile—A Torture Camp for the dina.” Schaefer’s lawyers immediately filed libel charges in a German court, initiating a legal battle that would prevent distribution of the Amnesty report until late 1997. Meanwhile, Peebles settled in Brussels, where he continued to speak out on his own. In 1980, he was visited by a German reporter named Gero Gemballa, who was preparing a television documentary about the Colonia. He showed Peebles several reels of videotape he had obtained. They appeared to be home movies shot by the colonos themselves. The footage went on for hours, but one of the images, as soon as he saw it, focused Peebles’s attention. It was a fleeting shot of Schaefer, the “hard man” who had supervised his torture. Years later, after Pinochet left power, Peebles drew a map of the bunker where he had been tortured and gave it to a Chilean judge who was investigating Colonia Dignidad’s human rights abuses. The judge reported back that Peebles description closely matched a bunker uncovered inside the Colonia, even down to the paneling on the walls. Over the years, more survivors stepped forward, claiming that they too had been tortured in Colonia Dignidad. In 1991, having studied the allegations, Chile’s National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation concluded “that a certain number of people apprehended by the DINA were really taken to Colonia Dignidad, held prisoner there for some time, and that some of them were subjected to torture, and that besides DINA agents, some of the residents there were involved in these actions.”

Contract torturing was not the worst of Schaefer’s collusion with the Pinochet regime: executions, perhaps of entire groups of prisoners, were sometimes carried out. No bodies have ever been found, but some remorseful DINA agents have talked. One, testifying in a German court on behalf of Amnesty International, said that he visited the Colonia to deliver a prisoner to a man known as “the Professor,” one of Schaefer’s pseudonyms. While the agent sat down to a formal dinner, the prisoner was led away by the Professor and several other Germans. After a while, the Professor returned, accompanied by a black German shepherd. “On entering,” the agent said, “he made a gesture using both arms, which, according to my way of thinking, meant the prisoner was dead.”

In truth, no one knows how many people were killed inside Colonia Dignidad. One former colono recently told Chilean government investigators that, on Schaefer’s orders, he once drove a busload of 35 political prisoners up into the Colonia’s wooded hills and left them in an isolated spot by the side of a dirt road. As he drove back down alone, he heard machine gun fire echoing through the forest. No bodies were ever recovered. According to at least one former high-ranking colono, the bodies of executed prisoners were exhumed in 1978, burned to ash, and dumped in the river. Others claim that the dead were buried in individual graves scattered about the hills and valleys. All that seems certain is that many of the prisoners who went into Colonia Dignidad were never seen again.

Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to investigate Colonia Dignidad, most compromised from the start by Schaefer’s network of protectors within the Chilean political and judicial establishment. In 1968, the Chilean government sent a parliamentary delegation to investigate Wolfgang Mueller’s accusation that he had been tortured there. Schaefer entertained the politicians with children’s choirs and gourmet food, and the delegation ultimately determined, after minimal deliberation, that Mueller’s allegations were unfounded. Later, in 1982, the German government, following evidence collected by Amnesty International, issued a request to the Pinochet government for cooperation in a joint investigation of Schaefer’s community. The request was denied, as were two others in 1985 and 1988. Only after Pinochet left power in 1990 did Schaefer’s support system begin to collapse. The new government, headed by Patricio Aylwin, a former senator and longtime opponent of Paul Schaefer, revoked the Colonia’s status as a nonprofit, charitable organization, cut off state funding for the hospital, and initiated a financial audit of the colony’s businesses. The colonos fought back with protest rallies and hunger strikes.

Despite the growing public controversy, little changed inside Colonia Dignidad. Schaefer carried on without interruption. He launched a new educational initiative called the “Intensive Boarding School,” a kind of immersion program, in which select local Chilean students were invited to live, work, and study in the Colonia until they reached the age of 18. Local families proved eager to participate. The program seemed like a good thing—at least to the parents—until, in the winter of 1996, a 12-year-old student named Cristobal Parada smuggled a secret note to his mother. He wrote, “Take me out of here. He raped me.” She managed to rescue him at considerable risk to Cristobal and herself and drove him to a nearby medical clinic, where a physician verified that the boy had been raped. Cristobal’s mother feared that the local police would be of no use, or, worse, that they would return her son to the Germans. She fled with Cristobal to the anonymity of the capital, where she sought out the chief of Chile’s national detective force, a man named Luis Henriquez.

A proud and seasoned professional, Henriquez had, in his 25 years on the force, been exposed to the darker aspects of human nature. In the early 1970s, he had served as one of Allende’s bodyguards and was there, inside the presidential palace, when Allende had committed suicide. In a country rife with conspiracies, Henriquez held a rigid belief in facts. “The truth has only one version,” he liked to say. “There are no different truths.” His was an unsophisticated view of the world, but, notably, one uncorrupted by Schaefer’s influence.

In mid-August 1996, a judge in Santiago issued a warrant for Schaefer’s arrest on charges of child abuse, asking Henriquez to execute it. Inside the Colonia that summer, life went on as before. The investigation taking form in far-off Santiago remained invisible to Schaefer and his followers. Local children continued to visit on weekends and holidays, the Intensive Boarding School remained in session, and, by all accounts, Schaefer continued to enjoy the sexual pleasures of his sprinters. The pattern was interrupted only when word of the arrest warrant reached Schaefer and his lieutenants. A meeting was called on August 20, 1996, to discuss what should be done. Schaefer seemed badly shaken. As the colonos discussed how to proceed, he kept his head down and never spoke a word. Shortly thereafter, he disappeared into the Colonia’s network of subterranean bunkers and tunnels. It is widely believed that he was there, underground, when, on November 30, 1996, Henriquez muscled his way into Schaefer’s utopia for the first time.

Henriquez had hoped to capture Schaefer by surprise. He went in with 30 armed policemen in a caravan, but as his team made its way up the long dirt road, it was spotted by the Colonia’s lookouts, who gave warning. The caravan busted through a sequence of gates and only slowed as it approached the village itself. Henriquez had given orders to his men, should they come under fire, not to retreat, but to move deeper into the village for cover. To his surprise, resistance was minimal.

“The colonos were like zombies, or maybe like robots,” Henriquez would later recall, “They were machines: on/off, on/off, on/off. They didn’t change moods like normal people.” Though Schaefer’s followers were generally subdued, at times they became aggressive, and, in a few cases, they physically assaulted the police. Henriquez assumed these outbursts signaled that they were getting close to Schaefer, but in the end, Henriquez and his police went home empty-handed.

Over the years, Henriquez conducted more than 30 raids on the Colonia, always with the same goal in mind: to capture Schaefer. Theories abounded as to where he might be. The colonos insisted he was dead. Others claimed he was hiding in the underground tunnels. Still others were convinced he had fled the country. Henriquez came to believe that Schaefer remained in the Colonia for some time after that initial raid. “I have no doubt,” he told me, “that sometimes we were just seconds from catching him.”

No one knows when Schaefer actually left Colonia Dignidad. Some say it was 1997, others later than that. What is clear is that at some point in the late 1990s, he fled the area, never to return. The curious thing is that very little changed afterward. The colonos continued to live life as they had under Schaefer’s rule, redirecting their allegiance to one of his senior lieutenants. In time, they attempted a democratic experiment, electing a council of leaders to manage their affairs. But under pressure from the older pilgrims, those most loyal to Schaefer, the council soon disintegrated, and the colony was left without a formal hierarchy, under the de facto leadership of a small group of colonos who managed the community’s businesses. Meanwhile, Henriquez continued to conduct his raids, even after he knew Schaefer had fled. “We couldn’t just say openly that he had left, that he was no longer there, because we needed a reason to remain there looking for all the other parts of the investigation,” Henriquez explained. “There was a lot more that we needed to find out.”

As time passed, some colonos eventually cooperated with the investigators, showing them where the files on Pinochet’s political enemies were kept, leading them to underground bunkers and tunnels, and giving the locations of weapons caches and mass graves. Although the graves had been emptied, investigators did find several car engines and side panels from vehicles that belonged to political dissidents who had disappeared.

In July 2005, police unearthed Schaefer’s collection of military weaponry. The stockpiles, buried in at least three different locations, included some 92 machine guns, 104 semi-automatic rifles, 18 antipersonnel mines, 18 cluster grenades, 1,893 hand grenades, 67 mortar rounds, 176 kilograms of tnt, and an unspecified number of rocket launchers, surface-to-air missiles, and telescopic sights. Also found were German-language instruction manuals and large quantities of ammunition. According to investigators, many of the weapons were of World War II vintage. Others, such as the grenades and the machine guns, appeared to have been produced in the Colonia’s own facilities.

Acting on a tip from one of the colonos, investigators moved Schaefer’s bed and lifted up an area rug to access a trap door hidden among the floorboards. Underneath, in a small chamber, was an assortment of what one of the police officers described to me as Schaefer’s “fantasy weapons”—three pencils that could shoot .22 caliber rounds, two equipped to fire darts, a dart-shooting camera, and several shootable walking canes. Schaefer was getting to be an old man by the time he fled. Among the other weapons, police found a walker capable of delivering an electric shock of 1,200 volts.

I met Luis Henriquez in January of 2006 at a hotel bar in Santiago as I was preparing for my first trip to Colonia Dignidad. He is an old man now, with gray hair and thick glasses, and retired from the police force in 2003. “All of these people have been mutilated in more ways than one,” he warned me. “They have no individual will. They have no individual power. They have no sense of sexuality. The younger ones may be able to change the way they think, but not the older ones. They’re sending their kids to school, and they’re trying to be normal, but it’s just another performance for them. They think only in terms of friends and enemies. In many ways, they will think of you as an enemy who is coming to stick his nose where he should not.” In the persona of a colono, he said, “‘We’re clever at performing. We shall give him cake and apple juice. We shall be nice to him although we know he is our enemy.’’ That’s the way they will probably relate to you.”

Traffic passes freely through what used to be the Colonia’s outermost gate—its imposing white metal trellis left to rust against a collection of boulders by the side of the road. Farther on stands a reception house, where an elderly German woman dutifully records visitors’ names before waving them through. A dirt road winds through a field of soybeans and arrives at Schaefer’s former residence. It is now a guesthouse, used to entertain visitors. A group of young colonos invite me into the living room for sugar cookies, and, as Henriquez had predicted, glasses of homemade apple juice. Organic, no preservatives, they tell me, with insistent, uncomfortable grins. The conversation revolves around new plans for improvements to the Colonia—a micro-power generation plant, a methane gas plant, and a home for the elderly. Another initiative, already under way, is to develop tourism. For a price, outsiders could now hunt for rabbits in Paul Schaefer’s woods or fish for salmon in the river where Santa Claus went under. I set off for the village restaurant to meet the tourism director, a Chilean named Victor Briones, said to have been one of Schaefer’s sprinters.

A fair-skinned man in his late 20s with a round face, Briones offers me coffee as we sit down together, just upstairs from the bunker where Luis Peebles had been tortured years before. He tells me that the Colonia had already welcomed vacationers from Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and the United States. The volume remains modest, but he is optimistic. Traffic is expected to increase, he says, with the opening of a new, nationally funded hiking trail that will pass through Colonia Dignidad. He appears to have mixed feelings about this. “We want security,” he says, “security in every aspect.” I ask him how he intends to control the story of the colony’s history, how members would respond to questions about hidden weapons, Pinochet, pedophilia, torture, and mass graves. He tells me flatly that he is training a group of colonos to serve as tour guides. Did he mean they would gloss over the truth? He says, no, they would tell the truth, and would emphasize that the young people in the Colonia were innocent of any wrongdoing.

Briones’s insistence on the innocence of youth was a tacit condemnation of the old. In Santiago, I had been told about a controversial letter written by a group of newly married colonos and addressed to the older generation. The letter, read aloud at a community meeting the previous spring, described the darker aspects of life under Paul Schaefer—the sexual abuse, the torture, the perversion of religion into a control mechanism. It represented the colonos’ first real attempt at an open conversation about their past and the question of responsibility: “Our parents have got to understand that they fall into the web of blame, because as individuals they did not have the strength or the nerve to oppose the dictatorship of Paul Schaefer. Regrettably, they became accustomed to obeying orders and instructions like it was natural, and they left aside consideration, peaceful meditation, reason, and conscience. They contributed to the undermining of their own human dignity.” The letter was not well received. The older colonos did not appreciate being singled out, and a rift was opened between young and old that has yet to mend.

I am invited to a monthly community meeting, a formal, ritualized affair still held in the room where Schaefer took confessions. Programs, distributed at the door, list the topics to be discussed. Inside, I find the chairs neatly arranged into five long rows before a wooden podium with a microphone. There is to be a celebration later in the evening in honor of a group of young colonos who have just graduated from college—the first generation to do so. Several dozen champagne bottles are arranged on a makeshift bar in the back of the room. I take a seat in the last row and watch the colonos file in. Most are elderly Germans, who come in using canes, walkers, and wheelchairs. The younger generation is a mix of Germans and Chileans, whose young children play hide-and-seek through the crowd. Several shake my hand as they squeeze past on the way to their seats. The sun is sinking below the mountains outside, but the room is sweltering, so the doors and windows are opened wide. By the time things get under way, promptly at 8:15 P.M., swarms of mosquitoes have moved in to feed.

The business portion of the meeting is dispatched with German efficiency. One of the new leaders takes the podium and suggests that the time has come to return the small church seized from the nuns to its rightful owners. “It’s important to understand that we will be giving it back, not giving it up,” he says, fixing his gaze on the older colonos in the room. An uncomfortable silence erupts. Several people shift in their chairs, but there are no objections. It is as close as anyone came that night to mentioning Paul Schaefer.

There is a short break, after which recent college graduates—newly minted nurses, accountants, and engineers—take turns thanking the community for its generosity. The Colonia had paid their tuitions in the hope that some might choose to live and work there after graduation. With so many of the initial pilgrims old and weak, the return of the younger generation has become a matter of survival.

A party follows the speeches. A young man tells me that he and several friends were out until 4 A.M. the night before singing karaoke in a local bar. There is talk of purchasing a karaoke machine for the Colonia. I wander over to the dessert table, stocked with cookies and German cakes. A young woman is handing out frozen coffees topped with whipped cream. I take one and find a perch near an old piano in the corner. Someone taps me on the shoulder. It is a grandfatherly German man, short and overweight but powerfully built, with a leathery face and sparse white hair. He gives his name as Heinrich Hempel. He seems like a kindly man. Later, I learn that he had been one of Schaefer’s enforcers. In return for his loyalty, Schaefer had allowed him to marry, and his son is among the group of college graduates being honored that night. Hempel confides that during World War II, as the Soviets were pushing through Eastern Europe, his family had been forced out of East Prussia and thrown into a Soviet labor camp in Poland. They spent five years there, under terrible conditions. His brother and sister froze to death in the snow. He describes the high fences that had surrounded the camp in Poland and draws them in my notebook with coils of razor wire at their base. He tells me that after his release, he had gone to Germany and joined Schaefer’s congregation. I ask him why he had moved to Chile. He thinks for a moment, smiles, and says, “I came here to do five years of charity work. But then I forgot how to leave.”

Four years ago, Carola Fuentes, a Chilean television journalist, visited Franz Baar, the man who had been held for 31 years, and his wife, Ingrid, in Chiloé, a remote island off of Chile’s southern coast, accessible only by ferry, where the newlywed couple had settled after escaping the Colonia the previous year. Fuentes was in the early stages of an investigation of Colonia Dignidad, and a lawyer in Santiago representing Cristobal Parada and other abused boys in a class action suit against Schaefer had recommended that she speak with the Baars. The couple told Fuentes that high-ranking colonos had been making frequent trips to Argentina, and that Schaefer was almost certainly there, perhaps near Buenos Aires. They also noted that when Schaefer went underground, several of his favorite nurses and bodyguards went with him. If any of those people could be located, there was a good chance he would be found.

Fuentes spent the next 13 months tracking down leads. Chilean authorities had information suggesting that Schaefer was in Buenos Aires, but, due to tense relations with their counterparts in Argentina, they could not be sure. As a journalist, Fuentes required no official permission to work in Argentina. Guided by frustrated Chilean officials, she followed the trail of evidence until it led her to a townhouse in an expensive gated community near Buenos Aires. She believed that Schaefer was inside, and notified the police. A 24-member SWAT team surrounded the townhouse on the morning of March 10, 2005, but was forced to wait most of the day for an Argentine judge to issue a warrant for Schaefer’s arrest. When the warrant finally arrived around 3 P.M., the SWAT team burst through the front door with Fuentes and her camera crew in tow. Inside they found three German men and two women—the bodyguards and nurses that the Baars had predicted would be with Schaefer. The police put them to the floor and asked if Schaefer was in the house. They said he was and pointed to the bedroom. Fuentes followed the policemen across the hallway with her camera. She later described the scene: “I saw this old guy, very lost in space, lying on the bed. He was absolutely not dangerous. I remembered what the Baars had told me. He didn’t match the image of this bad, evil guy.” Schaefer did not resist arrest. As he was being hauled away in handcuffs, Schaefer only groaned and quietly mumbled a question over and over: “Why? Why?”

Paul Schaefer was extradited to Chile aboard a military transport plane several days after his arrest and placed in a maximum-security prison in Santiago. In May 2006, he was convicted of child molestation and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He received an additional seven-year sentence in August 2006 for weapons violations, and three for torture. Further prosecution is being considered on charges of forced labor, tax evasion, kidnapping, torture, and possibly murder. Schaefer is 86 and confined to a wheelchair. His health is poor and he is attended full-time by a nurse, but his mental condition seems to have improved: “He was cold and arrogant,” said one of the judges who interrogated him for several hours in Santiago. “Every so often he would call in the nurse to check his blood pressure. When I asked him questions, he pretended not to hear.”

At one of Schaefer’s first interrogations, an orderly wheeled Schaefer into the room and pushed him to an empty spot beside Luis Peebles. Their arms touched. The judge asked Schaefer if he remembered the man sitting next to him. Schaefer turned and, with his one good eye, looked Peebles up and down. After a pause, he said, yes, he did remember him: Wasn’t he a lawyer who had once worked for the Colonia? “No,” Peebles responded. “I was once a guest in your home. You were very unkind. I never did anything to you or the Colonia, so why were you so cruel to me?” Schaefer went silent. Suddenly he began to have trouble understanding Spanish.

Bruce Falconer is the senior editor of The American Scholar.


Comments are closed for this post.