The Colonia Dignidad Files: A shining beacon of hope for Human Rights in Chile?

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The colony set in the beautiful Chilean wilderness, has been part of the Southern Chilean landscape since Paul Schäfer and his congregation landed in the mid 1950’s. Set in the idyllic Parral raw countryside, it has been enjoyed by tourists as a little Bavaria for decades. I visited it’s neat tea rooms and immaculate gardens in 1991 and experienced for myself the authentic German kuchën experience, served by a creepy Aryan youth in lederhosen. It was a sinister trip. There were cameras everywhere, strict gender-specific dress codes and no permission to speak to the residents.

When the ‘Colonos’ arrived, they were greeted with open arms by local people and given a plot of land to develop and live in. Chileans generally regard Germans to be efficient, organised and hard working and were impressed with how quickly the new immigrants established themselves. The Germans ran a profitable farm, traded German delicacies, built a school, a hospital and opened up tea rooms for tourists.
The insular group was able to achieve financial independence and with the local government’s permission and lived in a mini state within a state. Indeed many of those born into the colony did not speak Spanish at all, or ever leave the hacienda.

With vast links to the political right and clearly threatened by the Marxist Government that was particularly active in agrarian reform in that region, Schäfer and his henchmen plotted against local leftists and allowed the Pinochet regime to use the vicinity as a clandestine extermination centre. The location was ideal; rigged with electronic sensors, trained dogs and harsh geographical features, all guaranteed that nobody would ever get out of there alive. And they didn’t.

When the colony was raided by Chilean police during the 90s, the authorities found an arsenal of weapons and spy equipment that would make James Bond groan; walking sticks with cameras, grenades, a rocket launcher and they had even built a network of underground tunnels and bunkers. Most importantly  they used their war-time expertise to install a communications centre that linked to the rest of South America so that Schäfer could keep in close cahoots with Nazi war-criminal former cronies such as the barbaric Klaus Barbie in Brazil and Walter Rauff in Santiago, all good chums enjoying the refuge of South American hospitality.

These clandestine telecommunications links are important to Chilean human rights cases because it was later discovered that they were used to facilitate operation Condor: the trans South American terror network. Disgraced head of the Chilean intelligence agency, Manuel Contreras and even General Pinochet himself were said to have been entertained by Schäfer’s contingent.

When the lid was blown on Paul Schäfer’s colony  in the 1990s, the politically weak transitional Chilean government was nervous. The can was open but the worms were still in it. Indeed, the files found within the colony fastidiously chronicled every visit and every conversation that took place during the 1970s & 1980’s. Not conducive to the secretive nature of the Post-Pinochet era where previous Junta members scrambled for the best corporate and government/senate positions, the arrest and imprisonment of Paul Schafer was relatively low key and there was no public inquest into the contents of the files that were seized.

Now in 2016 the German Foreign Office is seeking to make amends and have announced that diplomats are declassifying files that would have otherwise remained under wraps for another 10 years. They are making documents dating from between 1986 and 1996 available to researchers and the media which should also aid Chilean and German families in their quest for the justice still not made available to them by the ever transitioning Chilean government.

Colonia Dignidad or Villa Bavaria is now under intense scrutiny. Emma Watson’s new film and the releasing of these documents may be an explosive cocktail in a country still reeling from the effects of the military coup. Will the revelations be too gruesome to stomach and more importantly, will the Chilean Government act upon them?


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