Its Horrific Past Exposed, A Notorious Sect Lingers On In Central Chile

Chile’s Colonia Dignidad is infamous as a place where children were raped and opponents of the Pinochet regime tortured. The sect’s founder, serial child abuser and ex-Nazi doctor Paul Schäfer, died last year. But his right hand man, Hartmut Hopp, is on the lam – back in Germany.

Die Welt, Germany/August 17, 2011

Berlin -- He was the right-hand man at Chile’s infamous Colonia Dignidad. Hartmut Hopp made sure the child abuse committed by sect leader Paul Schäfer didn’t become publically known and oversaw the sect’s convoluted finances. Hopp, a doctor, was a key figure in one of the darkest chapters in relations between Germany and Chile. Condemned by a Chilean court to five years in jail for child abuse, in May he was apparently able to slip through the net and head back to Germany.

Citing evidence of his escape to Germany, including e-mails with accomplices, Chilean authorities have applied for his extradition. Interpol also has an international arrest warrant out against the 66-year-old. Hopp’s wife moved back to Germany last April, and his daughter-in-law confirmed to the Chilean journalists’ association that he was in Germany.

Hopp was part of the founding generation of a sect that settled on an estate known as Colonia Dignidad, and he was one of the people closest to the now-deceased pederast Paul Schäfer, who headed the sect. Schäfer, who was known to authorities for abusing children in Germany, moved to Chile in 1961 and founded the settlement, a “state within the state” as Chile’s first post-dictatorship president, Patricio Aylwin, always referred to it.

Along with criminal activity like child abuse and arms smuggling, opponents of Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet’s military government (1973-1990) were tortured there. Schäfer maintained good relations with Pinochet as well as with the police and justice authorities. For that reason, it wasn’t until a few years after the dictatorship came to an end that authorities moved against him. The sect was also protected by various German players who to this day are holding most of its records under lock and key, as questioning of left-wing party members in the German federal parliament revealed on July 1.

Hopp should be safe in Germany, as the country does not extradite its citizens. It is possible, however, that Hopp isn't just trying to protect himself: the sect’s funds, estimated to be at least 3 million dollars, are believed to have been transferred abroad, and there is real estate in Canada, in South America, and in Central America.

A new beginning?

Anxious to get their hands on these assets are not only Chilean authorities, but also various children and grandchildren of original sect members. There are millions in debts and reparation payments outstanding, and these have to be paid off before the settlement can be converted into the flourishing business that the young generation sees it as becoming.

Sect members no longer follow the old rules. Now, they can marry, drive cars, watch TV, and they are paid for their work. In their bid to turn the place into a tourism venue, they are anxious to polish up its damaged image. After all, Colonia Dignidad wasn’t just a bizarre sect. It was also an empire worth millions.

The prize possession is the 16,000-hectare estate at the foot of the Chilean Andes, now called “Villa Baviera,” which has been spruced up in the hopes of new beginnings: the watch towers and barbed wire are gone, and doors are open to visitors.

Friendly young men like Martin Matthusen, today’s spokesman for the community, greet visitors in broken German and speak openly about their traumatic upbringing at the hands of an old-school Nazi who forbid couples in the community to marry, took children away from their parents, held them captive and punished them with electric shocks.

Matthusen and Co. may prefer beer, lederhosen and dirndls to Schäfer’s youth choirs, but behind the scenes there’s a tough fight underway for the assets of what was once a flourishing complex of forestland, real estate, construction and transportation firms. The 180 settlers remaining today have only the sad remnants of all that. Schäfer’s strict rules about sex meant a low birth rate – 54 of the 87 adults now living there are retirement age, and while there are 31 children many of them are severely traumatized.

Last year, due to unpaid bills, the state utilities company cut off electrical supply, which meant that the cheese making facility, butcher shop, bakery and other enterprises had to shut down. Matthusen was able to negotiate a compromise with authorities: a reparation fund of 4.3 million euros for victims of human rights abuses in exchange for the embargo against the settlement being lifted. That in turn made it possible to auction off various assets including several luxury vehicles, and a small plane that belonged to Schäfer. However, most of the capital had been transferred abroad shortly after the 1996 arrest warrant issued against settlement leaders.

Key figures in addition to Hopp are Peter Schmidt, Schäfer‘s bodyguard who according to Matthusen got an estate in Argentina; Schäfer‘s designated successor, Hans Riesland, and his former chauffeur, Reinhard Döring, both of whom returned to Germany; and estate manager José Miguel Stegmeier, one of the few Chileans in Schäfer’s inner circle. Miguel Stegmeier was allegedly involved in real estate deals and shifted substantial sums of money.

However Stegmeier, who is a member of the pro-Pinochet right-wing UDI party, is a political protegé of current President Sebastián Piñera’s government, which even appointed him prefect of Chile’s south-central Bio Bio region. Even though revelations about his past posted by the El Mostrador Internet portal forced him to resign after just three days, they did not lead to court proceedings against him.

Judge Jorge Zepeda is the man who not only called for Hopp’s extradition but who is also investigating claims of illegal activities formerly carried out at the Colonia, among them tax evasion and forced labor. If his thesis that Schäfer was an arms dealer turns out to be accurate, then the entire estate will be transferred to Chilean tax authorities.

Zepeda has been able to prove that arms were hidden on the estate and that international arms dealer Gerhard Mertins visited. More, however, according to Matthusen, has not come to light. “The economic success is the fruit of our work and that of our fathers, who weren’t paid,” he says. “We’re not responsible for Schäfer‘s machinations; we’re victims too.”

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