Colonia Dignidad, aka hell on earth in Chile

For decades, the settlement, run by a charismatic immigrant from Germany, was considered a harmless community of believers. In reality, it was a sect labor camp. And a place of torture.

South Chile, the 1970s. Close to the city of Catillo, about 340 kilometers from Santiago, lies the province of Linares, isolated from the rest of the world- more than 70 square miles of land, mostly agricultural, surrounded by picturesque hills. However, it only seems to be uninhabited. Carefully cut off from the various, closer or more distant, human clusters, it is connected with civilization by a long, narrow road leading to a massive gate. Nothing and no one will pass through it without the watchful gaze of the guards.

Everyone in the neighborhood knows who lives behind the gates of the Bavarian-style colony: in cream-colored houses with juicy-orange roofs, among colorful gardens, and fountains. They are German and French immigrants. Polite, decent, clean, and diligent. Like no one else they take care of the earth, and nature and do have their moral principles. They don't disturb anyone, they don't bother anyone. They do not come into conflict with local residents. They provide health care to hundreds of poor people. After all, they have their own, fully equipped hospital on the north side. They allow outsiders to use it for free. They also have a gravel pit, which you can use to build roads all over Chile. And a chapel, two schools, a common room, a bakery, and a dairy. They have lived behind a massive cast-iron gate for decades: some were born there, started their families, and died.

Happiness captured in a shot

And all this - as they argue - thanks to the great Paul Schäfer. Full of inexhaustible energy, evangelical preacher from Germany who spent most of his adult life in Chile. Tall, slim, and graying, he has a distinctive voice and a glass eye. Despite spending many years in Chile, he still doesn't speak Spanish well. German is the language he values best and expects the same from those whom he welcomes to his colony. He rarely smiles, keeps his distance, and walks straightened up, proudly. Always in elegant clothes, often wearing a hat.

From the others, however, he expects the wearing of traditional work clothes from decades ago. But no one seems to mind. At least it is not seen in the 1981 recording shared by Schäfer himself. The film shows an idyllic life among picturesque landscapes, a land of milk and honey. Everyone is satisfied with the work they do. Even tame deer and little owls tearing around the buildings seem unrealistically happy. The video ends with a formal performance by an orchestra of young women. This is how the world has seen the colony for decades. Because Schäfer wanted the world to see his colony this way.

For the glory of all

To the inhabitants of the village, Schäfer is an uncle and a mentor, replacing their family and God himself. The only thing he officially requires of his "sheep" is to confess sins.
Photo of the first German colonists who settled in Colonia Dignidad in the 1960s. Phot. Ivan Alvarado / Reuters / Forum
Famous are the public confessions to Schäfer, which take place every Sunday during meals. Schäfer's sheep were grouped according to age and sex. Each group has its symbol and a flag. Children are therefore separated from their parents, and, upon reaching an appropriate age, are assigned to subsequent working groups. Separate for boys and girls.

Day plan: shared breakfast and then off to work and school. Men usually work in factories, mills, and workshops. Women in the kitchen or hospital. Only in the fields, there is no distinction. They all work together there. While doing so, many mumble Schäfer's favorite mantras: "work is God's service", "Supreme Judge, we are waiting for you", and "We endure the pain for the sake of dignity." The work usually takes around 12 hours. Nobody gets a salary. The only payment is the glory of the colony. And a kind word from Schäfer. For hundreds of people, for decades, this word is worth more than all the world's wages.

The local people also love Schäfer. The hospital, especially the maternity ward, is constantly busy. Partly financed by state subsidies, it welcomes one thousand Chilean kids to this world. In addition, every infant born in the colony’s hospital receives powdered milk every month, until the age of six. Who needs more?

Like Phoenix from the ashes

Few in the colony knew that Paul Schäfer, born in 1921 in the town of Troisdorf, was so clumsy as a child that, during a rather bizarre act of untying a tangled shoelace ... he accidentally took out his right eye with a fork. When he wanted to join the SS a few years later, he was initially rejected, but eventually managed to become a member of the Hitler Youth, a division of the Nazi Party.

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During the war, he worked as a nurse in a field hospital in France. He never admitted how he lost his eye. He was ashamed. He used to say that he was injured in combat.

After the end of the war, he volunteered to be the leader of Evangelical youth, but he did not stay in this post too long. He was fired. Unofficially, it was said that he displayed inappropriate behavior towards his charges. So he decided to return to his native Troisdorf and become a preacher on his own.

He encouraged common prayer and confession. He could speak. And persuade people. It took him a few years to gather several hundred followers, mostly war widows and orphans. He founded an orphanage in Troisdorf. He kept telling his charges that they had been chosen by God and that they would be safe with him. The only thing he expected was 10 percent of their income and daily confession.

However, not everything went according to the plan. Some mothers noticed that he is paying too much attention to their sons, and touches them a lot. They accused him of sexual abuse and took the matter to the local authorities. After looking at the evidence the court issued an arrest warrant for Schäfer

The problem was that he was no longer in Germany. He escaped to the Middle East with two trusted associates. Soon afterward, he contacted the German embassy in Chile and sold them a touching story about his situation and a project for the poor that he would like to develop. He was so convincing that no one thought of checking his criminal record. He gets invited to Chile.

He arrived at Santiago airport at the start of1961. One year later, using the money he extorted in Germany, he bought an abandoned ranch and started building a settlement together with several other immigrants from Germany. Several months later, Colonia Dignidad, or the Colony of Dignity, welcomed several hundred settlers from Europe.

Under bad supervision

How was one man able to control such a large number of people? People who gave up comfortable lives in Europe, and all their material possessions and decided to go live in the Andean foothills instead?

According to the experts, Colonia Dignidad is a model example of a sect. Using faith in God made people feel that they were working and devoting themselves to a higher purpose, not to private interests. Schäfer's charisma made them deaf and blind to any warning signs. The toxic emotional bond maintained by the leader meant that no one saw anything wrong with the fact that Schäfer's word was always the last. Even if it meant the need for electroshocks and corporal punishment for those who tried to have their mind, contrary to the rules of the colony. After all, everything that happened in the colony was done for the glory of the Lord.
Behind this gate of this colony, later renamed Villa Baviera, sect-practices were practiced for years. Phot. Shepard Sherbell / CORBIS SABA / Corbis via Getty Images
Therefore there was no room for quarrels or disloyalty. Schäfer personally made sure of this. Thanks to confessions and denunciations, he kept everyone in his grip and caught even the smallest signs of insubordination. What is more, the rebels themselves confessed to Schäfer, tempted by the promise that in return for admitting their disobedience, they could count on forgiveness.

In reality, the sinners were starved, beaten, or sicked by dogs. Women did not have it any easier. According to Schäfer, it was women who were guilty of all evil, as they were the ones who led men to temptation. Therefore, they had to wear baggy clothes, and could not let their hair down or put on makeup.

After many months of working in the fields, twenty-something girls looked like old women, battered with life. Men, however, were still looking for ways to meet them. Schäfer realized that no matter what he did, he could not keep the settlers celibate. That's why he came up with the idea of courses on how to live together as a couple.

Now he got to decide who was dating whom. Usually, for men, he selected women over the reproductive age. The pregnancies were not seen well in the colony. In 30 years, only 30 children were born behind the gate. There were years when there were no births at all. Did this mean that Schäfera realized that sooner or later the colony would have to end its existence?

Schäfer and his followers believed that the Soviets were the greatest evil. It was their fear of them that drove many Germans to follow Schäfer to Chile. And on Chilean soil, far from reliable news, it was easy to continue to live with the feeling that you fled hunger, death, and war. In addition, the security behind the gate was ensured by a special paramilitary unit composed of several dozen men. Armored doors and shutters in houses, numerous alarms and cameras, and a network of tunnels for possible evacuation - all this was to reassure the colonists that they were in danger of death and destruction.

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If you look at the utopian village from a different perspective, you could see the tremors and tensions starting to appear just a few years after its creation. Because what united the inhabitants of the village was fear. And on fear and psycho-manipulation, nearly all of the greatest sects were built.

This was also the case in the colony of houses with juicy-orange rooftops. It began with confessions of those who managed to get out of the Schäfer colony. It was their shocking stories of torture, imprisonment, and brainwashing that made Amnesty International take an interest in the village, followed by the Chilean, German and French services. The more people were interviewed, the more terrible the images of Schäfer's colony appeared to be.

There was a talk of molesting children, forced labor, arms trade, torture, and numerous other crimes, including money laundering. It has long been said that dignity was violated at every turn in the Colony of Dignity. Unfortunately, all attempts to verify these reports failed.

Based on the information provided by Amnesty International, the German government has asked the Chilean government for help in investigating Schäfer’s settlement several times. Each time the request was denied. It was only after the collapse of Augusto Pinochet in 1990, that the colony began to lose its strength and influence. The new government cut Schäfer off from the subsidy and stripped his colony of charity status.

Even this, however, did not prevent Schäfer from continuing the mission. The funds accumulated over the years meant that the colony could be self-sufficient for a long time and did not need financial support. In addition, Schäfer had a new profit-making venture in mind- running a boarding school for boys.

And everything would remain the same if it wasn’t for the mother of a 12-year-old student who got a note from her son. The boy wrote a dramatic appeal to her: "Get me out of here, he raped me." The woman managed to get her son out and find a man named Luis Henriquez, a Chilean detective who had an eye on Schäfer for a long time. It was on the basis of the evidence presented by Henriquez in 1996 that a court in Santiago ordered the arrest of the colony’s leader, accusing him of child abuse.

The order was to be carried out by Henriquez and his men. However, as soon as a group of armed officers reached the cast iron gate, it turned out that Schäfer had disappeared.

Everything has its beginning and end

In the village, investigators found chests with weapons and car-parts from the cars of missing politicians. For years, Schäfer allowed a part of his settlement to serve as an execution place for the enemies of General Pinochet's rule.

Months after Schäfer's disappearance, it was commonly believed that he committed suicide. Yet Henriquez did not believe this. He thought that Schäfer had managed to escape the country through the underground tunnels. A possible destination was, among others, Buenos Aires.
It's hard to believe that this defenseless old man was one of the most wanted people for all these years. In the photo, Paul Schäfer at the Buenos Aires Police Station. Phot. Santiago Pandolfi / Reuters / Forum
Thanks to the cooperation of Argentinian journalists, it was possible for the investigators to locate an apartment in an elite, gated estate near the center of the capital. One day in 2005, at the crack of dawn, Henriquez's group burst into the apartment. In the first room, they saw nurses and security guards, who immediately pointed to the bedroom door. It was hard to believe that this huddled and defenseless old man lying on the bed was one of the most wanted people of recent decades. Paul Schäfer himself.

He did not protest when Henriquez handcuffed him. He merely repeated silently, "Why are you doing this?" Taken aboard a military plane to Santiago, he is finally put on trial. And in 2006, 86-year-old Schäfer is sentenced to 20 years in prison for the sexual abuse of minors, 7 years for illegal possession of weapons, and 3 years for torture. A 30-year sentence or about 30,000 rapes on underaged children. However, due to his poor health, he was under constant medical care.. He died two years later in a prison hospital of cardiovascular failure.

And the colony? Shortly after Schäfer's capture, all his property was seized by Chilean authorities as evidence in the case. A year later, former colonists expressed their regret over 30 years of human rights violations in a collective letter. They blamed Schäfer.

Today, the Colony of Dignity, renamed the Bavarian Village, is headed by Peter Müller. He maintains that the new settlement is open to everyone. This is to be proven by numerous beer festivals and brass band concerts, which can be attended by anyone. In the Bavarian Village, you can not only dance, eat and drink beer, but also spend the night in one of the rental apartments. The offer includes treatments that beautify the body and soul. The site managers see nothing wrong with that.

– Maria Radzik

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

–Translated by sj Sources:
The book Colonia Dignidad by Friedrich Paul Heller

Main photo: Children from Colonia Dignidad with photos of their friend who accused Paul Schäfer of sexual abuse. Photo Reuters Photographer / Reuters / Forum
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