'I am fighting for his life'

Once-secret files on Chile give hope U.S. man alive: Sister never believed brother had died

By: Marina Jimenez
Source: National Post
Date: September 21, 2000

Olga Weisfeiler never believed her brother, Boris, died in Chile in 1985, as authorities repeatedly told her. Now, recently released State Department documents on political violence in Chile offer renewed hope he may still be alive. "I maintain the hope that he is still alive and I am fighting for his life," Ms. Weisfeiler said from her home in Newton, Mass.

According to the official explanation, Boris Weisfeiler, a Russian-American math professor, was one of 1,100 people to disappear during General Augusto Pinochet's authoritarian rule. Following his disappearance on a hiking trail in the Andes in January, 1985, Chilean authorities said he had drowned while trying to cross the turbulent Nuble River. But the documents, recently declassified as part of a massive U.S. government project to shed light on political violence in Chile, show that Mr. Weisfeiler was seen alive nearly two and a half years later. He was spotted in Colonia Dignidad, a sect of German immigrants linked to "disappearances" during the Pinochet years and located close to the spot where he went missing. "If he is still alive, he is in Colonia Dignidad. It never made sense to me that an experienced hiker would cross a dangerous river," said Ms. Weisfeiler.

U.S. officials are to release the final batch of documents about the U.S. role in Gen. Pinochet's regime at the end of this month. More than 50,000 pages of material are expected to become public in the final step of this declassification project, declared by Bill Clinton, the U.S. President, following the arrest of Gen. Pinochet in England in 1998, in an attempt to confront the United States' past involvement in Chile. More than 3,000 people were killed during the dictatorship of Gen. Pinochet, who is now back home where he may stand trial on charges of human rights violations.

"Weisfeiler is the only U.S. citizen who disappeared during the Pinochet regime," said Peter Kornbluh, a Chile specialist at the.. National Security Archive, a non-governmental group that lobbied for the declassification project. "Until these documents were released, the Weisfeiler family was not aware of how much information the U.S. State Department had."

Since receiving the documents in June, Ms. Weisfeiler has succeeded in reopening the case and is seeking a search warrant to enter Colonia Dignidad, which was reportedly used by Gen. Pinochet's government for kidnappings and torture.

The body of Mr. Weisfeiler, a shy and unassuming professor at the University of Pennsylvania who loved to hike alone, has never been recovered. According to the recently released documents, an informant told the U.S. embassy in Santiago in June, 1987, the 43-year-old professor had recently been seen alive in Colonia Dignidad. The enclave is located near the spot where Mr. Weisfeiler had disappeared, 350 kilometres south of the Chilean capital. The informant, whose identity has not yet been made public, believed Mr. Weisfeiler may have been mistaken for a Russian spy, arrested by Gen. Pinochet's security forces, and turned over to the colony's chief of security.

The documents show the State Department turned down a 1989 request by the U.S. embassy in Santiago to fund a legal bid to formally reopen the case. By then, another theory had surfaced about Mr. Weisfeiler's fate: In a 1987 report, investigators with the Central Intelligence Agency speculated he was interrogated, badly beaten, then killed by a Chilean army patrol. "The 'Mickey Mouseing' around we've done on this case with this government is disgraceful and though I think forcefulness should have been applied a long time ago, it wasn't," Jayne Kobliska, the U.S. consul-general to Chile, noted in a 1986 memo. Even if Mr. Weisfeiler's relatives get permission to visit Colonia Dignidad, they may not get very far. The sect's 15,000-hectare compound is surrounded by armed guards and barbed-wire fences. Chilean authorities have searched the grounds several time in a fruitless attempt to find Paul Schaefer, the colony's fugitive leader who is distinguished by one glass eye and is wanted on charges of child molestation...

Still, the new information in the Weisfeiler case shows that Mr. Clinton's Chile declassification project has helped to renew public and legal interest in unresolved disappearances and other human rights abuses that occurred during Gen. Pinochet's regime. "We are also trying to find the original informant who could identify the people at Colonia Dignidad to talk about what happened to Boris Weisfeiler," Hernan Fernandez, Ms. Weisfeiler's lawyer, explained in an interview from Santiago. "There is the slim possibility that he could still be alive." With the world spotlight once again on the general, U.S. human rights lawyers have renewed their call for complete disclosure on the CIA and State Department involvement in supporting his dictatorship. Activists have long focused on Chile's human rights record, although other Latin American countries suffered worse violations during military regimes in the 1970s and 1980s. More than 30,000 people were killed under Argentina's military juntas, which ruled from 1976 to 1983. However, the "Chile syndrome" prevails, in part because the U.S. was more involved there than elsewhere in South American, a role.. that gave birth to the U.S. human rights movement and inspired a longstanding debate about the CIA's covert operations abroad. "In the contemporary history of the human rights movement, Chile was a galvanizing force," said Mr. Kornbluh.