German Fugitive Cult Leader Arrested in Argentina

Santiago, Chile - Fugitive religious sect leader and German citizen Paul Schaefer, who has been convicted in Chile of sexually abusing 26 children and is one of the country's most wanted men, was arrested in Argentina on Thursday.

Schaefer, 84, who moved to Chile with a group of German families and established the Colonia Dignidad religious cult and farming commune in 1961, is also wanted in Germany on abuse charges.

Schaefer, on the run for eight years, also faces charges in Chile of helping the secret police kidnap a political prisoner during Chile's 1973-90 military dictatorship.

Up until very recently Schaefer's followers defended him as a God-like guru despite his growing legal problems.

But last year his spell over his followers began to fade and members of the once secretive cult broke a four-decade silence and spoke with Reuters to denounce widespread physical abuse inside the sect.

"We are happy. Wonderful, wonderful," said a resident of Colonia Dignidad, now called Villa Baviera, who answered the colony's only phone line. She declined to give her name.


A Chilean court charged Schaefer in 1996 with the sexual abuse of more than two dozen Chilean children who went to the free school and clinic at Colonia Dignidad. He disappeared in 1997.

Late last year a Chilean judge convicted and sentenced him in absentia on the sex abuse charges. Cult members convicted of covering up Schaefer's crimes have appealed their sentences.

"I feel lots of expectation that we will be able to continue the case of violence and sexual abuse against children," Delia del Gatto, director of the National Children's Service, Chile's child protection agency, told local television.

Schaefer is also accused of involvement in the disappearance of a political prisoner during the Augusto Pinochet dictatorship. His cult was accused of collaborating with the military regime's secret police and has fought several tax evasion cases.

Schaefer and three companions were arrested 25 miles from Buenos Aires in an elegant residential area. Investigative reporters from Chile's Channel 13 television station said they discovered Schaefer had bought several properties in Argentina.

Defectors from the cult have long accused Schaefer of living well on profits from the cult's farming and construction activities as sect members worked like slaves, for no pay.

"Chile hopes to have him before the courts here as soon as possible," Deputy Interior Minister Jorge Correa told reporters. He said if Argentina did not deport Schaefer for being an illegal immigrant, Chile would seek extradition.

In Schaefer's hermetic enclave, a 55-square-mile farm behind a perimeter fence a four-hour drive south of Santiago, sect leaders were allowed to come and go but most members lived in isolation for decades.

The sect segregated men and women and split children from their parents.

Restrictions on intimacy were so tough that for decades no children were born to members who blindly followed Schaefer, a charismatic World War II German army nurse who preached that harsh discipline would draw them closer to the supreme being.

About 280 sect members, many of them elderly Germans who speak no Spanish, still live at Villa Baviera.