Content warning: Portions of this article discuss torture and sexual abuse.
For decades, the US Government rather continuously denied that there was a colony of Nazis in Chile, that Colonia Dignidad was simply a rumor, and that the mysterious colony certainly had no ties to the South American program of repression, torture and assassination known as Operation Condor. A formerly TOP SECRET document from 1979 confirms that even before Peter Levenda reported on Colonia Dignidad, the U.S. Government was well aware of the colony’s existence, its Nazi population and its ties to numerous South American intelligence services and to Operation Condor. More significantly, the declassified document makes it clear that Chile had been providing substantial support and resources to the colony.
However, this document is not the first to officially reveal the Government’s awareness of the issue. Congressional hearings published in 1979, for instance, cite an Amnesty U.S.A. report as saying, “Several known torture centers exist including … Colonia Dignidad (German Nazi colony near Lineares). Colonia Dignidad apparently comprises territory in Chile and Argentina. Disappeared prisoners have been seen in these centers-very badly tortured.” The earliest known acknowledgement from the U.S. Government about the colony’s Nazi ties came in a 1976 CIA memo (discussed below). Peter Levenda has confirmed that this is the earliest released official document from the Government explicitly discussing the Nazi colony. He and I both suspect, however, that the U.S. Government was aware of the information earlier. Reports had been coming about the colony for years, and CIA either knew about them or was willfully ignorant.
However, other CIA reports of this Colony, closely associated with Operation Condor, are far more disturbing than the 1976 memo. One CIA memo produced in 1994 describes the encampment as a religious cult which was accused of (but confirmed elsewhere to be) “cooperating with the secret police of Chile’s past military government. Colonia Dignidad’s leader, Paul Schaefer, is currently fighting off a civil law suit, filed in Germany by a former cult member, that if successful threatens the group’s legal status to continue to operate.”
At the time of Operation Condor, however, Colonia Dignidad was under the protection of Chile’s intelligence agencies and a CIA asset. Just what was Operation Condor? According a declassified TOP SECRET document:
Significantly, the document goes on to link both Chilean intelligence agencies and Operation Condor to the 1976 assassination of Orlando Letelier in the United States. However, it’s not the first State Department document to make this link explicit (discussed below).
According to a 1987 CIA finding, the assassination of Letelier was authorized by none other than Pinochet himself – but at least some of the guilt for the affair can still be traced back to Washington DC. In 1976, well after Henry Kissinger (who worked closely with CIA at the time) had become aware of the kidnappings, assassinations and torture carried out as part of Operation Condor, he intervened when the State Department considered issuing a demarche (official opinion) on the subject. While some have interpreted the cable as being an official demarche, the text of the cable itself and the newly declassified document both contradict this view. Instead, Kissinger opted to express disapproval.
The cable itself very carefully frames the assassinations as problematic, while describing Operation Condor itself as useful. According to the text of the cable:
The USG [US Government] is aware from various sources, including high government officials, that there is a degree of information exchange and coordination among various countries of the Southern Cone with regard to subversive activities within the area. This we consider useful.
[3B] There are in addition, however, rumors that this cooperation may extend beyond information exchange to include plans for the assassination of subversives. Politicians and prominent figures both within the national borders of certain Southern Cone countries and abroad.
[3C] While we cannot substantiate the assassination rumors, we feel impelled to bring to your attention our deep concern. If these rumors were to have any shred of truth, they would create a most serious moral and political problem.
Counter-terrorist activity of this type would further exacerbate public world criticism of governments involved.
We are fully aware of security threats created by terrorist activities within Argentina. It is not the intention of the U.S. Government to attempt to advice the government of Argentina on how best to get its internal security problem under control.
While we are not repeat not instructing you to make specific demarche on Condor, you may wish to take an appropriate occasion with [illegible] or other senior [government] official to propose period exchanges of information…
You will be aware of extreme sensitivity of points 3B and 3C. Great care must be taken not to beyond phrasing used.
In doing so, Kissinger effectively allowed Operation Condor to continue unrestricted. One month later, Orlando Letelier was assassinated in Washington D.C., as a result of Operation Condor.
A more recent report from CIA admits that Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, who headed DINA (Chile’s intelligence agency) was a CIA asset for a number of years, including when DINA and Operation Condor had Orlando Letelier assassinated in the United States. The Agency was aware of this, as well as his human rights abuses. Nevertheless, the Agency agreed to work with him after being sure to tell him that they did not approve of his torture and assassinations.
Despite Contreras’ established record, and the Agency’s own belief from as early as 1974 “that Contreras was not going to improve his human rights performance,” the Agency decided that the issuance of a circular giving instructions consistent with the Geneva Convention was enough.
This assurance came at a 1975 luncheon between Colonel Contreras and CIA Deputy Director Walters. According to a CIA memo, the real purpose of the luncheon was to provide a pretext to allow the Agency to discuss helping Chile improve its image and to assist its military.
The meeting was arranged despite the Agency’s conclusion that Contreras was the “principal obstacle to a reasonable human rights policy.” As a result of the meeting, the Agency requested permission to put Contreras on the payroll. Although permission was denied, a single payment was made as a result of “miscommunications.”
“Principal obstacle” may have been a slight understatement. A CIA memo from earlier in the year identified Contreras as the sole senior official who had voiced strong objections to loosening the extremely strict security environment.
Regardless, the Agency continued to work with Contreras. According to a CIA report, it was not his involvement in helping orchestrate the Letelier assassination within he United States that gave the Agency cause to end their relationship with him. It was simply that he stopped being useful. “On 3 November 1977, Contreras was transferred to a function unrelated to
intelligence so CIA severed all contact with him.”
Until Contreras was transferred to a new function, however, he maintained close ties to Colonia Dignidad. According to a State Department cable from 1979, when the colony’s role in Operation Condor was publicly discussed by Jack Anderson, which was interpreted as part of a “conspiracy…from Washington” designed to undermine Chile.
Another State Department cable, also from 1979, also references Anderson’s work on Colonia Dignidad and explicitly mentions its suspected ties to Operation Condor and the assassination of Orlandlo Letelier.
The explicit details of whatever the connections are between Colonia Dignidad and the Letelier assassination remain classified, but the circumstances surrounding those connections are somewhat better known. A declassified CIA memo from 1976 reveals that not only was the Agency aware of the Nazi colony, they were aware of their networks throughout South America. These networks were part of what the Nazis provided the Chilean and Argentinian governments in the form of access to information and operatives. In return, Colonia Dignidad was treated as a self-sustaining colony – one that conveniently provided the Chilean government with an isolated location for rendition and torture programs, along with allegations of biological warfare programs from one of the DINA agents who assassinated Orlando Letelier.
A State Department cable released by WikiLeaks provides the firm link between Contreras and Colonia Dignidad:
[Judge Jorge] Zepeda said that his investigation has conclusively established that opponents of the Pinochet regime were taken to Colonia Dignidad by the DINA (secret police) to be interrogated and tortured.
Zepeda described Colonia’s Dignidad’s relationship with the then Chilean security apparatus as extensive and intimate. He showed the Consul General a photograph of Schaffer on a night time hunting expedition on colony property with DINA head Manuel Contreras (convicted in 2004 of killing a regime political opponent and sentenced along with four other former DINA officials to twelve years in prison). Zepeda said that connections such as these allowed Colonia Dignidad to function with near impunity well into Chile’s democratic transition period. He showed the Consul General still photos from a 1995/1995 video of the arrival at the Colonia’s airstrip of an unidentified VIP aboard a small plane painted in camouflage colors and bearing what Zepeda said were German identification numbers on its fuselage. The VIP is seen being warmly greeted by Schaffer and a large crowd of colonists. According to Zepeda, voices on the video can be heard joking that the plane and its passengers did not pass through any Chilean inspection process upon arrival.
When referencing Contreras’ visit to Colonia Dignidad and his close relationship with Paul Schaffer, the founder of Colonia Dignidad who had proudly served as a Corporal under the Nazis in World War II, Zepeda describes Contreras as the head of DINA. It was from this position, and as a CIA asset working in an administration that had effectively been put into power by the Agency, that Contreras protected Schaffer along with Colonia Digndad and the Nazis that lived there. In exchange, the Nazi Network was opened to Chile and Argentina for Operation Condor’s program of rendition and assassination.
While those were the most politically significant of the crimes committed by and through Colonia Dignidad, they are not the full extent. A State Department cable from 1976 cites their “best informed source” who told them that, while there had been no definite reports, DINA and Colonia Dignidad were working together with the latter being an “unauthorized detention place.” This same source also described some of the tortures being used, which included “beating, which can continue to near-death, electric shock, and hanging by the arms. Detainees may be chained as described, and interrogations have lasted for periods of days or months.” According to the one of the newly declassified reports, these torture efforts were aided by “German personnel, who are described as ex-Gestapo or ex-SS officers, [who] have given instruction in torture techniques and have actually taken part in the application of those techniques.”
The “best source” from the State Department cable commented that the stories about dogs raping victims are likely just propaganda, but that a watch dog may have been used for intimidation purposes. The cable states, however, that rape by humans “probably has occurred in the past.” According to the State Department, however, it would not be the last. The 1997 report on Human Rights Practices in Chile stated that:
Investigations of child abuse within Colonia Dignidad, a secretive German-speaking settlement 400 kilometers south of Santiago, received widespread publicity throughout the year. The 34,000-acre enclave inhabited by 350 colonists is dominated by 76-year-old Paul Schafer, who immigrated from Germany in 1961 with 300 followers. After allegations by a number of local teenage boys of sexual abuse at the hands of Schafer, police armed with a search warrant as well as a warrant for Schafer’s arrest raided the compound in June, but at year’s end had not been able to apprehend him despite continued efforts.
According to Peter Levenda, such reports of child abuse go back as early as 1972. Several years later, the 2000 report on Human Rights Practices in Chile reported that he was still wanted for those charges, but that new charges had been added for the abduction and death of several individuals. The report also noted that there were still insufficient answers about the Russian-born mathematician who had been living in the United States, Boris Weisfeiler, before disappearing while hiking near Chile.
None of the human rights abuses, Nazi cults and spies, or the illegal assassinations in the United States and throughout South America would be enough to make the Agency distance themselves from Contreras, the man at the center of it all, or the man behind it all – Pinochet. Although they had effectively created the coup that put both Contreras and Pinochet into power, they were unwilling to remove the monsters that they created – monsters that were not only sheltering but enabling Nazis. They were essentially too useful to resist. They were monsters, yes, but they were the Agency’s monsters, and it must have seemed like the devil you made is better than the devil you didn’t.