PARRAL, Chile — The settlers came from West Germany looking for a hideaway and found one down a long, dusty road in the sparsely populated foothills of the Chilean Andes.
But the sullied past of their spiritual leader, the secretiveness of the vast enterprise they built here and the recurring horror stories about their lives have kept them in the news and under suspicion for more than two decades.
Leaders of the settlement, known as Colonia Dignidad (Dignity Colony), insist that it is nothing more than a disciplined agricultural community whose members want privacy. But chilling declarations from the few who have fled from behind the colony's double-barbed-wire fences tell of forced labor, sexual abuse, mind-altering drugs, corporal punishment and the segregation of men from women and parents from children.
A former secret police agent and a police informant have both backed up claims by several one-time detainees that political prisoners were tortured and killed at the colony in the early years after Gen. Augusto Pinochet took power in 1973.
Lift Veil of Secrecy
After a quarter of a century of either ignoring the colony or at times even fraternizing with its members, West German authorities have decided to try to lift the veil surrounding it. The West German ambassador and chief consular officer visited the colony, many of whose members are German, in early November to conduct interviews. According to Bonn officials, the diplomats came away with the impression that colony members were not able to speak freely to them.
A special commission appointed by the West German government arrived in Chile on Dec. 13 to probe further. The colony blocked the investigation with a court order, and the delegation left Chile on Dec. 18.
A West German Embassy spokesman said the mission, despite its failure to gain access, would present a report to Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
A parallel effort by a German judge to sort fact from fiction is moving forward after years of delay, now that a Chilean court has approved a request to take depositions from 33 individuals connected with the settlement.
"There have been investigations before, ending with our society being cleared," Harmut Hopp, a doctor who serves as colony spokesman, said in a telephone interview. "We don't understand why so many German authorities are interested in us now. We don't have any importance in international politics."
Reporter Allowed to Visit
As part of an apparent response to the probe, the settlement, which usually is closed to journalists, allowed a reporter from the pro-Pinochet Chilean newspaper El Mercurio to visit early in December. The resulting double-page spread portrayed an austere commune whose ways may be a bit eccentric but not sinister.
According to the article, family life there takes a back seat to work, and relations between the sexes are regimented. Youths are discouraged from marrying until they are 21. Children are kept in single-sex dormitories until they leave to marry. Young people are not permitted to watch television or listen to the radio. Women do not wear trousers or short skirts. Colony members put in long hours without pay.
"Work should be the purpose of human life, and one should not feel that one must rest after eight hours of work," Hopp was quoted in Mercurio as saying. "There is a malformation in modern man that makes him think he is obligated to rest and have fun after eight hours of work."
In a departure from past practice, the Catholic University television station was allowed to show scenes of children playing and members of the colony working in the bakery and dairy. On its news show Dec. 16, it quoted the colony's president, Hermann Schmidt, as saying that criticism of it was "all lies."
Sense of Unease
The settlement's strict ways and its bitter confrontations with critics over the years have instilled a sense of unease among some Chileans who live nearby.
"People here are afraid," said Sister Paulina, one of three nuns who were legally evicted after months of harassment from property claimed by the colony in 1984. "People know they can buy the colony's products and even go to its hospital for medical care. But they also know that confronting the colony past a certain point means danger."
The colony was founded by Paul Schaefer, leader of a breakaway Baptist sect who left West Germany in 1961 as police sought him on charges of sexually abusing children at a youth home he ran in Siegburg, near Bonn. Schaefer turned up in Chile in 1962, bringing about 60 adults and children. Some of the youngsters had come with their parents' consent; others, according to filed complaints, were taken under false pretenses.
Since then, the colony has grown into what its critics describe as "a state within a state." It maintains its own airfield, 65-bed hospital, wheat mill, bakery, meat-processing factory, dairy and cemetery, according to visitors and colony officials.