Colonia Dignidad, Chile -- The rows of corn grow tall and straight at Colonia Dignidad, one of the world's richest communes. Its timber products, baked goods and sausage, renowned for their quality, are sold nationwide. Its 65-bed hospital provides the region's best health care. One of the commune's elderly German hausfraus seems friendly enough, offering a traveler some apple juice for the road.
But the shadow of its founder and longtime leader, Paul Schaefer - - a former Nazi and Baptist preacher who fled Germany in 1961 amid charges that he had sexually abused boys in an orphanage he ran there -- hangs over the secretive 70-square-mile commune. So does the dark reputation it got during the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, when survivors say Colonia Dignidad provided hospitality to interrogators and torturers in his secret police.
Chilean investigators say more than 70 criminal investigations are pending against the settlement, Schaefer or other residents, including tax evasion, fraud, kidnapping and sexual abuse of children. Schaefer, who would be in his 80s, disappeared in 1996 while investigators were looking into 27 child sexual-abuse counts against him. Most complaints against the commune, located 225 miles south of Santiago, Chile's capital, date from the Schaefer era.
Colonia Dignidad's reputation suffered another blow recently when four of its roughly 270 residents defected. The four -- two founding farmers, their daughter and son-in-law -- are cooperating with Chilean prosecutors. In their first interview with a foreign newspaper, they and the investigators charged that torture, sexual abuse, forced labor and repression of their basic liberties took place at the settlement, but they offered few details.
The escapees also said they had seen Pinochet's sharpshooters undergoing training at remote Colonia Dignidad before the Sept. 11, 1973, military coup that toppled the elected socialist government of Salvador Allende.
The escapees, however, said they knew nothing about an American hiker, Boris Weisfeiler, who disappeared 10 miles from the colony in 1985. According to declassified U.S. Embassy documents, an informant said authorities at Colonia Dignidad seized Weisfeiler, a mathematician at Pennsylvania State University, as a suspected "Jewish spy," then questioned and killed him.
That allegation has been disputed and remains unproved.
The escapees were not physically restrained, but according to investigators they feared punishment if they were caught attempting to leave. They were laborers not authorized to travel outside the settlement.
Hernan Escobar, an administrator and unofficial spokesman for Colonia Dignidad, told Knight Ridder that the settlement is being persecuted for its conservative views. It has no Nazi ties or beliefs, is not hiding Schaefer and did not hold the four against their will, he said.
"What is regrettable to us is they did not communicate their intentions to us," Escobar said. "To do this after 40 years, without explanation, is not what gentlemen do."
Former Colonia Dignidad farmer Walter Szurgelies, 73; his wife, Mathilde Selent, 75; their daughter Ingrid, 48; and son-in-law Francisco Morales, 50, escaped after smuggling a letter to a visiting judge who was investigating sex-abuse allegations against colony leaders.
The judge passed their note to prosecutors, who opened a criminal investigation into alleged threats by colony residents against the Szurgelies family. Thus protected from restraints the commune might impose, the four climbed into a government vehicle inside the compound April 11 and were driven out in front of other colony members.
"There are more people who still want to get out," said Morales, who was adopted as a boy by a founder of the colony and known inside it as Franz Baar.
Six of their adult children might be among those who want to leave, Szurgelies and his wife told Knight Ridder. Like other children raised under Schaefer's rule, they were separated from their parents at an early age to live in communal nurseries and same- sex dorms. Adult men and women also live apart. Traditionally, children born on the premises were taken from their parents at age 2.
Colonia Dignidad stopped taking children from their mothers and raising them apart from their parents in 1996 when Schaefer vanished, Escobar said. Since then, he said, elders in charge of business activities have ruled the community with input from what he called "consultative assemblies."
"We acknowledge that over time, this has worked against us," Escobar explained, about separating children from parents. "By outsiders we were seen as strange. Within our community, the practice thwarted the love a child should feel for its mother."
He denied a request to tour the colony, saying it would only lead to bad publicity.
Investigators said Morales confirmed to them that sexual abuse of children had been widespread in the Schaefer era. They said most settlers did not know that Schaefer had been accused of pedophilia in Germany.
"I think at some point the power he had corrupted him," Escobar said. "I don't know if he committed sexual abuse, I would have had to be there. But I am totally convinced there is some truth to it. Maybe half the accusations are invented and half are true."
Szurgelies and Selent met with their children who remained in the colony and a commune attorney at a site off the commune's premises April 18. The parents urged their children to escape; the children urged their parents to return to the colony. Investigators said the parents told them they believe that some of their children were threatened or blackmailed into submission. Those children were not available to comment.
"We are at the beginning of a long ball of yarn that must be unwound," said Jorge Allende, the head of the victim-protection program in the local prosecutor's office in the nearby town of Talca, which assisted the four escapees.
Morales told Knight Ridder that many of the colony's older residents were forced to work 16-hour days, denied money due them and sometimes beaten. That is largely why he left, he said.
One of the colony's founders, Harmut Hopp, explained its rigors in a December 1987 interview with El Mercurio, a conservative Chilean newspaper. "Work should be the purpose of human life," he declared. He called leisure time a "malformation in modern man."
The escapees hope that through their disclosures, "Everything (about the colony) will become clearer," Morales said. "We cannot continue with this constant lie."
Members of the Szurgelies family, who are penniless, left with only the clothes on their backs. Like most commune residents, they did not hold their own German passports or Chilean residency documents, investigators said. Trusted members handle the commune's business off the grounds, and a number of commune offspring leave to attend college. Others, including the Szurgelies family, never leave.
Mathilde Selent was beside herself at her first opportunity in 40 years to shop for clothes, thanks to a subsidy from Chile's victim- protection program. "It's a new world, a new life, and I have a new jacket!" she exulted.
Moments later, her husband, unaccustomed to traffic lights, stepped blindly in front of an oncoming car. It screeched to a halt inches from his knees before he was whisked away by surprised detectives.
Making money has proven to be the commune's singular gift. Chile's leading news magazine, QuePasa, valued its 37,000 acres of farmland and forest and its business assets at $5 billion in 1998.
"We are the best communists in existence," Escobar said. "The true communist, the communist that takes to the heart the meaning of the word and the philosophy, that is very much us."
Many of the allegations against Colonia Dignidad date from the Pinochet era, when Manuel Contreras, head of Chile's notorious secret police from 1973 to 1978, was a frequent visitor, witnesses have told courts and civil rights commissions. Samuel Fuenzalida Devia, a former Chilean secret agent who fled the dictatorship, alleged in 1979 that the military regime brought opponents to the secretive enclave for murder and disposal.
The colony enjoyed tax-exempt status until the end of the Pinochet regime. In 1991, it took a new name, Villa Baviera. Locals and prosecutors still call it Colonia Dignidad, however.
In 1999, Judge Juan Guzman authorized a search of the colony that unearthed a bunker that victims who survived it said had served as a torture chamber, according to Chilean press reports.
Among the Chileans alleged to have disappeared at Colonia Dignidad was Luis Aguayo Fernandez, then 21, a local Socialist Party member and schoolteacher. He was last seen being questioned and tortured there in 1974, witnesses who survived have told his mother, Mercedes Fernandez Barra.
Fernandez Barra, 73, of nearby Parral, said recently: "My mother's intuition tells me his remains are there in Colonia Dignidad, buried there or cremated there."
Far away in Newton, Mass., Olga Weisfeiler, mathematician Weisfeiler's sister, lives with the same grim uncertainty. Her brother, a trekker, had hiked some of the world's roughest terrain. He supposedly drowned fording a river near Colonia Dignidad that is only 4 feet deep.