Judicial officials expect to begin excavation this week for the bodies of political prisoners thought to have been killed at the Colonia Dignidad compound during the 17-year Pinochet's military dictatorship. This latest chapter in the Colonia Dignidad saga follows the arrest of former colony leader Paul Schäfer in March and the discovery of an illegal weapons cache in August.
Jorge Zepeda, the judge investigating the case, will be coordinating the excavations from the nearby city of Parral, where Chile's Legal Medical Service and investigative experts have set up a temporary base to process the forensic evidence police expect to find.
Colonia Dignidad was right-wing religious compound founded by German immigrants in 1961 near Parral in southern Chile. Its leaders are suspected of collaborating with former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet and Chile's secret police force, the Directorate of National Intelligence (DINA), during the military regime's 17-year rule.
Investigators have pinpointed three locations within the Colony's compound where human bones, jewelry, shoes, and other personal belongings of political prisoners are suspected to be buried. The information came from the testimony of Efraín Vedder, a member of the Colony who escaped from the compound in December 2002.
The three sites are located in an area that was dug up by members of Colonia Dignidad in the late 1970s on the pretext of removing televisions previously buried underground. Vedder claims that the remains are located approximately five meters below ground.
In earlier excavations, police investigators discovered two large weapons caches buried on the property, the largest illegal arsenal ever uncovered in Chile. Police also discovered an underground bunker filled with over 30,000 archives of intelligence profiles created by the Chilean secret police (ST, June 20). Further excavations had been delayed until now by rainy winter weather in the south of Chile.
Other testimony provided by former colony members, as well as information from the archives discovered in the underground bunker, have allowed government officials to estimate that at least 30 people were executed and buried inside the compound.
Families of victims who disappeared in Colonia Dignidad hope that the upcoming excavations will shed light on the fate of their loved ones. Many expect that officials will find the body of Juan Maino, a left-wing political activist who was detained by the DINA in 1976 and was last seen alive at Colonia Dignidad.
Another high-profile disappearance linked to the Colony is U.S. citizen Boris Weisfeiler. Weisfeiler was a Russian-born mathematics professor who disappeared in January 1985 while camping in southern Chile near Colonia Dignidad. Pinochet-era investigations concluded that he drowned in a river.
But according to documents declassified by the U.S. State Department in June 2000, Weisfeiler was picked up by a military patrol and taken to the compound. Two years later, in 1987, an informant reported to the U.S . embassy in Santiago that Weisfeiler was still alive but was being tortured and held in animal-like conditions inside the compound.
After the 1990 restoration of democracy in Chile, the Colony lost its special charitable status and investigations into the Colony's connection to human rights abuses during the military regime began.
Paul Schäfer, leader and administrator of the Colony for over 40 years, was recently detained on an international arrest warrant in Argentina after an eight-year man hunt (ST, March 11). Schäfer is currently in police custody on charges of serial child molestation at the compound (ST, Oct. 5). Further criminal charges could result from discoveries made by investigators in the upcoming excavations.
After Schäfer fled Chile, the colony was operated by other colony leaders until the top lieutenants, including hospital director Dr. Harmut Hopp were arrested in May. The Chilean government officially took control of the compound in August (ST, Aug. 29).
Chilean officials recently appointed Herman Schwember as the new administrator of the former Colonia Dignidad property. Schwember is a Chilean citizen of German descent who is leading the effort to reintegrate the 300 members of the former colony into Chilean society. Many of the former colony members speak only German and have psychological problems related to the extreme isolation maintained on the property.
When asked how he would act if requested to report members of the colony who may have taken part in human rights violations, Schwember said, "I have a legal obligation to report crimes, if I did not, it would make me an accomplice to them."