You know those flicks where a bunch of people, most likely but not necessarily young and boorish Americans on vacation, stumble across some isolated community in some out of the way backwater? And, of course, it turns out that the community they stumble on to, though it may seem harmless at first, is actually made up of psychos who engage in all manner of hellaciousness.
I know you know the movies: From Wicker Man to any psycho-hillbilly flick. It is a staple of horror filmdom.
Well, here's the real world analog.
Welcome to Colonia Dignidad, Chile.
From the American Scholar article "The Torture Colony," by Bruce Falconer:
Deep in the Andean foothills of Chile's central valley lives a group of German expatriates, the members of a utopian experiment called Colonia Dignidad. They have resided there for decades, separate from the community around them, but widely known and admired, and respected for their cleanliness, their wealth, and their work ethic. Their land stretches across 70 square miles, rising gently from irrigated farmland to low, forested hills, against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains. Today Colonia Dignidad is partially integrated with the rest of Chile. For decades, however, its isolation was nearly complete. Its sole connection to the outside world was a long dirt road that wound through tree farms and fields of wheat, corn, and soybeans, passed through a guarded gate, and led to the center of the property, where the Germans lived in an orderly Bavarian-style village of flower gardens, water fountains, and cream-colored buildings with orange tile roofs. The village had modern apartment complexes, two schools, a chapel, several meetinghouses, and a bakery that produced fresh cakes, breads, and cheeses. There were numerous animal stables, two landing strips, at least one airplane, a hydroelectric power station, and mills and factories of various kinds, including a highly profitable gravel mill that supplied raw materials for numerous road-building projects throughout Chile. On the north side of the village was a hospital, where the Germans provided free care to thousands of patients in one of the country's poorest areas.
Sounds pretty nice. But, wait, there's more. There's always more:
The truth, so unlikely in this setting, is that Colonia Dignidad was founded on fear, and it is fear that still binds it together. Investigations by Amnesty International and the governments of Chile, Germany, and France, as well as the testimony of former colonos who, over the years, managed to escape the colony, have revealed evidence of terrible crimes: child molestation, forced labor, weapons trafficking, money laundering, kidnapping, torture, and murder. Orchestrated by Paul Schaefer [the group's founder, pictured above – CRwM] and his inner circle of trusted lieutenants, much of the abuse was initially directed inward as a means of conditioning the colonos to obey Schaefer's commands. Later, after General Augusto Pinochet's military junta seized power in Chile, the violence spilled onto the national stage. Schaefer, through an informal alliance with the Pinochet regime, allowed Colonia Dignidad to serve as a torture and execution center for the disposal of enemies of the state.
Falconer profiles the colony's founder and its religious way of life that at first, while certainly not fit for a decadent urban-dwelling libertine like myself, sounds no more sinister than life amongst the Shakers.
But a creeping paranoia about internal corruption and the external threat of communist insurgents turned the colony in a surreal prison. Again, from the article:
The outer perimeter of Colonia Dignidad was marked by eight-foot fences topped with barbed wire, which armed groups of men patrolled day and night with German shepherd and doberman attack dogs. Guards in observation posts equipped with shortwave radios, telephones, binoculars, night vision equipment, and telephoto cameras scanned the landscape for intruders. These were, of course, imaginary. But if invaders were to succeed in getting through the perimeter, they would come upon a second tier of inner defenses: strands of copper wire hidden around the village, which, if stepped on, triggered a silent alarm. Doors and windows in most buildings were equipped with armored shades that could be drawn shut in the event of an invasion. Dormitories were outfitted with alarms and surveillance cameras, and the entire village sat atop an extensive network of tunnels and underground bunkers. When the alarm sounded, as it frequently did during practice drills, men belonging to the security force grabbed their rifles and waited on their doorsteps for instructions.
With no genuine external enemies to fight, Schaefer and his most trusted lieutenants turned their energies inward. The practice of confession provided them with plenty of people to punish. The guilty were starved, threatened with dogs, or beaten—sometimes by Schaefer himself, more often by others acting on his orders. The harshest treatment was reserved for those who, for one reason or another, Schaefer simply did not like. He called them "the rebels." They could be identified by their clothing: the men wore red shirts and white trousers, the women potato sacks over their long dresses. The other colonos despised them, usually without knowing why.
One such rebel was a Chilean colono named Franz Baar, adopted by the Germans at 10. By the time he was a teenager, Schaefer singled him out as a troublemaker. As Baar now remembers it, a group of men approached him one day while he was working in the carpentry shop and accused him of stealing the keys to one of the dormitories. When Baar denied it, he was beaten unconscious with electrical cables—his skull broken—and loaded into an ambulance. He awoke some time later in the Colonia's hospital, where he would remain as a prisoner for the next 31 years.
Baar was kept in an upstairs section of the hospital never seen by the local Chileans who sought treatment there. As he later described to me, his days began with a series of intravenous injections, after which the nurses brought him bread and a plate with 12 to 15 different pills. Once satisfied that he was properly medicated, nurses delivered his clothes and shoes, hidden from him to reduce the likelihood of escape. After he dressed, a security detail escorted him to his job at the carpentry shop. Baar worked on heavy machines in a cramped space. The injections and pills slowed his movements and made him clumsy. Today, scar tissue on his forearms maps the places where the electric saws bit into his flesh. Baar was forced to work late into the night, sometimes until 3 A.M. He was not permitted to eat with the rest of the community. Instead, his meals were delivered to him at the carpentry shop, where he devoured them in isolation.
A still worse punishment awaited in rooms nine and 14 of the hospital, where Baar and other colonos unfortunate enough to draw the full measure of Schaefer's fury were subjected to shock treatments. A female physician worked the machines, her manner detached and clinical. Patients were strapped down and fitted with crowns attached by wires to a voltage machine. Baar told me how the doctor seemed to enjoy watching him suffer. "She kept asking me questions," he said. "I heard what she was saying and wanted to respond, but I couldn't. She was playing with the machine and asking, 'What do you feel? Are you feeling something?' She wanted to know what was happening to me as she adjusted the voltage."
At the opposite end of the social spectrum from the rebels was a group of boys Schaefer affectionately called his "sprinters." If Schaefer wanted to speak with someone working in a remote corner of the property, he sent a sprinter off to summon him. Schaefer trained his sprinters to assist in even the most mundane of personal tasks, like helping him to put his shoes on or holding the phone to his ear as he spoke. No job was too small. For the boys lucky enough to be chosen, the position brought pride and power.
But this special status was also a source of trouble for them. It was an open secret that Schaefer was a pedophile, just as the authorities had accused him of being long before in Germany. He enjoyed taking sprinters along during his daily tour of the Colonia. Because zippers were inconvenient, their uniforms included loose-fitting athletic shorts with an elastic waistband. He allowed his favorite sprinters to stay overnight in his room in a child-size bed set up alongside his own, sometimes sleeping with two or more sprinters at once. His routine, it later emerged, included feeding them sedatives, washing them with a sponge, and sexual manipulation.
Eventually, Pinochet began using the colony as a torture center and death camp.
In truth, no one knows how many people were killed inside Colonia Dignidad. One former colono recently told Chilean government investigators that, on Schaefer’s orders, he once drove a busload of 35 political prisoners up into the Colonia’s wooded hills and left them in an isolated spot by the side of a dirt road. As he drove back down alone, he heard machine gun fire echoing through the forest. No bodies were ever recovered. According to at least one former high-ranking colono, the bodies of executed prisoners were exhumed in 1978, burned to ash, and dumped in the river. Others claim that the dead were buried in individual graves scattered about the hills and valleys. All that seems certain is that many of the prisoners who went into Colonia Dignidad were never seen again.
After the collapse of Pinochet's U.S.-supported dictatorship, the colony's founder took it on the lam, but was eventually caught.
Paul Schaefer was extradited to Chile aboard a military transport plane several days after his arrest and placed in a maximum-security prison in Santiago. In May 2006, he was convicted of child molestation and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He received an additional seven-year sentence in August 2006 for weapons violations, and three for torture. Further prosecution is being considered on charges of forced labor, tax evasion, kidnapping, torture, and possibly murder. Schaefer is 86 and confined to a wheelchair. His health is poor and he is attended full-time by a nurse, but his mental condition seems to have improved: "He was cold and arrogant," said one of the judges who interrogated him for several hours in Santiago. "Every so often he would call in the nurse to check his blood pressure. When I asked him questions, he pretended not to hear."