The Disappearance of Boris Weisfeiler in Chile

A Briefing Memorandum on New Evidence on his Fate
Prepared by Olga Weisfeiler with assistance of
Peter Kornbluh , the National Security Archive

July 17, 2000



In January 1985, Boris Weisfeiler disappeared while hiking in Chile. A Russian born U.S. citizen and a prominent mathematics professor at the Pennsylvania State University, Weisfeiler had arrived in Chile on December 25, 1984, to spend a couple of weeks on a solitary backpacking trip along the mountains near the border between Chile and Argentina.

On the fourteenth or fifteenth of January, Weisfeiler’s backpack was recovered near the Nuble River. Some items, such as his American passport, his return ticket, and some money, were missing. There were various searches made for Weisfeiler’s body by Chilean officials, including ground searches of the area helicopter searches, and a search in the Nuble River by navy frogmen. Although no body was ever recovered, Boris Weisfeiler was declared dead on March 6th, and the inquest was closed. The conclusion of the Chilean courts was "probable death by [accidental] drowning."

The family of Boris Weisfeiler has never accepted the official finding. And now more than 250 documents, declassified by the United States State Department on June 30th, tell a far different story about the facts in his case and his disappearance in Chile.

 A Sister's Quest

Boris’ sister and closest living relative is Olga Weisfeiler, of Newton, Massachusetts. The two grew up together in Moscow until Boris immigrated to the United States in 1975 as a refugee. He was a brilliant mathematician who held positions in several prestigious American universities. Olga Weisfeiler stayed in Russia with the rest of her family to take care of their mother who had suffered a stroke. She immigrated to the United States with her two children in 1988 – three years after her brother’s disappearance in Chile.

In September 1988, her search for her disappeared brother began with a contact with Ms. Nancy Karp, a member of the American Jewish Congress. In February 1990, a Department of State official, K. Stevens, contacted Ms. Weisfeiler and informed her of the investigation by the post-Pinochet government’s Commission on Truth and Reconciliation. That Commission listed Weisfeiler as "an unresolved case" of human rights abuse.

After reading an article in the New York Times on a German enclave in Chile known as Colonia Dignidad—described as "a secretive settlement of German immigrants that has been linked to human rights abuses and accused of being a detention and torture center under the former government of Gen. Augusto Pinochet"—located near where her brother disappeared, Ms. Weisfeiler requested that the U.S. State Department initiate an investigation into Boris’ fate in February of 1991. She also asked Amnesty International to launch an investigation. The only responses received from the U.S. government were short, curt notes, she recalls, stating: "Unfortunately we have no new information." Most of the responses recycled the Chilean government’s official story: Boris had gone to hike in Chile, drowned in the river, and his body had never been found.

Recently declassified records reveal that this story is a cover up of the truth. The new documentation includes indications that Boris was detained by Chilean soldiers and may have been held in Colonia Dignidad. The documents show conclusively that his death was not accidental, but rather that he is one of the ll00 "desaparecidos"—persons disappeared by Gen. Pinochet’s military—still unaccounted for in Chile. There remains the slim possibility that he may still be alive after fifteen long years of captivity.

 New Declassified Evidence

On June 30th, 2000, the U.S. State Department declassified and released a set of over 250 documents concerning the case of Boris Weisfeiler as part of the Clinton Administration’s special Chile Declassification Project. The documents include various testimonies and eyewitness accounts during the first six years following Boris Weisfeiler's disappearance in Chile.

The truth these documents reveal is painful and stunning: within days of his disappearance, a Chilean source told one embassy official that he was still alive; over the next several years, US government officials received "persistent reports that Boris Weisfeiler was or is detained in Colonia Dignidad." Several documents contained accounts that he was still alive some years after his disappearance; a CIA memorandum suggested that a Chilean Army patrol had mistaken him for a "subversive," killed him, thrown his body in the river, and then covered up this crime. A State Department memorandum indicates that the U.S. embassy could not get approval from the Bush administration’s State Department to officially pursue an investigation through the Chilean courts. "At the present time there are no funds available…for this project," was the explanation.

  1. Eye Witness Accounts

    A 1987 U.S. Embassy cable describes two sources that provided information on the Weisfeiler disappearance. "Since June 1987 we have focused our efforts on determining the credibility of two reports about Weisfeiler's fate: One stating that he was delivered to Colonia Dignidad and is still being held prisoner there; and one stating that he was killed by an army patrol at the time of his disappearance." The former is the main eyewitness source to the Weisfeiler disappearance, and appears to have been interviewed by American authorities on more than one occasion. According to the same Embassy cable, "said he was part of an army patrol which picked Weisfeiler up and delivered him to Colonia Dignidad."

    The information provided by the eyewitness gives a basic overview of the possible chronology leading to Weisfeiler's murder.

    • Boris Weisfeiler was arrested by a Chilean army patrol.
    • He is presumed to be a Russian spy since he has a Russian name and a Russian place of birth.
    • His identity is established with a North American passport.
    • He is described as a "professor".
    • List of items found in his backpack.
    • His head was "submerged into the river."
    • An army officer delivered Boris to the Colonia Dignidad.
    • Boris was kept in "animal like conditions."
    • He was still alive as of the time these informants were providing information.

    There are also various hand drawn maps among the recently declassified documents that provide further information, accentuating the information given by the witness.

    • The first marked place on the map says "1st encuentro" (first meeting)
    • The eyewitness describes the first meeting place as "a place where two rivers converge."
    • The next marks on the river show a dotted path indicating that they crossed the river and headed south.
    • The eyewitness says that after arresting the prisoner "the patrol crossed the Nuble River by boat… taking him downstream about five kilometers."

    The next mark on the map indicates that the prisoner was stripped. After that mark the map indicates a dotted path that crosses the river, and ends in the entrance of Colonia Dignidad.

    • In his testimony the eyewitness says that, "the patrol then tied him up, crossed to the north side of Nuble turned prisoner over to Colonia's chief of security."

    The information given by the eyewitness resonates with traits of Boris' personality and behavior which his sister, Olga, recognized when reading the testimony. He "was apparently washing something in the river," when he was captured. According to his sister, Boris would often wash his clothes in rivers during trips. The Patrol asked the "subject" for a permit, which he was supposed to have in order to be in the area. "He did not have it so we arrested him." According to his sister, Boris tried to avoid contacts with any military and police forces so he might have been reluctant to request any permits from them. The source "was struck by the prisoner's calmness and drew the conclusion that he was an individual used to dealing with difficult situations." According to his sister, Boris always tried to keep his calm and composure when faced with difficult circumstances.

    After disappearing for ten years, the same witness resurfaced in 1997, appearing on a radio show, then writing a report at the radio host's behest describing some new information. A State Department cable describing the new testimony states, "Past and present abuses at Colonia Dignidad have received significant recent public attention. This includes allegations of past collaboration between the Colonia and Chilean Intelligence Agencies and possible 'disappearances' at the Colonia. These allegations may have prompted the informant to come forward with new revelations. We have spoken with [the radio host] regarding the informant, and it is [his] belief that the informant is sincere and the information is truthful." The first interesting addition to the eyewitness's testimony is the placement of a Chilean officer at Colonia Dignidad at the time of Weisfeiler's detention. "It is appropriate to mention that Major Neckerman of our army was in charge on interior security." In the report, the witness provides a description of Weisfeiler's murder. "Later on we found out that this person, after being savagely interrogated, was made to kneel on the ground and was murdered with a shot in the nape of his neck. This execution was carried out solely by the Germans, who took advantage of the absence of Chilean authorities." In his earlier testimony he had not gone so far as to pronounce Weisfeiler dead with certainty, or to describe his actual murder in such detail.

  2. Evidence of a Cover Up

    What happened in the area after the disappearance of Boris Weisfeiler? The documents contain multiple indications of efforts to cover up the facts of his disappearance. For example:

    All members of the army patrol that captured Boris were transferred to other posts, and none were ever interviewed (at least within the first six years).

    A few months after the disappearance, all of the Carabineros that participated in the original search party were transferred around the country and the leading officer in the search retired from service.

    A peasant named Luis Lopez, described in the documents as the "person who informed Carabineros about seeing a stranger and went with them for the search" (according to the local police report), allegedly committed suicide in 1986. The Embassy reported that he died under "mysterious circumstances;" he was found hanging at night on the one of the posts of cable bridge almost in the same spot where Weisfeiler allegedly drowned. His death eliminated the only known civilian witness to Boris Weisfeiler’s whereabouts and disappearance in Chile.

    A November, 1987, CIA memorandum, based on a Chilean source who claimed but "could not conclusively prove" that Boris was misidentified as a "subversive" by a Chilean patrol, beaten to death and thrown in the river, suggested that "it is more likely that those responsible eventually recovered the body and disposed of it." The source told the CIA that among those Chilean units that conducted a search for Weisfeiler was a secret police group "sent in to clean the area of any evidence that would indicate that Weisfeiler had been murdered." The source speculated that "nobody aware of what really happened to Weisfeiler would ever tell the truth."

    A February 22, 1988 State Department cable reviewing developments in the Weisfeiler case, also cites the source in the CIA memorandum. The State Department cable describes contacts between consular officials and a former Carabinero official named Emilio Zambrano in October-November 1987. Zambrano was a head of the Carabineros "investigative unit" in 1986 and he led an investigation in the case of Boris Weisfeiler. He admitted to U.S. officials that the investigation was "sketchy,"—U.S. officials called it "quite perfunctory"--and did not even include questioning the Caribineros who had been posted in that area at the time of Weisfeiler’s disappearance, nor any interviews at Colonia Dignidad. In an October 20th, 1987 memorandum of conversation on Zembrano, U.S. embassy official Larry Huffman stated that the Chilean had been resistant to any conversation, "gave me almost no information" and stated that "he would deny having talked to me." He "dismissed the possibility out of hand" that Colonia Dignidad could have been involved with Weisfeiler’s disappearance. And he advised consular officials not to send a diplomatic note to the Pinochet regime on the case because "it would only excite nationalistic passion and make cooperation less likely."

  3. Budgetary Constraints

    Possibly the most disheartening piece of information revealed by the newly declassified documents is the refusal of the State Department, under Secretary of State James Baker, to supply the U.S. Embassy in Chile with the sufficient funds to further pursue their investigation. As early as May 1986, according to one cable, The American Mathematical Society offered "to pay the cost of whatever help they can get." But that offer appears to have been forgotten. According the cables and memoranda, in the spring of 1989, four years after Boris Weisfeiler’s vanished near Colonia Dignidad, Embassy officials decided to hire a Chilean lawyer and formally petition the Chilean courts to open an official investigation into the disappearance of this U.S. citizen. After repeated requests from the embassy, the Department of State responded eight month later on November 20, 1989, that it "had no objection…provided the cost of the legal services will be paid for with [Embassy] funds." At the embassy, consular officer William Barkell attempted to ascertain if there were funds from the Embassy budget that could be used. "On 28 November, 1989, I initially requested… to check to see if funds were available to engage an attorney to reopen and follow up on the Weisfeiler case…. Three months have now elapsed, and I would very much appreciate a definitive answer. If funds are available, I would like to get cracking and reopen the case," he wrote in February 2, 1990.

    Five days later he received a terse, one sentence response from the State Department. "At present time there are no funds available… for this project."

A Demand for Answers

For Olga Weisfeiler, the decision by the State Department to not to pursue all possible avenues to ascertain her brother’s fate for lack of a budget line is inexcusable. "As far as anyone knew at the time, my brother was still living in deplorable conditions of captivity," she notes, "yet the State Department could not manage the funds to continue an investigation into the disappearance of one of its own citizens."

In 1997, Ms. Weisfeiler was contacted by a Chilean journalist who said that the U.S. Embassy had recently received an anonymous letter stating that her brother had been tortured and killed "by the Germans" at Colonia Dignidad. The State Department has yet to declassify this document.

In 1998, just before the 15-year statute of limitations ran out, Ms. Weisfeiler did hire her own lawyer in Chile to petition the courts to open a formal investigation. In January 2000, a Chilean judge ruled that a legal investigation was warranted. A recent agreement between the Chilean military and the civilian government of Ricardo Lagos for the Chilean armed forces to admit a role in the ll00 cases of disappeared persons in Chile and assist in finally locating those murdered by the Pinochet regime, may provide a basis for U.S. pressure to uncover the truth about Boris Weisfeiler.

"Today, I am unsure whether my brother is alive or dead," states Ms. Weisfeiler. "Of course I recognize that he may have died during those long, horrifying fifteen years. But questions remain: If he were kept alive until 1987, as some documents suggest, why would he have been killed later? Could Boris have died in 1997, when the mysterious letter was written to the American Embassy? Is there a possibility that Boris Weisfeiler is still alive and kept in Colonia Dignidad?"

Over the years, a number of prominent figures have raised the same concerns. Although the case has not garnered as much media attention as the deaths of Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, two other U.S. citizens murdered in Chile after the coup, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Senator Arlen Specter, Congressman Thomas E. Petri, Congressman William F. Clinger, Congressman Barney Frank, Senator John Heinz, the American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League Rabbi Morton M. Rosenthal, the American Mathematical Society, and Pennsylvania State University have all sent inquiries regarding the Weisfeiler case.

"I get chills thinking about my brother Boris being brutally tortured, being enslaved like an animal, all the while trying to stay alive and hoping to be found and freed, all the while believing in American influence and justice," Olga Weisfeiler has said recently. "One of the pictures used by the Chilean press when talking about my brother shows him at the Department of Mathematics at Pennsylvania State University celebrating his naturalization as a United States citizen. It is painfully ironic that the American government would later do so little to protect him."

Unlike Horman and Teruggi, who were initially missing but whose remains were eventually recovered, the whereabouts of Boris Weisfeiler remains a mystery. Only a few weeks after he disappeared, according to a February 21, 1985 memorandum, U.S. Ambassador James Theberge noted that "the one thing that bothered him about closing the file on the case was that one hint that W[eisfeiler]] was alive." For his family, the file cannot be closed until his fate is finally known.