A disappeared American

SANTIAGO — On his death bed in a Santiago prison hospital, the 88-year-old German child molester, weapons trafficker, torturer and sect leader Paul Schafer still refuses to say what happened to the only U.S. citizen who disappeared during Chile’s military dictatorship.

Boris Weisfeiler, a 43-year-old Russian-born mathematics professor at Pennsylvania State University, was last seen in January 1985 during a hiking trip in a remote area in the Andean foothills, 250 miles south of the Chilean capital and near a secretive German settlement called “Colonia Dignidad.”

Two months later, a far from thorough police inquiry determined that Weisfeiler had drowned trying to cross a river, and no more questions were asked. Almost a quarter of a century later, the only sure thing about Weisfeiler’s disappearance is that it was no accidental drowning.

Documents declassified in 2000 told an entirely different story from the official line, leading Weisfeiler’s sister Olga to open a judicial investigation. But it has been dragging on for nine years, with no visible progress. She came to Chile this July for the eighth time. The secret memos and reports revealed not only negligence and inaction by the U.S. government to determine his whereabouts at the time, but evidence indicating that her brother may have been abducted by the military and handed over to Colonia Dignidad under the suspicion he was either a Russian or Jewish "spy." A still unidentified U.S. Embassy source using the alias "Daniel," spoke of seeing Boris living in “animal-like conditions” in Colonia at least two years later.

Olga, a retired microbiologist, spends most of her time trying to make sense of documents, analyzing possible leads, reading the Chilean press and writing many letters. Untiring but frustrated, she has written to the presidents of Chile and the U. S., members of Congress, judicial authorities, army chiefs, human rights institutions and others.

In 2002, Olga traveled to the rugged, isolated riverbank where her brother was last seen. Two years later, she paid an unannounced and unprecedented visit to Colonia Dignidad with relatives of other human rights victims who disappeared there and members of Amnesty International. Mid-level leaders received her reluctantly. They said they couldn’t confirm or deny that her brother had been there, and denied knowing what had happened to him.

“This has dominated all my life. I can’t do anything else right now. I can’t dedicate to my children, grandchildren, not even to myself. I can’t even read books, because I am thinking about Boris 24 hours a day,” Olga said.

Boris Weisfeiler is the only U.S. citizen on the list of more than 1,100 missing during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship of 1973 to 1990. A nature lover who obtained U.S. citizenship in 1981, he regularly took solitary hiking trips to remote, non-touristy places.

He knew nothing about Chile, didn’t speak a word of Spanish and wasn’t interested in politics. He was aware the country was under military rule, but it wasn't on the State Department list of dangerous places, and he obtained a tourist visa. He never imagined he would be considered suspicious for hiking near the Argentine border, and close to Colonia Dignidad.

At the time, Colonia leaders were not only collaborating with the Chilean military in security, border control and espionage, but had also offered their facilities to hold and torture political prisoners. According to the few surviving prisoners, Schafer himself was an efficient, scientific torturer who would instruct Chilean officers on his methods.

Schafer, a former Nazi soldier who had fled his home country after being charged with sodomizing boys, had founded the seemingly peaceful 37,000-acre agricultural community in 1961. Subsequent judicial investigations and testimonies of former members disclosed another reality.

Schafer forced couples to live apart and separated children from their parents, assuring himself a permanent pool of boys to sexually abuse at night. He used a variety of torture methods and drugs to keep members obedient and working long hours without pay. Colonia members were prohibited from leaving the enclave, never learned Spanish, didn’t have access to Chilean currency and were led to believe the outside world was evil. It was also a hideout for Nazis fleeing from Europe, a vacationing spot for the military junta and their friends, and a center for weapons trafficking. Schafer has not said a word since his arrest and expulsion in 2005 from Argentina, where he had been hiding out. But now, gravely ill while he serves a 20-year sentence for sexual abuse of minors, arms trafficking and human rights crimes, a new generation of Colonia residents have relaxed the rules and timidly cooperated in some of the investigations. But not in the Weisfeiler case.

No one interrogated by the police — including members of Colonia Dignidad, local residents and police and military patrols in the area at the time — has admitted direct involvement in Weisfeiler’s disappearance. Their statements are plagued with contradictions and overt lies. Some say they suffer loss of memory, others say they were drunk and can’t remember, while others refuse to admit to having been in places where they were seen.

Olga and her lawyer accuse the judge, Jorge Zepeda, of delaying the proceedings, saying he has withheld important files from the plaintiffs and refused to follow leads or check inconsistencies and, alleging jurisdictional sovereignty, has blocked assistance offered repeatedly by the FBI in Santiago.

In September 2006, the FBI legal attaches assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Santiago opened their own investigation into this case. FBI officers have traveled to the location of Weisfeiler’s disappearance, conducted interviews on site and processed evidence. Now, they are ready to deliver several reports to Zepeda. However, for the FBI to submit the results of its own investigation, the judge must request it. But he hasn’t.

“I believe Boris was arrested and taken to Colonia and maybe survived for some period of time, and I don’t know, killed later," Olga said. "I just want to find out what happened, when it happened and where his body is. That is my main goal, not to see these old men sitting in a comfortable military prison for a couple of years before getting freed. It doesn’t make any difference to me. But I do want the Chilean government to assume its responsibility for my brother’s fate.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the date that Boris Weisfeiler obtained his U.S. citizenship.