Colonia Dignidad, the Dignity Colony, was an isolated settlement in Chile, established after World War II. If their press videos were to be believed it was a colony of religion, harmony, hard work and discipline. Rare footage shows happy residents smiling as they prepare the fields, diligent women baking pastries and happy children playing in the idyllic countryside. Unfortunately, the utopia portrayed was a lie, a cover for the horrific truth. The dignity colony was no such thing. It was a place of suffering, torture, child abuse and murder. In the 46 years it ran, 350 colonists were held prisoner, thousands were tortured and an unknown number were killed and buried in mass graves.
How did such an evil place come to exist? It all started with a man, and I use that term loosely, named Paul Schaefer. Born in Germany in 1921 he first worked as a Young People’s leader in the Evangelical Free Church. He was fired after being accused of sexually assaulting the boys he was working with. Evading criminal charges he appointed himself as a solo preacher following the teachings of William Branham, one of the founders of the post – WWII healing revival. During the 1950’s he’d travel across Germany wearing lederhosen, playing the guitar, eliciting confessions of sins and gathering followers.
You might be thinking ‘that doesn’t sound like a very effective way to attract supporters,’ but several hundred joined him. His success was likely down to two factors. Firstly, He was an excellent speaker. One ex-member of the colony claimed he had a charisma that radiated from his body as beams of light. Secondly, Germany was newly defeated. The population were confused and disorientated and many were searching for someone to follow. Lacking any other support they turned to missionaries and preachers. In 1953 he opened an orphanage for war widows and their children, mostly refugees from East Prussia who had fled the Soviet occupation. Once they’d become members they’d pay 10% of their income to Schaefer. It seemed he’d found success but in 1959 two boys from the orphanage accused him of sexual abuse. This time the charges were taken seriously and a warrant was issued for his arrest. To escape the authorities he fled Germany, hiding in the Middle East before ending up in Chile. Many believe he chose South America due to William Branham’s prophecies that nuclear war would soon demolish western nations.
In 1961, he used the money from his congregation to purchase a 4400-acre ranch and set up the Dignidad Beneficent Society. 10 of his followers worked with him to turn it into a facility suitable to house his congregation and in 1963 the first members arrived. 300 joined him after he told them that Russia was about to occupy Germany and they’d have to flee. By 1973 they’d all arrived and Colonia Dignidad was born.
Life in the Colony
On the surface, the colony looked incredible. To the Chilean locals, it was productive, hygienic and boasted impressive facilities. Schaefer built a hospital with operating rooms, a maternity ward and 65 beds. He ran it as a charity, providing free medical care to the local Chilean people, serving around 26,000 over the years. He’d even supply mothers with 4 and a half pounds of powdered milk a month for children below 6 years old.
The Colony generated its income mostly through agriculture. The colonists would work for free and were expected to give their labour for the good of the community. Schaefer would insist that ‘Work is divine service’ and used religion as a means to control his flock. His story was that the money generated would be used in the charitable mission, providing healthcare and education to rural Chile. Whilst this might sound idyllic, and that was certainly his intention, life in the colony was not good. In fact, it was a living hell, a prison in which many didn’t even know they were being held captive.
On arrival, families would be separated and split by age and gender. Men and women were not to associate to avoid the sins of lust and sex. The children were removed from their parents and would live in a dormitory, cared for by nurses. They weren’t allowed to know who their parents were and all adults became known as aunt or uncle. The adults were allowed to visit, occasionally, but could not reveal who their children were. Doing so would incur a brutal punishment. Children weren’t even allowed to know which of the others were their siblings. A, now grown, child of the colony Winfried Hempel recalls being unable to sleep in his childhood as he just felt so alone.
The real reason for the isolation of the children was more sinister than many imagined. A child with no parent had no one to turn to, no one to tell if someone was hurting them and that’s exactly what Schaefer was doing.
He’d target the young boys. His favourites were promoted to ‘sprinters’. Initially, they were required to sprint across the ranch to deliver messages to Schaefer’s other commanders. However, he’d use them for any tasks he dreamt up including holding a phone to his ear. It was initially a position of pride for the boys and they enjoyed extra privileges. Pride turned to horror when they began to be invited to Schafer’s bedroom at night. He’d molest and rape them and they had no one to tell.
He ruled through fear and an incredibly strict system of rules and punishments. In a daily ritual colonists would have to publicly confess their sins to him and would be beaten for them. He managed to imprison them psychologically, controlling all knowledge of the outside world. The enemies of Colonia Dignidad were the Devil and Communism and they’d only be safe if they remained inside the walls and barbed wire fences of the colony.
The money generated was also being diverted for Schaefer’s own plans. He used it to buy more land, expand and install tunnels, bunkers and watchtowers. He surrounded the entire colony with barbed wire fences, patrols and alarms. Escape became impossible. Any who tried to flee were viciously beaten and maimed by dogs. Repeat offenders were force-fed psychopharmacological drugs, obtained through the hospital, and electrocuted.
Wolfgang Mueller was a rebel of the colony who managed to escape 3 times. The first two times he was found in a nearby town and brought back by guards, beaten and drugged. On his third attempt, he made it to the German Embassy. Schaefer attempted to get him back even then, sending 15 men to force their way in. However, they were unsuccessful and Mueller was able to flee to Germany. He reported Schaefer and the Colony, but no action was taken.
Schaefer’s abuses did not end with his colonists. On September 11th 1973 combined Chilean armed forces overthrew the government in a coup. Augusto Pinochet took control of the junta and officially named himself president in December 1974. Pinochet ruled with violence and fear. He set up the National Intelligence Directorate (DINA), secret police charged with hunting down his political enemies. He’d have Left-wing opponents kidnapped and many were never seen again. It’s estimated that 27,255 were tortured and 2,279 were executed during the military dictatorship.
What does this have to do with Schaefer? Well, Pinochet was having people tortured and killed and he needed somewhere to do it. Colonia Dignidad had sealed itself off from the rest of Chile, no one came in or out without permission and they acted above the law. They’d also developed much more sophisticated forms of torture than Pinochet had access to. Their use of drugs and electroshock were far more effective than the brutal and crude beatings that Pinochet’s military could dish out.
One surviving victim was Luis Peebles, a left-wing medical student. In 1975 he was kidnapped and taken to the colony. He was kept in an underground, soundproofed cellar and tied to a bed. There he’d endure hours of torture by electrocution. They’d apply electrodes to his hands, ankles, mouth, nose, underneath his toenails, and inside his anus and penis. Yes, inside. They also stabbed him with needles and put cigarettes out on his body. Sometimes they’d ask questions like the names of other opponents of the regime or the locations of weapons. Other times they seemed to just be perfecting their methods of torture. Schaefer himself was present and instructed his officers in how to inflict the most pain on Luis.
Colonia Dignidad’s dealings with Pinochet didn’t end at torture. It’s strongly believed that many killings took place at the colony. A former member reported driving a bus full of 35 political prisoners into the Colony’s woodland. He’d been instructed to leave them at the side of the road and as he drove away heard machine gunfire. Previous DINA agents have also testified to delivering prisoners to Schaefer and believed he’d had them killed.
Unfortunately the bodies have never been recovered. Many colony members claimed that they’d been buried in mass graves. These should’ve been easy to locate but in 1978 Pinochet stepped in. He ordered the mass graves of his victims to be exhumed and destroyed. It’s believed the bodies of Colonia Dignidad were chemically burned and thrown in the river. We’re unlikely to ever know the true extent of the murders that took place there but it’s estimated to be at least 100.
Pinochet also used the colony to produce vast amounts of Sarin gas. A colourless and odourless nerve agent capable of killing a person in just 10 minutes. It’s 26 times more lethal than cyanide and makes for a horrific death. After inhalation victims develop a runny nose, chest tightness and constricted pupils. They’ll then experience difficulty breathing, nausea and drooling. As the toxin takes hold victims lose control of their bodily functions and will vomit, defecate and urinate. Twitching and jerking follows until they suffocate. Due to its toxicity, it’s been classified as a weapon of mass destruction and is now closely controlled. Pinochet used it to assassinate opponents in both Chile and abroad.
Augusto Pinochet was not the only morally corrupt individual with links to Colonia Dignidad. Due to its isolation, secrecy and fortification, it was the perfect sanctuary for the high ranking Nazis fleeing after World War II.
Josef Mengele was one such guest. The Nazi doctor, also known as the Angel of Death. Infamous for his deadly experiments on prisoners in Auschwitz and gleeful selection of victims for the gas chambers. Many other members of the SS and Gestapo are said to have found sanctuary there. They’d offer their services in demonstrating advanced torture techniques to Pinochet’s enforcers in return. The protection offered by the Colony meant many Nazis were able to escape after World War II and so evade punishment for their crimes.
Schaefer also filled the colony with large weapons caches. Stockpiles of machine guns, assault rifles, mines, grenades, TNT, rocket launchers and surface to air missiles were stored there in various locations. He even kept a cache of ‘special weapons’ in a secret chamber under his bed. His James Bond style collection included pencils that could shoot .22 calibre rounds, a dart shooting camera and weaponised walking canes. They even discovered an elderly person’s walking frame that could deliver a 1200 volt electric shock. Schaefer was an old man by this point and these weapons were clearly designed for his personal use.
The end of Colonia Dignidad
After 17 years of dictatorship, Chile returned to democracy in 1990. Pinochet was facing increasing opposition and was persuaded to legalize political parties and hold a referendum. He lost the vote that would’ve kept him in power and had to allow presidential elections the following year. Interestingly it was Chile’s return to democracy and not communism, as Schaefer had feared, that triggered the end for Colonia Dignidad.
The Colony no longer had the protection of Pinochet and scrutiny intensified. However, they still had their defences and allies among the Chilean people so persevered. But Schaefer was facing a new problem. Due to his sex ban and separation of men and women, the birth rate in the colony was incredibly low. He’d lost his supply of young boys to abuse and so opened the Colonia Dignidad to the local people. He created a new educational initiative called the “Intensive Boarding School,” where local children would come to live, study and work within the compound. Unsuspecting families were keen to send their kids to receive a free education in a clean, hardworking and productive community. They considered it a privilege. However, Schaefer immediately started abusing the boys.
Fortunately, in 1996 a 12-year-old boy managed to get a note to his mother. It read “Take me out of here. He raped me.” She miraculously managed to break him out of the compound and took him to a doctor who confirmed the abuse. Fearing the corruption of local police she went straight to the Capital and the chief of Chile’s national detective force, Luis Henriquez.
In August 1996 a warrant was issued for Schaefer’s arrest and the race was on to apprehend him. He’d fled once before after the same claims were made against him in Germany. So Henriquez arrived at Colonia Dignidad with 30 armed police and forced his way in, breaking through the gates. Unfortunately, Schaefer was nowhere to be found. It’s now believed that he was hiding in the underground tunnels and bunkers. Henriquez was suspicious of this too and conducted 30 more raids on the colony. Schaefer evaded him every time and at some point in the late 1990s he fled and didn’t return.
The raids continued as Henriquez worked to uncover as many secrets of Colonia Dignidad as he could. Eventually, the colony members became more cooperative and led him to files, weapons stashes and the, now empty, graves. No bodies were found but engines and panels from the cars of disappeared members of Pinochet’s opposition were recovered.
The search for Schaefer stalled until a Chilean television journalist, Carola Fuentes started investigating the case. In 2005 she visited Franz Baar who’d escaped the colony the year before. He told her that high ranking members had been making frequent trips to Argentina and he believed Schaefer was there. He advised her to look for Schaefer’s favourite nurses and bodyguards who’d gone missing when he fled. Suspecting that if she could find them, she’d find Schaefer. As a journalist and not a member of the Chilean authorities she was allowed access to Argentina and spent 13 months tracking him down. Eventually, her investigation led to a townhouse in a gated community near Buenos Aires. She reported it to the police and a 24 member swat team was dispatched to surround the house. After an excruciating days wait for a warrant they began their raid. The nurses and bodyguards were immediately apprehended and Schafer was found in a bedroom. A frail and elderly man who did not give off the appearance of the monster he was. They arrested him and he was tried for his crimes.
In 2006 he was convicted of child molestation, sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay £1.5million. Extra time was added later for weapons violations and torture.
In April 2010, after only 4 years in prison, he died of heart failure.
Now you’d be forgiven for thinking that after the truth of Colonia Dignidad came out the colonists would race for freedom and not look back. You might also assume the colony would be preserved and held as a memorial for those who died. Perhaps treated with the same respect as the sites of concentration camps.
However, the reality is very different. Colonia Dignidad has been rebranded as Villa Bavaria, a slice of German life in rural Chile. Visitors can relax in a hot tub, drink German beer and dine in the traditional restaurant. A double room in the hotel will set you back $65 a night and, If you fancy it, they’ll even let you hold your wedding there!
Some relatives of the victims are deeply offended by using the site of the torture and deaths of their loved ones as a tourist resort. They feel Villa Bavaria should be closed and replaced with a memorial. Their cries have been mostly unsuccessful but a small victory was achieved in 2016. The Association for Memory and Human Rights in Dignity Colony won the right to have the colony declared a national monument. This gives it status as a protected site and it can no longer be destroyed or altered. Their next step is the construction of a memorial on the site, ensuring the horrific past is not forgotten.
And what happened to the colonists? Some have chosen to stay and live there. Dormitories have been converted into apartments and the residents continue to live, host tourists and enjoy their freedom in the colony.
Some chose to return to Germany, back to the areas they were originally from. Disturbingly many of Schafer’s higher-ups fled and chose to do the same. They now live a stone’s throw from their previous victims in small German towns. Many even visit the same church.
Hartmut Hopp, a deputy at the colony, is an infamous example of this injustice. Chile sentenced him to five years imprisonment for child abuse. However, he followed in the footsteps of his former leader and fled. As Germany doesn’t extradite its citizens, he now lives freely in a West German town, a further torment to his victims.
Closure has been almost impossible for those affected. Yes Schaefer served all of 4 years in prison, but was he the only one to blame? Since the success of the Colony relied on the inaction and neglect of both the Chilean and German Governments perhaps some guilt lies with them. Germany wasn’t responsible for the atrocities but many believe they had a duty to intervene and help their citizens.
In 2019 the German government finally agreed to pay compensation to each of the former colony members. Want to have a guess how much 40 years of suffering, abuse and forced labour is worth in compensation? 10,000 euros per person. Whether or not you think this is fair it is symbolic that, although Germany accepts no legal responsibility, they do accept that there was a moral duty that should not have been ignored. A small victory that’s enough for some but not others. Especially the children of Colonia Dignidad who did not choose to be there and who endured the greatest suffering.