After a manhunt that lasted nearly a decade, the Chilean and Argentine police on Friday announced the arrest of the fugitive leader of Colonia Dignidad, a bizarre paramilitary religious sect of German emigres established in southern Chile in the early 1960s that later allied itself with the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
Paul Schafer, 83, a former Luftwaffe medic, was apprehended Thursday afternoon in a gated community outside Buenos Aires. He was convicted in absentia by a Chilean court late last year of committing sodomy and pedophilia with 26 children, and also faces accusations of human rights abuses and numerous charges of kidnapping, forced labor, fraud and tax evasion in Chile.
Schafer, a lay minister who preaches a fiery brand of apocalyptic fundamentalism that is strongly anti-communist and anti-Semitic, was known to the approximately 300 residents of the Colonia Dignidad commune as "The Permanent Uncle." He controlled every detail of their lives, deciding whom and when they could marry and often ordering that babies be taken from their parents at birth and raised collectively under his charge.
According to human rights groups, Colonia Dignidad served as a clandestine torture and detention center during the Pinochet dictatorship. Not only did the group supply Chilean military intelligence with a house that was used as a regional headquarters, but political prisoners whom the government wanted to stash out of sight were transferred to secret cells in Colonia Dignidad, according to survivors and a Chilean government human rights report.
With ties to the Pinochet dictatorship, Colonia Dignidad was allowed to function as "a state within a state," in the words of a Chilean congressional investigating committee. Barricades, barbed wire, roadblocks and searchlights kept the outside world at bay.
With the return of democracy to Chile in 1990, Colonia Dignidad fell into disfavor with the new government and soon lost its charity status. But powerful allies within the military and intelligence apparatus continued to protect the group until 1996, when a student at the sect's boarding school smuggled out a letter to his mother complaining that Schafer was sexually molesting him.
Since then, Schafer has been on the run, with sightings reported in Chile and Argentina. Chilean authorities said they would like to see him expelled from Argentina, which would avoid a long, drawn-out extradition battle, but Germany and France have also filed charges against him.
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