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Villa Baviera Journal

Guru of Sadism, Safely in Jail, Leaves Cult to Fend for Itself

Published: May 16, 2005

VILLA BAVIERA, Chile - The disembodied voice of a woman speaking Spanish with a heavy German accent echoes from behind the one-way mirror at the guardhouse. "You can go in now," she says, and the white metal gates to Colonia Dignidad, the secretive paramilitary religious sect that took refuge here in the foothills of the Andes more than 40 years ago, slowly swing open.

Scott Dalton for The New York Times

Photos of people believed to have disappeared from Colonia Dignidad, a German colony now renamed Villa Baviera, line the road leading to it. The cult's founder, Paul Schäfer, a former Luftwaffe medic, was arrested in March, accused of sexually abusing boys at the colony.

Scott Dalton for The New York Times

A young resident being walked home.

A winding dirt road leads to the compound where Chilean authorities say that Paul Schäfer, a former Nazi Luftwaffe medic turned lay preacher, sexually molested scores of young boys. A few yards away is a hospital where, according to former cult members, those who drew Mr. Schäfer's ire were drugged and tortured. And somewhere beneath the ground, human rights groups say, are the clandestine dungeons where Colonia Dignidad held the political prisoners who were entrusted to it in the 1970's by Gen. Augusto Pinochet's secret police.

Until he was arrested in March after years on the run, Mr. Schäfer, now 84, dominated the life of this bizarre and isolated place, which Chilean officials have likened to Jonestown in Guyana or the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex. But with their notorious leader, known as the Permanent Uncle, now in custody, some 300 followers of his apocalyptic, anti-Communist and anti-Semitic creed have been left suddenly adrift.

The outside world is creeping in. Satellite dishes, television antennas and computers now bring in news of Germany and Latin America. Neighboring farmers come to buy Bavarian-style bread and pastries from the general store. Chilean government investigators have arrived, looking for bodies but so far finding only tunnels and sensors, and, strangely, a pair of motors from 1970's vintage automobiles.

For the first time in most of their lives, the residents of Villa Baviera - Bavarian Villa, as Colonia Dignidad was renamed after the Pinochet dictatorship fell in 1990 - are responsible for their own destinies.

Access to the settlement is a bit easier now. Over a two-day period recently, the new leaders permitted this reporter to make a guided tour of the settlement, which stretches over some 70 square miles of rolling countryside.

Here, fertile fields of vegetables and fruit flourish; cows, horses, sheep and ostriches graze; and the snow-capped Andes Mountains loom massively just to the east. Residents, many speaking German rather than Spanish, make their way to the small general store.

But a sense of unease also seems to pervade the bucolic setting. Some residents hurry away at the first sight of outsiders, while others peer out from behind lace curtains. They turn their backs on cameras. Those willing to talk seem unable to express themselves articulately, and respond to questions about the community and their lives with brief, clipped answers.

Mr. Schäfer controlled every detail of the lives of his flock, most of whom were German émigrés like himself. He decided whom and when they should marry, obliged them to turn over their newborns to be raised collectively, and, according to the court that convicted him in absentia last year, chose boys between the ages of 8 and 12 to sexually abuse.

He kept Colonia Dignidad closed to outsiders, except for his allies in the Chilean military, intelligence and police services. Even after General Pinochet's nearly 17-year dictatorship ended, Mr. Schäfer's powerful friends continued to protect the commune from official inquiries.

But in 1998, after peasant families in the area complained, Mr. Schäfer was charged with sodomy and pedophilia against 26 boys. He dropped out of sight and turned over the day-to-day administration of the settlement to associates who used the threat of his return to keep order.

"Schäfer's powers were already weakened because he could no longer punish people himself or have drugs administered to them or control their lives," said Hernán Fernández, a Chilean lawyer who filed the sexual abuse charges that led Mr. Schäfer to flee. "But now that he is in prison, the psychological threat, the fear that he would come back to punish those rebelling against him, has evaporated."

Chilean authorities said that one of the reasons they did not act earlier against Mr. Schäfer was that they feared a mass suicide or conflagration at the settlement, as had happened when other cult groups collapsed. Experts said that even residents who were not sexually abused had been damaged by their years living in Colonia Dignidad.

"These people are accomplices to horrendous crimes, yes, but they have been programmed like robots and were treated as slaves, robbed of their own human rights," Luis Peebles, a psychiatrist who was held here as a political prisoner during the 1970's, said in an interview in Santiago. "It is hard for the victims of these abuses to recognize what befell them, and so they take refuge in silence and denial."

With Mr. Schäfer gone, some younger people have gone off to study in Chilean universities, many have married, and an auditorium where a choir used to put on shows for General Pinochet's wife, Lucía, now functions informally as a nursery for a passel of towheaded children about 4 or 5 years old.

The dormitories where men, women and children once were forced to live in separate groups have been divided up and transformed. Residents now live as families, either in modest apartments in the dorms or in small houses nearby.

Now that they are rid of Mr. Schäfer, residents tend to blame him and him alone for everything that occurred here. They say his leadership brooked no opposition and that followers, not outsiders, were the main victims of his aberrations.

"Our colony has reoriented and reorganized itself as an open and free colony fully integrated into Chilean society," Michael Muller, the head of a temporary council that now governs the community - and controls its lucrative assets, including a timber company and a restaurant and airport - told reporters when Mr. Schäfer was arrested. "We are convinced that these accusations against us are true and that the time for justice has come."

The new leaders, men in their 30's and 40's, are part of the generation whose members, Chilean prosecutors say, were almost without exception sexually molested by the Permanent Uncle.

Victor Briones, a 26-year-old member of the group, said the community had generally avoided discussing the charges. He hastened to add that he was not abused himself, but acknowledged that others were.

"This matter is quite delicate and upsetting," he said. "Many young men do not want to talk about this, and understandably so. It affected them. Some are heads of families now and do not want their children to know they were molested. Others may want to have a relationship with a girl from outside, or worry about being psychologically harassed."

But then, the residents do not talk about a lot of things. They are reluctant, for instance, to discuss the details of how they distribute living quarters, plots of land for cultivation or shares in the lucrative businesses that Mr. Schäfer formerly controlled. And they do not like to address the human rights abuses that have been documented here.

The settlement is also facing pressure to account for the whereabouts of Boris Weisfeiler, an American mathematics professor who vanished while hiking in the region in 1985. A Chilean informant said Dr. Weisfeiler, a Russian Jewish immigrant, had been executed on Mr. Schäfer's orders.

Dr. Weisfeiler's sister Olga visited here last year. "When I asked, I was told that 'we were very young, we don't know, we can't be sure,' " she said in a phone interview from her home in Massachusetts. "So I said to them, 'If you don't know, let's go ask the people who were here and do know.' But they know very well how to do their job, what to answer and how to answer, how to say nothing."