Sandra de la Riva is a sociologist researcher and translator working in the development of human rights.
Paul Schäfer's Cult
Created in 1961, Colonia Dignidad (Dignity Colony), known today as Villa Baviera, was once a respected German commune in Chile. Located four hours outside of Santiago, the colony was founded by a German national, Paul Schäfer. A preacher, Schäfer obtained political power and controlled the colony for more than three decades. Though, little did people know that this colony was actually home to suffering, sexual abuse, and forced labor. With the charismatic Schäfer at the head of this respected community, decades of human rights violations went under the radar. But how? Why didn’t the German nor Chilean governments intervene? How did the colony gain such respect and who exactly was Paul Schäfer?
Born in 1921, in the Western German city of Troisdorf, as a neo-Nazi follower, Schäfer proudly joined the Hitler Youth movement at a young age. Taking part in his neo-Nazi life, during WWII Schäfer served as a medic for the armed forces of Nazi Germany—“the Wehrmacht”. Having little education, after the war, he decided to go down a religious path in Siegburg, Germany where he became a pastor as well as created a children’s home and Baptist Ministry. Being a man of the lord, many people trusted and confided in him. Through his time as a pastor, he became well known and respected by his congregation—who even paid 10% of their earnings to him. However, in 1959, his true character would surface, forcing him to flee the country.
Accused of sexually abusing two boys, a warrant was put out for the arrest of Schäfer. To avoid prosecution, he escaped to the Middle East with hopes to seek refuge in another country. Eventually, in 1961, he would set harbor in Chile, purchasing 4,400 acres of land that he would call Colonia Dignidad. Purchased with money from his followers, Schäfer convinced 230 of his German “fans” to move to Chile to develop the settlement.
Schäfer in Chile
Over the years, the colony gained more and more respect for being a distinguished and refined German commune that lived off the land. German nationals, including Nazi fugitives, continued to move to the community, giving a percentage of their salary to Schäfer—or in the case of elderly retirees, having all of their retirement embezzled by Schäfer. Upon moving to the colony, boys and girls were separated and taken away from their parents. Women and men, including married couples, were also separated and sex was prohibited. Schäfer’s reasoning for this was to make the community one large family, where there were no parents nor couples, but only the "eternal uncle”; Schäfer. With the title of “eternal uncle”, the rules applied to everyone but him.
During the 1970s, Schäfer gained political support upon befriending Chile’s then-president, General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet’s reign was known for dictatorship, violence, and human rights crimes. In 1977, Amnesty International released a document exposing the brutal tactics of the president and his relationship with Colonia Dignidad. During his time in office, Schäfer offered the colony as a torture and concentration camp for Pinochet and his officers, allowing the “eternal uncle” to gain more power and control over his sect. In his three decades of ruling the colony, Schäfer brainwashed, tortured, and sexually abused his way to control his followers. Every night, he would have his higher-ups send him a young boy to sexually abuse and rape. Schäfer would come to rape over 30,000 innocent boys (this averages to around three boys per day), some as young as eight years old . Any boy who refused his sexual advances was tortured and/or beaten.
Challenging the authority or routines of the colony resulted in being forced, by the colony's doctors, to take tranquilizers and hallucinogenic pills . Young girls were even tortured for just being born female. Schäfer believed that once in puberty, a woman could not control her sexual needs and would rebel. To avoid this, young women received brutal electric shocks via their genitalia, sterilizing them forever.
All were prisoners of the colony. Once a member of the sect, one was never allowed to leave and was forced to work 16-hour days seven days a week . To avoid members escaping, as well as to hide the inhumane atrocities of the community from the outside world, the colony was enclosed with electric fences, cameras, surveillance towers, armed men, and watchdogs. Some dared to risk the consequences of escaping this nightmare however, few were successful.
With Schäfer’s strong ties to the German embassy and Chilean police, anyone caught escaping was returned to the colony by force. One woman who lived in the colony explained that she tried to escape eight times but every time she was returned by the local authorities. Others tried to seek out help from the German embassy in Chile by revealing the unjust conditions of the colony and asking to return to Germany. Over the years, the German embassy received various escapees however, like the local authorities, all who escaped were sent back. As punishment, it was common for “deserters” to be drugged and tortured upon return—one man was even placed in the colony’s hospital for 40 years where he was subjected to electric shock daily.
By the 1980s, the colony’s population was dwindling therefore, Schäfer decided to open the community to Chilean locals. Being a “refined and respected” German commune, it was seen as an honor for a family to send their children to the colony. Around this period, the sect was accused for the first time of committing human rights violations however, nothing came of these allegations. It wasn’t until after Pinochet left office, in 1990, that Schäfer and the colony’s true identity were exposed to the world.
Over the decades, the colony had been quite profitable from selling goods such as bread, vegetables, and cheese. However, in 1992, the new democratic president of Chile, Patricio Aylwin, charged Schäfer with tax invasion from his years of profits, while also revoking the colony’s “non-profit” status .
Then, in 1997, Schäfer’s "great uncle” position came tumbling down on him and his higher-ups. Schäfer was finally accused of child sexual abuse and human rights crimes when two boys who escaped successfully revealed the truths of the colony. Despite the boys' best efforts to condemn the “eternal uncle,” he fled from Chile to avoid charges, as he did so many years ago in Germany, and went into hiding. When searching for him, Chilean authorities found hundreds of illegal military-grade weapons and secret tunnels within the colony .
For years, no one had heard from or seen Schäfer. It seemed that he had successfully escaped being tried and prisoned. However, in 2005, Schäfer was finally tracked down by a Chilean investigative journalist; Carola Fuentes . Fuentes and her team received a tip that Schäfer had been hiding in Argentina. After locating him at “La Solita” ranch in Chivilcoy, the Argentinean authorities captured him and his accomplices, extraditing them to Chile. Schäfer was condemned to 33 years of prison for child sexual abuse, illegal firearms, murder, and torture—dying in prison in 2010, having served five of the 33 years . Many other of his accomplices joined Schafer in jail; however, some escaped imprisonment by fleeing to Germany where extradition laws do not apply to German nationals .
Today, the colony is known as Villa Baviera. Operated by some of the original members, it is a popular tourist stop for German food and beer. The majority of the original sect members have left the commune, settling in Chile or returning to Germany. Due to having worked little to no years in Germany, many members never contributed to their pensions; therefore, these tortured ex-colonists live in poverty.
Seeking reparations, civil cases were filed against the German and Chilean governments for enabling decades worth of human rights violations within Colonia Diginidad. The German state originally denied giving any compensation or monetary aid to the victims of Colony Dignidad, stating that, ‘the German government did not take part in these injustices therefore, it is not its responsibility to economically aid these people.’ The Chilean government claimed that ‘the colony was a state within a state and therefore, had no responsibility of intervening.'
In 2017, after years of negative responses, the German government created a help fund of 3.5 million euros to aid the victims of the colony . Managed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) offices of Chile and Germany, the fund provides a one-time payment of up to 10,000 euros per person. Victims may also receive aid towards their utility and medical bills. Additionally, it is said that a social security fund will be created for elderly victims who do not benefit from the German pension system. Currently, only 25 victims have been granted the one-time payment, while another 100 await the aid . But, is this enough for the years of horrible crimes induced upon the sufferers? What about the other thousands of victims? As for now, the Chilean government has yet to provide any further assistance.
For decades, Paul Schäfer's charismatic demeanor allowed him to abuse, torture, enslave and manipulate thousands of innocent men, women, and children. Luckily, his criminal acts eventually came to an end. Members were freed from their colony jail and able to live their lives, but the memories from this nightmare will stay with them forever. For those who survived the atrocities, may they find peace and never have to relive such horrors again. For the rest of the world, may this serve as a lesson to avoid history repeating itself—never turning a blind eye to inhumane crimes or to those seeking justice.
 “The Colony: Chile's dark past uncovered”, Al Jazeera Correspondent
 "’Colonia Dignidad’ La Secta de los Torturadores!”, Zona Docu, DW
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