Terror at the Colonia Dignidad


Twenty years ago, a German religious cult leader called Paul Schäfer disappeared into the network of tunnels below his commune, the Colonia Dignidad. Schäfer founded the Colonia Dignidad in 1961 after he fled Germany because of investigations regarding the sexual abuse of boys. Today, Colonia Dignidad is the setting for a movie, Colonia, set to open in April, as well as, bizarrely, a location couples choose for their wedding.

After World War II, during which he was a member of the Wehrmacht, Paul Schäfer founded a children’s home and ministry and gathered a group of loyal followers around him. When rumours surfaced that he was abusing the young boys Schäfer needed a way out. He met a Chilean consul who was unaware of the charges against him and who invited him to come to Chile.

He was allowed to found another ministry, officially called Sociedad Benefactora y Educacional Dignidad, but known by the Colonia Dignidad. Schäfer had been followed by a group of his most loyal followers, some 35 families, which would be his first parishioners.

The Germans were highly respected by their neighbors. They kept to themselves, worked hard, produced excellent German bread and cheeses, among other things, and ran a hospital that treated people according to the highest medical standards, up to 26,000 people underwent care in the hospital. From the outside, the Colonia Dignidad was an idyllic little hamlet, with unremarkable members. The reality was far from it.

It took decades until people became aware of what was really happening in this small community. And it took even longer until authorities began investigating the claims laid against Schäfer and his subordinates, partly because Schäfer had developed strong ties with the Pinochet regime that made him virtually untouchable.

During Schäfers reign, the community was isolated from its neighbors and nearly no one managed to flee and report about the emotional and physical abuse taking place behind the barbed wires.

Schäfer was known as the “Permanent Uncle” and made the members dependent on him through brainwashing, religious theory and physical torture. Believing themselves members of a large family, the community was really built on betrayal, obedience and fear. The members had to confess their sins, both in small groups, as well as to each other and to Schäfer himself and were then punished. The sins were subject to Schäfer’s twisted ideology and not confessing to a sin one had been accused of was an even graver sin; so much so that members would make up sins to confess.

The members were separated by age and gender and sexual and romantic relationships were not only strictly discouraged but forbidden. One could apply to get married, but Schäfer would choose the spouse. He would often ‘give’ a woman past her childbearing years to a man as a wife and the birth of a child was a rare occurrence. Most children in the community either came from Germany or were adopted Chilean children. During Schäfer’s reign of 30 years, no more than 60 children were actually born into the community.

Men and women, as well as parents and children, lived strictly separated in dormitories. They would see each other during the day or sometimes at work – even though work was normally gender separated as well – but were not supposed to socialise.

Schäfer had a particular liking for young boys, his so-called Sprinters. His bedroom contained a little bed for boys and he would often have more than one boy spending the night with him. The boys were drugged, brainwashed, molested and raped.

For a time, Schäfers crimes were only committed on the members of his community. But that should change with the rise to power of General Pinochet in 1973. Schäfer used his contacts with Germany to deliver weapons from Germany to the military regime and the Colonia Dignidad became a basis for DINA, Direccion National de Inteligencia, the secret police of Pinochet’s regime.

From then on, political opponents or those that were suspected to be political opponents of Pinochet’s were taken to the Colonia Dignidad and there were subjected to torture. Amnesty International, German and Chilean authorities believe that many people were also killed and buried in individual and mass graves, but so far no bodies have been found. Instead, cars of disappeared political dissidents were found buried. Former DINA agents have also admitted to the torture and killing that took place on the 32,000 acres of the Colonia Dignidad.

Amnesty had been calling for investigations since as early as 1976, but Schäfer was too well protected. The German government asked Pinochet’s government on at least three occasions, in 1982, 1985 and 1988, to start a joint investigation into Schäfer, but for obvious reason, the dictatorship declined. Only after Pinochet’s fall could investigations really begin. Schäfer had since started a boarding school that took Chilean children as students. In 1996, a boy called Cristobal Parada managed to alert his mother that he was being raped in the colony and against all odds she managed to free him.

A few months later, a warrant was issued for Schäfer’s arrest, but it took nearly another four months until the police made their first raid. Schäfer disappeared into the tunnels and catacombs underneath the colony, the same place that dissidents had been tortured and killed. Over 30 raids later and the police had still not managed to capture Schäfer. They only encountered limited resistance by the inhabitants, which the police chief later described as zombies or robots, but the underground tunnels were simply too vast. It is highly likely that Schäfer was in those tunnels during all those raids, never actually far from the police’s grasp. When Schäfer finally fled, the exact date remains unclear, his subordinates took over from him and life went on nearly unchanged for the members of the community.

Many years later, in 2005, Paul Schäfer was captured in a suburb of Buenos Aires. He had been tried, in absence, and found guilty of child abuse. In 2006, he was sentenced to 20 years in jail but died four years later from heart failure. Only beginning in 2004 did investigations into Schäfer and the Colonia Dignidad really begin. It is now known that the community was involved in child abuse, torture, killings, money laundering, weapons smuggling, forced labor, and other crimes.

Bizarrely, many members of the community continue living there. Having never really learned Spanish, not being eligible for Chilean pensions and being either complicit in Schäfer’s crimes or extremely traumatised by the years of abuse, most members did not know where to turn. The dormitories have been renovated to be apartments and Schäfer’s old quarters are run as a hotel. The site can be rented as a wedding location and the community is trying to make money through tourism. They host an Octoberfest and people can eat traditional German food at the restaurant.

Those members that stayed are trying to forget the horrors they were subjected to and that occurred beneath their feet. They see tourism as the only way to provide for the community. On the wall of the Hotel Baviera hangs a chronic of the Colonia Dignidad. Unter the years 1961-1997 it reads “difficult years.”