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Villa Baviera (English: Bavaria Village), formerly known as Colonia Dignidad (English: Dignity Colony) is a hamlet in Parral Commune, Linares Province, Maule Region, Chile. Located in an isolated area of central Chile, it lies 35 km southeast of the city of Parral, on the north bank of the Perquilauquén River. It was founded in 1961 by a group led by Paul Schäfer, a fugitive of child molestation charges in West Germany. The full name of the colony was Sociedad Benefactora y Educacional Dignidad (English: Dignity Charitable and Educational Society), like its precursor, which the emigrants started in the mid-1950s. The population of the place was 198 in the census of 2002.
At its greatest extent, Villa Baviera was home to some three hundred German and Chilean residents and covered 137 square kilometers (53 sq mi). The main economic activity of the colony was agriculture, but it also contained a school, a free hospital, two airstrips, a restaurant, and even a power station. The colony was secretive, surrounded by barbed wire fences, searchlights, and a watchtower, and contained secret weapon caches (including a tank referred to as a "caterpillar"). It was described alternately as a cult, or as a group of "harmless eccentrics". In recent decades, however, external investigations, including efforts by the Chilean government, uncovered a history of criminal activity in the enclave, include child sexual abuse.
Both the Central Intelligence Agency and Simon Wiesenthal have presented evidence of the presence at the colony of the infamous Nazi concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele, known as the "Angel of Death" for his lethal experiments on human subjects during the Holocaust.
During the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet the Colonia Dignidad served as a special torture center. In 1991, Chile’s National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation concluded “that a certain number of people apprehended by the DINA were really taken to Colonia Dignidad, held prisoner there for some time, and that some of them were subjected to torture, and that besides DINA agents, some of the residents there were involved in these actions.”
U.S. citizen Michael Townley, the son of an American executive working for Ford Motor and also for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Chile and Venezuela, designed the torture chamber for Colonia Dignidad. Townley, one of the U.S.-backed Pinochet regime's chief assassins, later was convicted of setting off the 1976 car bomb that killed former Chilean Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier. Townley is currently living under the U.S. Witness Protection Program.
Accusations of abuse
Some defectors from the colony have portrayed it as a cult in which leader Paul Schäfer held ultimate power. They claim that the residents were never allowed to leave the colony, and that they were strictly segregated by sex. Television, telephones and calendars were banned. Residents worked wearing Bavarian peasant garb and sang German folk songs. Sex was banned, with some residents forced to take drugs to reduce their desires. Drugs were also administered as a form of sedation, mostly to young girls, but to males as well. Severe discipline in the forms of beatings and torture was commonplace: Schäfer insisted that discipline was spiritually enriching.
There are more than 1,100 desaparecidos (disappeared persons) in Chile, many taken to the Colony where they were tortured and killed, and one of them is a U.S. citizen – Boris Weisfeiler. A Russian-born mathematics professor at Pennsylvania State University, Weisfeiler vanished while on a hiking trip near the border between Chile and Argentina in the early part of January 1985. It is presumed that Weisfeiler was kidnapped and taken to the Colony where he was tortured and killed. In 2012, a judge in Chile ordered the arrest of eight former police and army officials over the kidnapping of Weisfeiler during the Pinochet years, citing evidence from declassified US files.
Paul Schäfer, a former Luftwaffe paramedic, was the founder and first leader ("Permanent Uncle") of Colonia Dignidad. He had left Germany in 1961, after being accused of sexually abusing two boys. On May 20, 1997, he fled Chile, pursued by authorities investigating charges that he had molested 26 children of the colony. In March, 2005, he was arrested in Argentina and extradited to Chile. (Schäfer was also wanted for questioning about the disappearance in 1985 of Boris Weisfeiler, an American Jewish mathematics professor of Russian birth.) Schäfer died in prison on April 24, 2010, of heart disease while serving a 20-year sentence at the national penitentiary in Santiago.
In June and July 2005, Chilean police found two illegal arms caches in or around the colony. The first, within the colony itself, included three containers with machine guns, automatic rifles, rocket launchers, and large quantities of ammunition, some as many as forty years old; even a battle tank was found under the ground: this cache was described as the largest arsenal ever found in private hands in Chile. The second cache, outside a restaurant operated by the colony, included rocket launchers and grenades.
In January 2005, Michael Townley, then living in the United States under a witness-protection program, acknowledged to agents of Interpol Chile links between DINA and Colonia Dignidad. Townley also revealed information about Colonia Dignidad and the army's Laboratory on Bacteriological Warfare. This last laboratory would have replaced the old DINA's laboratory at Vía Naranja de Lo Curro hill, where Townley worked with the chemist Eugenio Berríos. Townley also gave proof of biological experiments, related to the two aforementioned laboratories, on political prisoners at Colonia Dignidad.
Villa Baviera era
As of 2005, there is still a colony on the site, but its current leaders insist that changes have taken place. The current leader is Peter Müller. He has attempted to modernize the colony, allowing residents to leave to study at university and opening the colony to tourism.
On August 26, 2005, Chilean authorities entered the enclave to take control of its assets as part of an investigation into its former leaders. Control of the community was assigned to a state-appointed lawyer.
On April 2006, former members of the colony issued a public apology and asked for forgiveness for forty years of sexual abuse of children and other abuses of human rights. In a full-page letter published in El Mercurio, a leading Chilean newspaper, the former members said that their charismatic former leader Paul Schäfer dominated them in mind and body while he molested their own children.
On May 25, 2011, journalist Amanda Reynoso-Palley reported in The Santiago Times that Dr. Hartmutt Hopp, a top authority in the colony, fled Chile on board a helicopter and was believed to be in Germany. Hopp, under house arrest in Chile while awaiting trial for human rights crimes, was the "right-hand-man to Paul Schäfer, the former Nazi and founder of the Colonia Dignidad (Colony of Dignity)."
On January 28, 2013, six former leaders of the colony were sentenced to prison by Chile’s Supreme Court, but the case, which prosecuted Chilean and German citizens for crimes committed in the 1990s, was not over yet, according to a story appearing the following day in The Santiago Times filed by staff reporters. Lawyer and former settler of the Colonia Dignidad, Winfried Hempel, announced to the Santiago newspaper the filing of a US $120 million lawsuit against the Chilean and German governments for negligence of alleged knowledge of structured torture and human rights violations. “These convictions are the basis for us to pursue the indirect liability of the state of Chile, because the Chilean state had perfect knowledge they were committing such crimes for 50 years,” Hempel told the publication El Dinamo, according to the Times article. The lawyer spent 20 years in the colony before escaping in 1997. Laina Roberts of the Times further reported that legal professionals expected the lawsuit to go to court in mid-year in Chile and early 2014 in Germany.
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- Official site
- Fugitive Chile cult leader held – BBC News
- Chile discovers huge weapons cache on cult grounds (Reuters)
- Chile officials take over colony – BBC News
- German held over 'Chile torture' – BBC News
- Rise and fall of Colonia Dignidad
- The Colonia Dignidad Blog; Susan Klopfer