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Warns Former Interior Ministry Undersecretary Belisario Velasco

(March 21, 2005, Ed. Note: Why was Colonia Dignidad allowed to exist so long in Chile, acting as a kind of “state within a state” and far beyond the reach of the law?

Similar questions have been asked repeatedly in the Chilean press since March 10, when Paul Schaefer, the colony’s former leader, was finally arrested in Argentina after eight years on the run (ST, March 11). After being deported to Chile three days later and questioned by Judge Joaquín Billard, Schaefer was formally charged with the 1974 disappearance of leftist activist Alvaro Vallejos Villagrán last Thursday.

Part of the answer to Colonia Dignidad’s impunity is found in the essay below, written by former Undersecretary of the Interior Belisario Velasco. Velasco was the first Chilean official in the democratically elected government of Patricio Aylwin to try to bring the rule of law to the colony and prosecute its leaders. His account of his own efforts makes for a fascinating read.)

As history tells us, and as is confirmed in the case against Paul Schaefer and Colonia Dignidad, justice can be delayed but ultimately wins out. In this case the reason for the delay had to do with an illicit protection network: a network of people involved with Schaefer who did not want an investigation to ever occur, much less get to the courts.

Now that Schaefer’s clandestine residence in Argentina is public news, it is my opinion that the government’s efforts (to find him) were up to the task and carried out in an efficient way. For its part, the Argentine government acted in the way that its friendly neighbor hoped it would, in full compliance with the rule of law.

In April 1990, just one month after he had taken office, President Patricio Aylwin asked me to take personal responsibility for, and to give my greatest effort to, an issue that worried him quite deeply: the accusations that had been made against the so-called charitable foundation, Sociedad Benefactora Colonia Dignidad. Aylwin had denounced Colonia Dignidad when he was a senator back in 1969. By 1990 the enclave had turned into something that offended the dignity of the country: under the guise of a charitable foundation, acts were carried out there that were impossible to accept.

No sooner had I begun working on this assignment than problems began to arise. An enormous network of influence began to come into play in an effort to keep our efforts from advancing. There were anonymous threats and a very strong legal offensive against us. Dozens of attorneys began lobbying on behalf of the leadership at Colonia Dignidad. And most of them were from the (political) right. No one remembers it today, but back then all the rightist senators from the National Renovation and the Independent Democratic Union parties – with the exception of Sen. Sebastián Piñera – wrote a public letter in support of Schaefer and Colonia Dignidad.

In 1990 we concluded that the misnamed Sociedad Benefactora Colonia Dignidad had become a state within the state of Chile, all with the blessing of the Pinochet dictatorship. The number of complaints against the German colony was endless: kidnappings, child rape, torture, illegal arrests, human rights violations, unfair pressure against neighbors in an effort to buy their property (the Colony began with four hectares of land and ultimately had 17,000). There was also a constant effort to evade taxes, abuse customs privileges, fail to pay wages to workers and government mandated compensation for workers; not to mention irregularities in the functioning of its hospital and its school – where they didn’t even bother to teach the language used in Chile. And, finally, a controlled way of ordering the lives of people who lived there that was foreign to our own culture and any normal, rational way to live. Children were separated from their families, facilitating Schaefer’s child abuse.

Given this situation, the government decided to dissolve the society’s tax-free status and its existence as a charitable organization, and the papers were duly drawn up and signed by Justice Minister Soledad Alvear. This would allow subsequent legal prosecution to go forward.

When I began to investigate the situation in 1990, I found a letter sent by Foreign Minister Hernán Felipe Errázuirz to the interior minister of that time. It said that the German government had leveled charges against Colonia Dignidad, accusing it of systematic human rights violations. Of course, everyone knew this at the time, just as they knew that the colony had a special relationship with DINA (the Pinochet-era secret police). Errázurriz took the position that just as Chile could not accept pressure from a foreign state, neither could it allow people to commit crimes in the way it was being done (in the German colony).

Still, the only thing done by the interior ministry was to send a note to Justice Minister Hugo Rosende. And all that the Justice Ministry did was to make a formal complaint to the Appeals Court of Talca.

I think we were dealing with a criminal organization. And I believe this network is still in place. Today, the same people that so strongly defended the colony with open arms could see themselves greatly prejudiced if all the crimes committed there are exposed. It is possible that they will still try to keep justice from shedding light on what occurred there.

This network of protection not only sheltered a very large business – because the colony made millions and millions of dollars – but it also protected a network of pedophiles. There is no doubt that there are many, many people interested in keeping Schaefer’s secrets unrevealed.

In our society there were many people and interest groups – including the Catholic Church and priest Raúl Hasbún – who publicly intervened in favor of the colony, vilifying the action taken by the Ministry of the Interior and asking why we were intervening in the colony for crimes that were committed by many other people. I hope that these people and interest groups – in light of all the information that has been revealed in the media and by the justice system – rectify their positions.

Today the question has to be: why and for what purpose did these interest groups protect the colony and its leaders from legal action against them?

Translated by Steve Anderson (