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 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.
After a quarter-century of either ignoring the colony or at times even fraternizing with its members, many of whom are German, West German authorities have decided to try to lift the veil surrounding it. The West German ambassador and chief consular officer visited the colony 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 to them freely.
A special commission appointed by the West German government arrived in Chile Dec. 13 to probe further. The colony blocked the investigation with a court order and the delegation left Chile 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."
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 earlier this month. 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 criticism was "all lies."
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 from property claimed by the colony after months of harassment 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 Sieburg, 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.
According to witnesses, the settlement has a fleet of heavy trucks, a mechanics workshop, a power plant and facilities for making bricks and slate tiles. It also has a powerful radio communications system, with which it stays in touch with ancillary operations, including an office in a house in Santiago.
It operates a school and provides free medical attention to neighbors, a service that supports the settlement's claim to be a charitable organization.
The colony opened a roadside restaurant near Bulnes two years ago, where its brown bread, honey, cheese, sausages and cakes are sold. The colony also changed its name recently, to Villa Baviera (Bavarian Village), reflecting its affinity for the southern German state of Bavaria and the governing party there, the conservative Christian Social Union, whose chairman, Franz Josef Strauss, is prominently displayed on posters at the colony.
About 250 adults and 100 children live at the settlement, according to colony officials, but no public record exists of births and deaths there.
Invited guests are often treated to banquets and choral singing in a pastoral mountain setting. The uninvited are brusquely turned away.
At a remote-controlled gate some distance from the colony's main entrance, a woman's voice warns visitors through an intercom not to take photos from the road of the colony's property without written permission. The main entrance is 22 miles east of Parral and the settlement sprawls across 12,000 acres.
The colony first broke into the news in 1966 when Wolfgang Muller, then about 20, escaped and accused Schaefer of a reign of terror. Muller said he had been forced to work long hours in the fields for no pay and was frequently beaten. He also told authorities that he had been sexually abused by Schaefer before they came to Chile and that Schaefer had used memory-altering drugs on him when he became rebellious.
According to Muller's accounts, children were separated from their parents in the settlement and later instructed to address them as aunt and uncle. Muller said a number of former Nazis lived in the settlement, but he denied that Nazi or anti-Semitic ideas were part of the community's ideology.
If Muller's declarations sounded fantastic, those of the second person to flee that year, Wilhelmine Lindeman, were supported by medical evidence. She told of being drugged and was found to have had several injections.
Days later, however, Lindeman denied her statements and agreed to return to the colony. Her decision came after a visit by Schmidt, who informed her that her husband had just arrived from West Germany and was waiting for her at the settlement. Nothing more was heard of the Lindemans.
The outcry caused by the two cases led to questions in the Chilean Senate and an official inquiry. A commission entered the colony but said it found nothing. Amid accusations of bribery, the inquiry was dropped.
Three years after the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power, a United Nations human rights report referred to testimony about dogs at the colony trained to attack intruders' sexual organs, experiments testing torture tolerance limits and the use of drugs to break detainees.
"It seems," the report said, "that in Colonia Dignidad there is a specially equipped underground torture center with small soundproofed cells, hermetically sealed. The detainees' heads are covered with leather hoods, which are stuck to their faces with substances that are supposedly chemicals. In these cells, interrogations are carried out through electronic equipment, including loudspeakers and microphones, while detainees are tied naked to metal frames to receive electric shocks."
Allegations that the colony had become involved in political repression under the Pinochet government received dramatic support in 1977 from Juan Rene Munoz Alarcon, a former Socialist Party member who turned collaborator with Pinochet's secret police and was later imprisoned by the government for trying to protect a one-time leftist colleague.
In a taped deposition to the Vicariate of Solidarity, the Catholic Church's human rights group in Santiago, Munoz identified the colony as one of several places where persons who had disappeared after being seized by security forces were held. He later was found stabbed to death.
Also in 1977, the West German magazine Stern and the human rights organization Amnesty International published reports accusing the colony of being a site of secret-police torture of political prisoners. Supporting the allegation were statements from several former prisoners. An ex-agent, Samuel Fuenzalida, testified that he had delivered prisoners to the colony on two occasions in 1974, where he was received by a man known as "the professor," whom he later identified from photographs as Schaefer.
The colony sued Stern and Amnesty International for libel, accusing them of a leftist-inspired campaign of lies. But the colony has since dodged requests by the West German court hearing the case to inspect the camp.
Last month, Stern published harrowing accounts from several people who had escaped the colony three years ago. One was Hugo Baar, a Baptist minister and a Russian-German exile who fled the Ukraine, established a religious colony in Germany's Westphalia in 1955, then moved to Siegburg -- where he met Schaefer and helped organize the colony. After a falling out with Schaefer, Baar slipped away from the colony in December 1984.
Three months later, Georg and Lotti Packmor also bolted, leaving an adopted son behind. In testimony to West German authorities that Stern quotes, the Packmors recounted beatings, drug injections and other sadistic treatments that they said were intended to destroy individual personalities and turn colony members into virtual slave laborers.
These fresh reports, on file at the West German Foreign Ministry since 1985 but kept confidential, prompted the German Embassy in Santiago to cool what had for years been rather cordial ties with the colony. Foreign Minister Genscher is said to be intent on exposing it. The Bonn government sends $48,000 to $80,000 in pensions to colony residents each month, according to German press reports.
Among the things German officials are known to be looking into is the possibility that 20 to 30 children who have disappeared from West Germany may have been taken to the colony.