Deep in the foothills of the snow-covered Chilean Andes, about an hour's drive from this small provincial town in southern Chile, some 300 West German citizens live an austere and regimented life behind the locked gates and barbedwire fences of a secretive agricultural commune named Colonia Dignidad.

They are the followers of a charismatic, reclusive and authoritarian spiritual leader named Paul Schaeffer, who brought them here in 1961 from Siegburg, a town near Bonn. As far as is known, none of Schaeffer's followers has ever returned to his native land.

"When I read about Jim Jones, I thought immediately of the Colonia Dignidad," said a diplomat in Santiago, 200 miles to the north, whose embassy has had some contact with the colony over the years. "We know there is strong indoctrination, but we don't know if there is total intimidation."

What is known about Colonia Dignidad, which jealously guards its privacy, and has been remarkably successful in avoiding official inquiries, is frightenly similar to what was known about Jonestown in Guyana before Rep. Leo J. Ryan's fateful trip.

"Dignity Colony": A spiritual experiment in communal living or a front for torture by Chile's secret police? A retreat from the pressures of modern European life or a fenced, guarded, secretive hideout for Nazis on the run? An idyllic effort to achieve a self-sustaining existence, or a horror house of political degeneration and sexual perversion?

The people who live there fiercely reject outsiders -- leading to wide spread speculation about what is going on in the colony -- and they appear to have the help of the Chilean government in doing so. Nevertheless, through diplomatic sources, rare newspaper investigations, the recollections of the few outsiders who enter the place, and the accounts of escapees, it is possible to portray a closed society where all is not as its leaders would have outsiders believe.

In Colonia Dignidad, according to this composite portrait, children are separated from their parents and husbands often must live apart from their wives. Normal sexual activity, smoking, drinking and contact with relatives outside the colony, which claims to be a socialist agricultural commune dedicated to charitable good works, is strictly prohibited.

The West German government regularly receives letters from relatives of those living in the colony saying their family members are being held against their will. The West German Embassy in Santiago interviews those named in the letters but neither it nor the Chilean government has ever made a serious attempt to determine whether the colony is, in effect, a concentration camp.

Schaeffer, a one-eyed former Nazi Air Force officer who founded the group after World War II, offered to take care of the spiritual and material needs of the simple farmers who joined in return for absolute loyality. By all accounts, he seems to have total control over the colony and his followers are said to work long hours in Dignidad's workshops, stone quarry or fields, where they are watched over by "supervisors," who appear to have the function of guards, according to two sources.

One Chilean government official who visited Dignidad some years ago said he saw several of these "supervisors" carrying pistols and was also struck by the fact that specially trained German shepherd dogs accompany teams of the colony's members when they work in far-off fields.

In 1966, three member of the colony managed to escape, charging that they had been drugged, physically and sexually abused and held in small cells becuase Schaeffer considered them "troublemakers" who wanted to return to Germany.

Wolfgang Mueller, then 20, charged that he and other young men in the colony had been required to have homosexual relations with Schaeffer, who left Siegburg with his followers almost 20 years ago.

In Chile, Colonia Dignidad began to adopt Chilean orphans, who are given German names and are educated in the colony's own schools. They, like other members of the colony, are seldom allowed to leave what several sources describe as a vast, 15,000-acre farm, which is ringed by sturdy barbed wire fences, has its own internal and external communications system, 80-bed hospital, power plant, airport, airplanes, modern farm machinery and, reportedly, an underground reinforced concrete bunker that has led to other charges about what goes on there.

The colony continues to maintain a "mother house" in Siegburg, which raises money from a group of "partners" for the commune here in Chile.

It also has a mansion, filled with electronic communications equipment, in Santiago. The house has high walls and an unlisted telephone, something that is normally prohibited by Chile's military government. Neighbors recently said that they have never had any contact with those living inside the headquarters.

Colonia Dignidad has instituted a libel suit, which is still pending, against the West German branch of Amnesty International, after the organization alleged that torture occured at the colony.In 1975, Amnesty published a 60-page pamphlet entitled "Colonia Dignidad, German Model Farm in Chile, Torture Center of the DINA." The pamphlet charged that the remote colony had been used as an experimental torture center and prison camp by Chile's secret police after this countrys' 1973 military coup.

There have also been charges over the years that the colony is a way station in the South American Nazi underground where war criminals wanted by German, Israeli or other authorities are allowed to hide. A Chilean who visited the colony several years ago said that he was told by Ursula, a nurse in the colony's ultramodern hospital, that doctors there were expert in performing plastic surgery.

Last December, Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal said that he had evidence that Joseph Mengele, the Third Reich's infamous "Angel of Death," had lived in the colony for a time last year. The FBI had similar information. l

A spokesman for the colony, Hermann Schmidt, vehemently denied, in a letter to El Mercurio, Chile's most important newspaper, that Mengele or any other Nazi had ever lived in the colony.

Rather than open its doors to disprove such charges, however, Colonia Dignidad has, if anything, become more closed and self-isolated since three of its members escaped 14 years ago. In addition to the U.N. Human Rights Commission, tow members of the West German Bundestag were denied entrance in 1978.

Journalists are regularly refused entry to the colony and several have been arrested at its gates.

I was threatened with arrest in December by police who finally took from me an undeveloped roll of film with pictures of Dignidad's entrance, taken from outside its gates. The police, who wore no identification badges, would only say that they were from Parral, about 20 miles to the west, and that they were acting on orders from Santiago.

Many Chileans as well as diplomatic observers with an interest in the colony say that it is virtually a "state within a state" which has been protected over the years by successive Chilean governments, either because of the country's influential German community, which contains many Nazi sympathizers, or because of the colony's political affinity for the current right-wing military government.

Those familiar with the colony point out that with its airstrip, private communications system and proximity to the Argentine border, it would not be difficult for someone to enter the colony, live there and leave without ever going through customs formalities.

The Chilean government takes the attitude that the colony is located on private property, which, unless there is a problem, should not be entered by the police. Neither the police captain who almost arrested me in December nor government officials in Santiago could explain how the police would know if there were a problem without regularly entering the vast commune.

Only the most trusted members of the colony are allowed to leave, and then, apparently, only in groups. Only carefully selected outsiders are allowed inside its well-protected perimeter and then only for prearranged visits.

Chilean peasants from the surrounding area, who hold the colony in high regard, are given free medical care in its hospital but only during certain preestablished hours. One Chilean who spent three nights there said he had uncovered microphones hidden in his room, which his hosts then explained were there to anticipate his needs. He also said he was followed wherever he went and was not allowed to have spontaneous contact with members of the sect.

Much of what is publicly known about Colonia Dignidad was uncovered by Ercilla magazine, which wrote about the 1966 scandal in detail, and El Mercurio's Sunday Magazine, which was allowed to send a reporter to visit the colony in 1977, about the time Dignidad's libel suit against Amnesty International was filed in West Germany.

According to El Mercurio, the colony's central village is composed of German-style buildings from another era, the men dress in plain, old-fashioned clothes and the women in long, flowery dresses with aprons similar to the garb worn by the Trapp family children in "The Sound of Music."

The colony's leaders also said that the children live apart from their parents for educational purposes and because their parents have to work, according to El Mercurio. Men and women live apart because, it was explained, there has not yet been time to build separate living units for each family.

The colony has its own choir and orchestra as well as its own electric generating plant, internal telephone system and school. There is no church. Whatever religious affiliation or basis the group might once have had in West Germany seems to have disappeared since it was transplanted to Chile.

"No one knows who is behind the central organization" in Siegburg, which has poured millions of dollars into the colony over the years, one diplomatic observer here said.

"The religious and social aims of this group are very uncertain," he said. "It is all very strange."

There is little more that can be said with certainty. As Matilde Schurgelis, a member of the colony, wrote to her mother in Germany 10 years ago, "Nobody is getting in here. And nobody is getting out."