Santiago -- The child sexual abuse and other crimes committed in Colonia Dignidad, a farming commune founded in southern Chile by former Nazi medic and Baptist preacher Paul Schaefer, were an open secret, but ”nothing was done” about it for decades, according to two young Chilean journalists writing a book on the sect.
Schaefer, who is now 83 and under arrest in Chile, is charged with sexually abusing 26 children.
However, according to new information that has begun to emerge since his arrest in March, the number of young victims could number in the thousands, including not only the sons and daughters of the German immigrants living in the commune, but also the children of local Chilean farming families who attended the Colonia Dignidad agricultural school.
Claudio Salinas and Hans Stange, fifth-year students at the University of Chile School of Journalism, say their months of research clearly demonstrate that all branches of the Chilean state are guilty of omission, which kept Schaefer from being arrested during more than four decades of abuses and human rights violations.
Colonia Dignidad is a wealthy 170,000-hectare agricultural commune founded as a charitable organisation in 1961 east of the town of Parral, around 340 km south of Santiago, by Schaefer and other German immigrants.
In 1991, the name of the secretive enclave was officially changed to Villa Baviera, although it is still known as Colonia Dignidad.
In the paramilitary religious commune, the members' basic liberties, including freedom of expression, association, movement, education and correspondence, have been constantly violated, and sexual abuse against minors was apparently routine.
In addition, during the 1973-1990 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, the commune served as a clandestine torture and detention centre, according to human rights groups.
But testimony from escaped members of the commune was ignored by the authorities for decades.
Stange told IPS that ”it was known since 1964 that the members of the commune were being subjected to torture; it was known since 1977 that political prisoners were tortured there; and the child abuse was known about since the 1970s. The state has always known about the human rights violations occurring there.”
Although a number of lawsuits were filed against Colonia Dignidad, on different charges ranging from customs and tax fraud to kidnapping and rape of minors, the cases were routinely tossed out on the grounds of lack of evidence.
Schaefer enjoyed the protection of a powerful network, made up of judges, parliamentarians from right-wing opposition parties, former officials of the Pinochet regime, former police and military commanders, and members of the business community who reportedly benefited from the commune's services.
Salinas and Stange began their research in October 2004, with a 10-page report published in the now-defunct magazine Latitud 33, which included an updated map of the commune and a timeline of the most significant events there.
The book-in-progress, which is based on hundreds of hours of research into a wide range of documents and press reports; interviews with key informants, lawyers, former torture victims, escaped former members of the sect and victims' relatives; and visits to Colonia Dignidad, is set to come out in October or November, published by Random House Mondadori.
Stange and Salinas, who both hold university degrees in social communication and have published articles in local magazines and -- in the case of Stange -- in the Santiago newspaper La Nación, describe Colonia Dignidad as ”a huge beehive, where Schaefer was the queen bee.”
The commune members ”were under a spell cast by a leader who is neither a psychopath nor brutish, but a charismatic man, and also a homosexual who only likes boys,” said Salinas.
Schaefer ”did not allow the commune members to have a private life or freely associate among themselves, and they had to work between 12 and 14 hours a day without talking to anyone,” said Stange.
Children were taken away from their mothers at a young age, and raised collectively in same-sex dorms.
By the late 1960s, then senator Patricio Aylwin (who later became president) requested the revocation of Colonia Dignidad's legal status as a tax-exempt charitable organisation. The lower house of parliament also launched an investigation of the commune, but Schaefer was let off the hook.
In 1988, reports by a special investigative judge, Hernán Robert Arias, and the State Defence Council pointed to a number of irregularities, including the fact that adolescent members of the commune were not registered for military service and no information was available on labour conditions in Colonia Dignidad.
Before he came to Chile, Schaefer had already been prosecuted for sexual abuse of minors committed in an orphanage he set up in Germany. ”When we talk about omissions, we mean that the state, and all of the authorities, turned a blind eye to the strange things going on in the commune,” said Salinas in the interview with IPS.
”Aylwin started to focus on the issue when Colonia Dignidad filed charges in the late 1960s against his friend, Héctor Taricco, governor of the province of Linares, for reopening a public road that had been taken over by the German commune members, who were even charging a toll for use of the road.
”Back then, Aylwin was already seeking the cancellation of the commune's status” as a charitable organisation, said the journalist.
Then in the 1970s, ”the authoritarian darkness fell, and the direct collusion between the dictatorship and Colonia Dignidad began,” he added.
After Chile's return to democracy, then president Aylwin (1990-1994) appointed an investigative commission in the Interior Ministry, which functioned until 2000.
Colonia Dignidad lost its status as a charity, and the noose slowly began to close around the commune.
”The lack of concern about this 'state within a state' is the fault” of successive Chilean governments, because Colonia Dignidad has been protected by an extensive network of authorities for many years, said Salinas.
”What is incredible are the links in the network, because there is apparently explicit agreement with regard to the commission and cover-up of the commune's crimes,” he added.
The two young journalists said they were shocked to find out to what extent the goings-on in Colonia Dignidad were an open secret. ”I sometimes wonder why another Colonia Dignidad doesn't exist, if it's so easy to get around the law,” said Salinas. ”All you have to do is weave networks of cronyism and clientelism.”
Before his arrest on Mar. 10 in Argentina and his extradition to Chile, Schaefer was a fugitive from justice, facing charges including child sex abuse.
His arrest, made possible by an international warrant issued by a Chilean judge who is investigating the 1974 forced disappearance of a member of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), who was last seen at Colonia Dignidad, caught Salinas and Stange off-guard, in the middle of their research.
”We thought everything would go to the dogs, but when we stopped to think about it, we realised it was a good thing, because new information could emerge that we didn't know about yet,” said Salinas.
The journalists' concern is focused on the victims: the sexually abused children, the political prisoners who were held at Colonia Dignidad, some of whom were never seen alive again, and the 220 commune members still living there.
”The youngest members can't go anywhere for schooling -- many of them don't even speak Spanish -- or for a job, because all they have ever done is work on the farm,” said Salinas.
”The commune members are victims, they should be protected, but they are also potential hurdles to a full investigation. They don't fit into our society, or into modern-day German society.”
The image of Germany they have is ”from the mid-20th century,” he added.
Paul Schaefer was born Dec. 4, 1921 in Sieburg, Germany, and joined the Nazi youth movement at a young age. He served as a medic in the German army during WWII, where he reached the rank of corporal. In 1959 he created the Private Social Mission, supposedly a charitable organisation.
He was accused of sexually abusing children in 1959 and fled Germany with his followers. He showed up in Chile in 1961, where the government at the time, led by conservative President Jorge Alessandri, granted him permission to create the Dignidad Beneficent Society on a farm near the town of Parral.