The torture colony: in a remote part of Chile, an evil German evangelist built a utopia whose members helped the Pinochet regime perform its foulest deeds.

Author:Falconer, Bruce

Colonia Dignidad, Paul Schaefer, Augusto Pinochet


Deep in t e 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 sour'--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...

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